The Goal of Charity
At MMS, we teach our older students to understand the various causes of poverty in order to help them break the cycle of poverty in their own lives and/or be able to help others in need of charity. The following thoughts have been excerpted and updated from a 19th-Century text titled “Practical Ethics” by William DeWitt Hyde.
To Give or Not to Give?
No one needs Christian charity more than the poor. But what is the best way to help any particular person? Sadly, it seems few people today care enough about the poor to carefully consider how we should practically respond to their needs – in order to give them what is truly best for them.
To begin with, let’s think about how people become poor. Poverty is caused by one or more of the following:
- Inability to secure work
The first three causes result in those we might think of as being worthy poor (through no fault of their own), while most would consider the others to be unworthy poor (meaning, their poverty is their own fault).
Whether worthy or unworthy, the poor are our brothers and sisters, and on the ground of our common humanity we owe them our help and sympathy.
It is certainly easier to sympathize with the worthy than with the unworthy poor. Yet the poor who are poor as the result of their own fault are really the more in need of our pity and help. And the work of lifting them up to the level of self-respect and self-support is much harder than the mere giving them material relief.
Yet nothing less than this is our duty.
Merely handing a few dollars over to a beggar isn’t enough. In fact, such indiscriminate giving does more harm than good! It increases rather than relieves pauperism.
So the first duty of charity is to refuse to give in this indiscriminate way. Either we must give MORE than food and clothes and money; or else we must give NOTHING at all. Indiscriminate giving merely adds fuel to the flame.
The special form which love takes when its object is the poor is called benevolence or charity. True benevolence, like love in general, focuses on the well-being of its object.
In what then does the well-being of the poor consist? Is it bread and beef, a coat on the back, a roof over the head, and a bed to sleep in? These are
conditions of well-being, but not the whole of it.
A man cannot be well off without these things. But it is by no means sure that he will be well off with them.
What a man thinks; how he feels; what he loves; what he hopes for; what he is trying to do; what he means to be–these are quite as essential elements in his well-being as what he has to eat and wear.
True benevolence therefore must include these things in its efforts. Benevolence must aim to improve the man together with his condition or its gifts will be worse than wasted.
There are three principles which all wise benevolence must observe.
- Know all that can be known about the person you help. Unless we are willing to find out all we can about a poor man, we have no business to indulge our sympathy or ease our conscience by giving him money or food. It is often easier to give than to withhold. But it is far more harmful. It’s been said, “It is far better–better for him and better for us–to give a beggar a kick than to give him a dollar.” That sounds like a hard saying, yet it is the strict truth. In a civilized and Christian community any really deserving person can secure assistance through persons or agencies that either know about his needs, or will take the trouble to look them up. When a stranger begs from strangers he thereby confesses that he prefers to present his claims where their merits are unknown; and the act proclaims him as a fraud. To the beggar, to ourselves, and to the really deserving poor, we owe a prompt and stern refusal of all uninvestigated appeals for charity. “True charity never opens the heart without at the same time opening the mind.”
- Let the man you help know as much as he can of you. Christian ministries and other agencies are indispensable aids to effective benevolence; without their aid thorough knowledge of the needs and merits of the poor would be impossible. Their function, however, should be to direct and superintend, not to dispense with and supplant direct personal contact between giver and receiver. The recipient of aid should know the one who helps him as man or woman, not as secretary or agent. If all the money, food, and clothing necessary to relieve the wants of the poor could be deposited at their firesides regularly each Christmas by Santa Claus, such a Christmas present, with the regular expectation of its repetition each year, would do these poor families more harm than good. It might make them temporarily more comfortable; it would make them permanently less industrious, thrifty, and self-reliant. Investigations have proved conclusively that half the persons who are in want in our cities need no help at all, except help in finding work. One-sixth are unworthy of any material assistance whatever, since they would spend it immediately on their vices. One-fifth need only temporary help and encouragement to get over hard places. Only about one-tenth need permanent assistance. On the other hand all need cheer, comfort, advice, sympathy, and encouragement, or else reproof, warning, and restraint. They all need kind, firm, wise, judicious friends. The less professionalism, the more personal sympathy and friendliness there is in our benevolence, the better it will be. In the words of Octavia Hill: “It is the families, the homes of the poor that need to be influenced. Is not she most sympathetic, most powerful, who nursed her own mother through her long illness, and knew how to go quietly through the darkened room: who entered so heartily into her sister’s marriage: who obeyed so heartily her father’s command when it was hardest? Better still if she be wife and mother herself and can enter into the responsibilities of a head of a household, understands her joys and cares, knows what heroic patience it needs to keep gentle when the nerves are unhinged and the children noisy. Depend upon it if we thought of the poor primarily as husbands, wives, sons, daughters, members of households as we are ourselves, instead of contemplating them as a different class, we should recognize better how the home training and the high ideal of home duty was our best preparation for work among them.”
- Give the man you help no more and no less than he needs to make his life what you and he together see that it is good for it to be. This principle shows how much to give. Will ten cents serve as an excuse for idleness? Will five cents be spent in drink? Will one cent relax his determination to earn an honest living for himself and family? Then these sums are too much, and should be withheld. On the other hand, can the man be made hopeful, resolute, determined to overcome the difficulties of a trying situation? Can you impart to him your own strong will, your steadfast courage, your high ideal? is he ready to work, and willing to make any sacrifice that is necessary to regain the power of self-support? Then you will not count any sum that you can afford to give too great; even if it be necessary to carry him and his family right through a winter by sheer force of giving outright everything they need. It is not the amount of the gift, but the spirit in which it is received that makes it good or bad for the recipient. If received by a man who clings to all the weakness and wickedness that brought his poverty upon him, then your gift, whether small or large, does no good and much harm. If with the gift the man welcomes your counsel, follows your advice, adopts your ideal, and becomes partaker in your determination that he shall become as industrious, and prudent, and courageous as a man in his situation can be, then whether you give him little or much material assistance, every cent of it goes to the highest work in which wealth can be employed–the making a man more manlike.
Our attitude toward the poor and unfortunate is the test of our attitude toward humanity. For the poor and unfortunate present humanity to us in the condition which most strongly appeals to our fellow-feeling.
The way in which I treat this poor man who happens to cross my path, is the way I should treat my dearest friend, if he were equally poor and unfortunate, and equally remote from personal association with my past life. The man who will let a single poor family suffer, when he is able to afford relief, is capable of being false to the whole human race.
Speaking in the name of our common humanity, the Son of Man declares, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Sympathy “doubles our joys and halves our sorrows.” It increases our range of interest and affection, making “the world one fair moral whole” in which we share the joys and sorrows of our brothers. The man who sympathizes with the sufferings of others seeks and finds the sympathy of others in his own losses and trials when they come.
Familiarity and sympathy with the sufferings of others strengthens us to bear suffering when it comes to us: for we are able to see that it is no unusual and exceptional evil falling upon us alone, but accept it as an old and familiar acquaintance, whom we have so often met in other lives that we do not fear his presence in our own.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” We are comfortable and well cared for. We are earning our own living. We pay our debts. We work hard for what we get. Why should we not enjoy ourselves? Why should I share my earnings with the shiftless vagabond, the good-for-nothing loafer? What is he to me?
In one or another of these forms the murderous question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is sure to rise to our lips when the needs of the poor call for our assistance and relief.
Or if we do recognize the claim, we are tempted to hide behind some organization; giving our money to that; and sending it to do the actual work.
We do not like to come into the real presence of suffering and want. We do not want to visit the poor man in his tenement; and clasp his hand, and listen with our own ears to the tale of wretchedness and woe as it falls directly from his lips.
We do not care to take the heavy and oppressive burden of his life’s problem upon our own minds and hearts. We wish him well. But we do not will his betterment strongly and earnestly enough to take us to his side, and join our hands with his in lifting off the weight that keeps him down.
Alienation, the desire to hold ourselves aloof from the real wretchedness of our brother, is our great temptation with reference to the poor.
The Danger of Being Stingy and Ungenerous
To reluctantly give out insufficient aid to the poor is to be stingy or ungenerous.
Such a person thinks all the time of himself, and how he hates to part with what belongs to him. He gives as little as he can; and that little hurts him terribly.
This vice cannot be overcome directly. It is a phase of selfishness; and like all forms of selfishness it can be cured only by getting out of self into another’s life. By going among the poor, studying their needs, realizing their sufferings, we may be drawn out of our niggardliness and find a pleasure in giving which we could never have cultivated by direct efforts of will.
The Danger of Being Soft and Indulgent
Regard for others as they happen to be, instead of regard for what they are capable of becoming, leads to soft-hearted and mischievous indulgence.
The indulgent giver sees the fact of suffering and rushes to its relief, without stopping to inquire into the cause of the poverty and the best measures of relief. Indulgence fails to see the ideal of what the poor man is to become.
Indulgence does not look beyond the immediate fact of poverty; and consequently the indulgent giver does nothing to lift the poor man out of it. Help in poverty, rather than help out of poverty, is what indulgent giving amounts to. The indulgent and indiscriminate giver becomes a partner in the production of poverty.
This indulgent giving is a phase of sentimentality; and the relief of one’s own feelings, rather than the real good of a fellow-man is at the root of all such mischievous almsgiving. It is the form of benevolence without the substance. It does too much for the poor man just because it loves him too little.
Indulgence measures benefactions, not by the needs and capacities of the receiver, but by the sensibilities and emotions of the giver. What wonder that it always goes astray, and does harm under the guise of doing good!
Uncharitable treatment of the poor makes us alien to humanity, and distrustful of human nature. We feel that they have a claim upon us that we have not fulfilled; and we try to push them off beyond the range of our sympathy. They are not slow to take the hint. They interpret our harsh tones and our cold looks, and they look to us for help no more.
But in pushing these poor ones beyond our reach, we unconsciously acquire hard, unsympathetic ways of thinking, feeling, speaking and acting, which others not so poor, others whom we would gladly have near us, also interpret; and they too come to understand that there is no real kindness and helpfulness to be had from us in time of real need, and they keep their inmost selves apart, and suffer us to touch them only on the surface of their lives.
When trouble comes to us we instinctively feel that we have no claim on the sympathy of others; and so we have to bear our griefs alone. Having never suffered with others, sorrow is a stranger to us, and we think we are the most miserable creatures in the world.
Humanity is one. Action and reaction are equal. Our treatment of the poorest of our fellows is potentially our treatment of them all.
And by a subtle law of compensation, which runs deeper than our own consciousness, what our attitude is toward our fellows determines their attitude toward us.
“Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these my brethren,” says the Representative of our common humanity, “ye did it not unto me.”