Christianity and charity

In the first of our series on faith and charity, <em>Linda Jones</em> writes that the Christian unde

What is charity? A guilty handful of coins rattled into a box on a street corner? The nudge of conscience at Christmas?

A common understanding of charity is what many people of faith would call ‘almsgiving’ - a strong tradition in both Christianity and Islam - as well as Buddhism and other faiths. During Lent, for example, Christians are urged to pray, to fast and to give alms (money or goods) to people in need. Motivation is important - in both Christianity and Islam giving alms in secret is better than receiving human praise for the practice.

Charity in Christianity is not just almsgiving, and should not be seen only as an obligation or duty. Charity is love. Christians believe that God’s love and generosity towards humanity moves and inspires us to love and be generous in response.

Jesus taught that to love God and to love neighbour are the greatest commandments. Charity is not an optional extra, but an essential component of faith. In Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25), Jesus identifies himself with those who are poor and excluded, and teaches that we will be judged, not on how beautiful our altars are, but on the way that we treat others. We cannot profess to worship God in church, yet not express that love practically to our neighbour. And our neighbour is not just someone local to us. In the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus made clear that our neighbour may be someone on the other side of the world, who is not ‘one of us’ but different. Because of our common humanity - because we are each created and loved by God - we cannot allow anyone to go without what is needed for a dignified life.

The early saints of the Christian church had a very challenging view of charity. They argued that what God provides generously and freely is effectively ‘stolen’ by those who hoard their wealth instead of sharing what they have with those in need. A Christian understanding of charity is far more radical and demanding than simply giving from what we have ‘left over’. Christians believe that anything that we have is a gift from God and does not belong exclusively to us. It must be shared if there is someone who needs it more.

Later church teaching expresses this love towards others as ‘solidarity’ with those in need. If we live by this principle, when we act out of charity or love we do not do it out of patronising pity, but out of commitment to the common good, so that every human being can reach their full potential.

For Christians, participation in movements for change such as Make Poverty History and livesimply are expressions of their faith and charity in action, similiar to a commitment to prayer and providing financial support for charities. Rather than being other-worldly Christians are often at the forefront of movements for social change, because love of God and love of thy neighbour are indivisible.

Charity, for Christians, is not a demeaning hand-out; it is a vibrant expression of love.

Linda Jones is the Head of Spirituality at CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development).

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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University