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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.