The Benefits of Charity
However we conceive its definition, the act of charity is alive and well in American culture. Last year alone, Americans donated an estimated $316.23 billion to charitable causes. While many disagree on the best way to give or the places one’s time and money should go, it is an ancient practice we have accepted and woven into our society.
But what do we think is happening when we give to charity, and is that a given? In his book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, Gary A. Anderson writes, “Modern people tend to think of charity to the poor in terms of overall efficacy and effectiveness.” For example, we are concerned with the overhead costs of charitable organizations. We want our dollar to go as far as possible, helping as many people as possible.
Behind this inclination is the premise that poverty is something that can, in some way, be fixed or made better by those who can afford to help. According to Anderson however, this is a relatively new idea. “To think of poverty as a problem to be solved,” Anderson explains, “was not really imaginable in the mindset of premodern man.”
In Charity, Anderson locates charity’s Western religious roots, differentiating the pagan and Christian concept of giving and redistribution of wealth in the Roman world. Christianity, through its Jewish heritage, popularized a different approach to philanthropy than previously existed in the Roman empire. As Christian churches spread throughout the late Roman era, so did the appearance of hospitals, orphanages and homes for the aged. Out of a religious commitment, Christian charity focused especially on the abject poor and the outcasts of society. This Christian notion of charity in the Roman world grows out of its origins in the Jewish tradition who shared a commitment to giving alms out of particular religious piety.
In a late fourth century homily St. John Chrysostom preached, “When you see a poor believer, imagine that you behold an altar. Whenever you meet a beggar, don’t insult him, but reverence him.” For Christians of this era, the poor were to be considered a site of mercy intimately related to God. This follows in the tradition of Jesus’ words “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
As Anderson explains, this was related to belief in a heavenly treasury that a believer would receive in correlation with their earthly deeds. There is a complex relationship between the acts of mercy a believer doles out, and the acts of mercy they expect to receive. It is not simply that acts of charity compel the divine to be charitable toward the faithful, but that acting in humility, the believer participates in the mercy of God, which will have effects in the afterlife for both the believer and on behalf of others.
In Charity we find for those living out of the Biblical tradition, charity was not something one did to be a good or responsible citizen, but for concrete spiritual reasons. The spiritual and theological logic behind these reasons are what Anderson explores in this accessible and fascinating book.