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).