Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Charity: Christian and Pagan, Then and Now

It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’
Tertullian, Apology 39 [about 200], 1989

The criterion of true Christian spirituality, affirmed by the Gospel over and over again, is the practical and concrete love of neighbor that leads us to make the sacrifice of our own desires, convenience, and comfort in order to meet the needs of others.
Thomas Keating, The Heart of the World, [1981], 2008

Social work is a virtue-driven profession (Adams, 2009). Its practice requires and develops certain virtues. The character of a social worker is formed by the choices she makes--choices that form habits of the heart and mind (Tocqueville) and constitute her as the person making each subsequent choice (Finnis, 1983). For Christians, the greatest of these moral excellences is the theological or grace-dependent virtue of charity (agape, caritas, love), the Holy Spirit’s greatest gift (Pinckaers, 1995).

Charity has a particular ambiguity and tension for Christian social workers. Love is the very definition of God (1Jn 4:8), it is the central virtue for Christians, and it is the heart of the Church’s mission to the poor and oppressed, an organized social activity of the Church from the beginning. Yet it is something of an embarrassment for professional social work, which arose out of an attempt (mostly by Christians) to “organize” charity in this sense and replace its sentimental by scientific practice.

Charity as Queen of the Virtues
Charity also has a special place among the virtues. As Geach (1977) points out, following Aristotle, it would be vulgar to praise God as if he had certain human virtues. What would it mean, for example, to ascribe to the Divine Nature cardinal virtues such as temperance and courage or, for that matter, the theological virtues of faith and hope? But Love or Caritas is just what God is. God as Love exists prior to and independently of any of his creations and does not need them to be Love. “God is Love because, and only because, the Three Persons eternally love each other” (Geach, 1977, p.80).

Our understanding of charity as a human virtue stems from the complete self-giving of God as man and for man, and from God’s call to us as creatures in his image to love him with all our hearts, souls, and minds…and our neighbors as ourselves (Mt22:36). As Benedict XVI (2006) puts it, exhorting Catholic social workers and other personnel who carry out the Church’s charitable activity, “The consciousness that, in Christ, God has given himself for us, even unto death, must inspire us to live no longer for ourselves but for him, and, with him, for others” (p.86).

Charity, thus, is about self-giving. “Love can be thought of as a commitment of the will to the true good of another,” suggests McCloskey (2006, p.91). It is a matter of will, not simply emotion—for I can choose to love someone despite my emotions, for the love of God. But intensity and self-sacrifice are not enough to define the virtue of charity. Consider the last blood-soaked century of totalitarian atheism: intense commitment to what the dedicated saw as the true good of others sometimes included great self-sacrifice in the cause of evil. Christian charity is first and foremost the friendship of man for God, to which God invites us. The “love for God above all and love for neighbor because of God is the most important virtue of the Christian life” (Kaczor, 2008, p.130, emphasis added; Geach 1977).

Charity, like justice, is not simply a quality or abiding state of the individual character but also finds expression in social activities and arrangements. Charity as a virtue, and still more as definition of God, cannot be reduced to the altruistic activity we currently describe by that term. Nevertheless, it was from the Church’s beginnings in the first century an organized activity, resting on a new social ethic that sharply differentiated the Christian revolution’s norms from those of the prevailing pagan world (Hart, 2009).

The historical sociologist Rodney Stark (1997) has shown how different the Christian response to the great plagues of the late Roman Empire in the second and third centuries was from that of the pagans and how important that difference was for the rapid growth of the Church. Like Hart (2009), Stark emphasizes the revolutionary impact of Christian doctrine in the ancient pagan world in which it took root. He shows the importance of that doctrine and especially the centrality of a God of Love in enabling Christianity to thrive and grow rapidly at the expense of the traditional pagan gods.

In both theological and practical terms, these plagues overwhelmed the resources of the pagan tradition. The pagan gods required placatory sacrifices but did not love humanity or expect humans to love one another. The pagan response, as described by both pagan and Christian writers, was to flee for the hills, to avoid all contact with families where a member had been infected. The sick and dying were abandoned without nursing care—even food and water—or religious consolation and they died at an enormously high rate. Something like a third of the population was wiped out in the first plague, which broke out in 165 AD, and two-thirds of the population of the city of Alexandria (Stark, 1997). The great pagan physician Galen abandoned Rome for a country estate in Asia Minor until the epidemic was over.

The Christian response was in sharp contrast. As Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, and Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, explained, the plague was a time of terror for the pagans, who had no loving God and no hope of eternal life with God. For Christians it was a time of “schooling and testing” (quoted by Eusebius [about 325], 1965), even of joy. Christianity offered explanation, comfort, and a prescription for action.

The Christians did not abandon their sick and even nursed pagans too as they could. Many sacrificed their own lives to care for others. As Bishop Dionysius (quoted by Stark, 1997) wrote in tribute to these heroic, self-sacrificing 3rd century Christians:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains

This contrast between pagan and Christian charity was clear even to those most hostile to Christianity, like the apostate emperor Julian who wrote, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (quoted by Stark, 1997, p.84). Julian, with the evangelical zeal of a true believer, made energetic efforts to get the pagan priests to emulate the Christians and develop their own charitable activities. But paganism lacked the doctrinal basis and moral resources for such self-sacrificing love and the efforts went nowhere (Benedict XVI, 2006; Hart, 2009; Stark, 1997).

Stark (1997) argues that Christian charity, with its faithful caring for the sick and dying even at high risk of one’s own life, was a key element in the rapid growth of Christianity at the expense of paganism. Such nursing care, providing food, water, and loving care, reduced the mortality rates of those infected. Many patients and their carers died, but those who survived were immune. Pagan social networks dissipated due to their high mortality rates, leaving pagan survivors more likely to convert. Christian social networks flourished because of their own higher survival rates and those of pagans who were part of those networks (e.g., pagan spouses of Christians).

My purpose here, however, is not to assess the importance of the differential response to the great epidemics on the parts of Christians and pagans for the growth of Christianity, but to point to the revolutionary character and depth of the Christian commitment to a new social ethic. Today it takes an effort of historical imagination to appreciate the power of this new morality in those first centuries in the history of the Church. Christ’s teaching of that “core social work value,” the equal worth and dignity of the human person, as imago Dei, had a force not moderated by centuries of familiarity:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me
(Matthew 25:35-40).

Both pagan and Christian writers recognized that love and charity were central duties of Christian faith, not only in the scriptures but also the everyday practice of the Church. In the language of MacIntyre’s discussion of the virtues and social practices in After Virtue, we may say that caritas was the central virtue both required for and developed by practice of the Christian faith. But that practice was not that of a craft or profession, except in a special sense in a monastic context, but a spiritual practice and development that one could not acquire through one’s unaided efforts. We practice virtue, as Keating (2008) puts it, out of love for Christ, “seeking to please God and to give up the obstacles in us which prevent us from doing his will”—an effort required of us in order to develop the capacity to open ourselves to God’s grace, the divine Love that becomes in us the theological virtue of charity.

The Christian understanding of the relation of divine to human, of religion to the virtues was fundamentally different from that of the pagan world. Julian attempted to emulate Christian charitable work, which he saw as the religion’s one admirable feature, and to root the new pagan charity in Hellenistic tradition. But that pagan culture, Hart (2009) argues, lacked the moral resources for a social ethic of love that was, in contrast, central to the Christian faith. As he puts it,
Hospitality to strangers, food and alms for beggars: these were indeed, as he insisted, ancient traditions of the “Hellenes.” But giving to all and sundry, freely, heedless of their characters, out of love for their humanity; visiting those in prison, provisioning the poor from temple treasuries, ceaselessly feeding the hungry, providing shelter to all who might have need of it; loving God and neighbor as the highest good, priestly poverty, universal civic philanthropy: all of this emanates from a different quarter altogether

In the context of what Gibbon (1787, quoted by Hart, 2009), himself no admirer of the Christians, described as a pagan “religion which was destitute of theological principles, of moral precepts, and of ecclesiastical discipline…” (p.192), Julian attempted what could only be a superficial and ineffectual imitation of Christian charity.

Christian and Secular Charity Today
Not only was Christian charity important to the growth of the Church, but also continues to be of its essence. Christians have not always behaved as well in subsequent plagues as in those first centuries. But we find in every century examples of heroic self-giving as exemplified by St. Damien of Molokai , (Daws, 1989; Bunson & Bunson, 2009) in 19th century Hawaii. A missionary from Belgium, Father Damien de Veuster asked his bishop to serve the leper colony to which many of his parishioners were being sent. Men, women, and children who had contracted the disfiguring and debilitating disease of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) were segregated, as a public health measure, to a remote, isolated part of the island of Molokai. Like those third century Christians praised by Bishop Dionysius, he tended and ministered to the sick, heedless of the danger to himself, until eventually he contracted and died of the disease.

Or consider in our own day, the men and women religious who serve the people of Southern Sudan (http://www.solidarityssudan.org/whoweare.html) today. Despite his primitive and tendentious ecclesiology, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (2010) recently paid tribute to the dedicated charitable work of priests and nuns in the poorest and most dangerous areas of Africa. (See Kristof’s columns at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/opinion/02kristof.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/opinion/18kristof.html?hp ).

But the difference between Christian and secular charitable activity is not only a matter of heroic exemplars. There is also a clear general or average difference between Christians and secularists in terms of charitable giving of time, treasure, and talent, even blood. Brooks (2006), a leading researcher on charitable giving, notes that, “In years of research, I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people” (p. 34). Of all groups, it is the secular liberals who are personally the stingiest.

What is true at individual level is also true in comparisons among U.S. states and developed nations. The more secularized states and nations—the liberal “blue states” in the U.S. and the more secular and anti-clerical European countries like France—have markedly lower levels of charitable giving. There appears to be a kind of hydraulic relation between government programs and individual giving of time, treasure, and talent in charitable activities. Those who favor more generous public provision of social welfare are less likely to give directly. Their generosity and compassion extend to voting and arguing for programs to help those in need, but not to dipping into their own pockets. The more generous people are with other people’s money (through taxation and public debt), the stingier they are with their own (Brooks, 2006).

The differences apply even if only giving to secular charities and causes is considered. "[R]eligious people were still 10 points more likely to give money to nonreligious charities such as the United Way (71 to 61 percent), and 21 points more likely to volunteer for completely secular causes such as the local PTA (60 to 39 percent)" (Brooks, 2006, pp.38-39). The non-religious do not substitute other kinds of giving for the religious charities of believers. For the secular, religious charitable giving to houses of worship is replaced by...nothing (Brooks, 2006).

The differences are dramatic and consistent across Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths and as measured by other behaviors as well as regular attendance at services. People who pray daily are 30 points more likely to give money to charity than those who never pray(83 to 53%). Those who say they devote a great deal of effort to their spiritual lives are much more likely to give than those who devote none(88 to 46%). Even those who say that 'beliefs don't matter as long as you're a good person’ are dramatically less likely to give charitably (69 to 86%) and to volunteer (32 to 51 percent) than those who think that beliefs do matter (Brooks, 2006, p.36).

Both secular conservatives and secular liberals are poor givers of time and money, but here the liberals do slightly better. Both secular groups, however, are far outshone by both religious conservatives and religious liberals. As Brooks (2006) demonstrates, "Religious people are, inarguably, more charitable in every measurable way" (p.40).

In a development curiously reminiscent of the Emperor Julian, some atheists have gone beyond dismissing the charity of religious people as motivated by fear, and see it as a creditable response to human need that secular humanists would do well to emulate. They recognize that, “The theology and the voluntarism and the philanthropy…were part of a greater whole, a commitment to charity as part of religious practice” (Freedman, 2010 [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/us/03religion.html?sq=arthur c. brooks&st=nyt&scp=1&pagewanted=print] ).

Like Julian, they have sought to emulate aspects of Christianity, even the culture of giving, but without a loving God. They have created foundations and coalitions such as the Foundation Beyond Belief, Non-Believers Giving Aid, and Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort (SHARE). The results are so far modest and the challenges of building a strong culture of giving, of compassion and generosity, with a supporting infrastructure akin to the congregations, weekly meetings, and ministries of the religiously active, are considerable. Not least of these challenges, as Julian found, is the absence of a core system of belief and practice that has active charity at its heart. Beliefs indeed do matter.

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