Charity and justice for all

By: Katherine Marshall

January 4, 2010

The dust has yet to settle on the scramble for charitable gifts at the end of 2009. In the last few weeks, a combination of extraordinary need and new outreach technologies produced an extraordinary flood of appeals. Up to 60 percent of charitable gifts generally come in the last days of the year.

Caring for those in need is fundamental to most faith traditions (read more about religion and charity) but the arguments for charity take different forms and different urgency. Charity is so fundamental to the Christian faith that the word is woven together with love, of God and of fellow man. Giving is one of the five pillars of Islam. Tzedakah, the Hebrew word for charity, is closely tied to justice.

From ancient times charity has been wrapped up in a mix of virtue and self-interest. Historically, the act of giving often benefited the giver as much as the receiver. Sharing one's wealth appeals to the best of human nature, but it is also crucial to the community: social capital, we call it today. In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present calls on Scrooge to beware of ignorance and want, two great evils and dangers, and to do something about them.

All societies wrestle with questions about how much an individual is responsible for the welfare of others and how much it is a community obligation to care for those in need. Visitors to America often marvel at the extraordinary range of charitable organizations even as they puzzle at why individual charity, not community solidarity, is the norm.

When the giver gives to feel good or salve conscience, the receiver can feel patronized and help may be erratic and unreliable. Recently the notion of rights has gained prominence--especially for children, regarding education and health. The idea is that people should not depend on voluntary gifts nor should they feel beholden to the giver.

Rights-based approaches to welfare, of course, come with their own perils. Entitlement has come to have a bad odor, and there is always the fear that handouts will stifle initiative and personal responsibility. So where's the proper balance?

Maimonides, the great 12th-century philosopher and rabbi, propounded a profoundly modern guide to charity. It takes the form of a ladder of virtue, where the highest form of charity and giving is to allow the receiver to take off and have the dignity of self sufficiency. His ladder goes on, though, putting a stress on the anonymity of the giver (so that the receiver does not feel obligation) and receiver. At the bottom, but still on the ladder, is grudging giving, only when asked. Mamonides stresses the obligation of the giver to make sure that funds given are well used.

These insights offer guidelines for a modern approach to charity. Most important is the sense of caring and community that charity is really about. It harks back to the core wisdom of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Think beyond the self to what we know will truly make for a good society - and what is more important than fighting ignorance and want? Education, health, and jobs are clearly part of the common good. That will necessarily involve public institutions. The rich variety and spark of genius and initiative that characterize American civil society are also part of the mosaic of charity. What's needed is an informed, nuanced mix of public and private.

As we look to 2010, we face enormous needs, at home and abroad, and we know well that the systems to address them are fractured. We need that complex mosaic of charitable impulse and institutions to fulfill the ancient ideal of Maimonides, for all humankind. That means a system constructed on true respect for human dignity that works with all the tools we have to open the path to the modern dream of a world where poverty is truly relegated to history. Modern charitable appeals can then appeal less to ancient guilt than to a modern hope for a fair and just community.

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Charity and justice for all