|"Charity" by Anrea del Sarto|
I’ve spent a big chunk of my career working with or for charities. Many of my dearest and ablest friends are in the charity ‘space.’ And the creativity and problem-solving coming out of the nonprofit sector has never been greater.
Although I’ve had numerous nonprofit clients over the last decade or so, I haven’t worked in a charity for about 12 years now, which gives me a certain distance. Distance lends perspective and consequently, I get a lot of people asking me which charities I recommend for donations of money or time.
My usual answer is, “it depends.”
“On what?” they respond.
“On what you want from your charitable activities,” I reply.
It sounds like a weaselly consultant kind of an answer, but bear with me for a moment.
The English word charity comes from the Latin word caritas and means “from the heart,” implying a voluntary act. Caritas is the same root word for cherish.
The Jews come at charity from a different direction. The Hebrew word that is usually rendered as charity is tzedaka, which is the feminine form of the word that translates to “justice,” or “righteousness.”
Way One – Generously Support Worthy Causes
For Jews, then, someone who is uncharitable is also unjust. Practicing Jews observe a 10 percent tithe that in modern days goes to charity.
This wasn’t always so. When there was still a temple in Jerusalem, the tithe went to support the Levites and priests. When the temple was destroyed, the Rabbis changed the rule and the tithe was directed to the poor as “alms.” Alms means donations given to the poor or needy.
Most Rabbis would say it matters more that the almsgiving is generous than that it comes from the heart. “The heart can catch up,” the Rabbis might say. Many American Jews think of public displays of charity [naming wings of hospitals for the donor, for instance] as right and fitting; much the way most Americans think it’s right that politicians declare where their campaign funding came from. In this way of thinking, donors being recognized for their acts of benevolence, therefore, is a way of keeping the feet of the rich to the fire.
Zakat, “that which purifies,” is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and generally described as almsgiving to the poor. The amount of the Zakat is based on wealth and income. Customarily, the Zakat is calculated at 2.5% or 1/40th of one’s wealth beyond a certain minimum amount. Since the Zakat is given every year, and is a donation based on wealth rather than income, it can add up to substantial sums in a hurry. The Zakat, which is voluntary in most but not all Muslim-majority countries, goes first to the Zakat collectors, then to the poor, then to new converts to Islam, then to clergy.
Way Two – Extend Yourself to Others
During World War Two author C.S. Lewis gave a series of short talks on Christian topics on the BBC that were well received in those parlous times. Later they were reprinted as the book Mere Christianity. Lewis tried to strip denominational bias and differences from the scripts get to the elemental Christian belief on themes like “faith,” “sin,” and “charity.”
Charity has come to mean almsgiving, Lewis wrote, and you can see why. If a man has charity, giving to the poor is one of the most obvious ways to act charitably… just as rhyme is the most obvious thing about poetry… making it easy to confuse the two.
Instead, says Lewis, charity means love. Not the emotion, and not necessarily even affection, but a choice you make to extend yourself to others. And it starts without worrying over the bedeviling question of waiting until you love someone before you extend charitable love to them.
“The rule for all of us is perfectly simple,” Lewis wrote, “do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” The result is a virtuous cycle, a positive feedback loop that can start as soon as you do. You do something out of love… by making choice to serve others… which then often leads to affection. The affection in turn makes it easier to perform other acts of charitable love.
Way Three – Cut Each Other a Break
Another religious leader frames charity as something that doesn’t necessarily require whipping out your credit card or transferring cash from your Venmo account.
“I consider charity… to be the opposite of criticism and judging…I have in mind the charity that manifests itself when we are tolerant of others and lenient toward their actions, the kind of charity that forgives, the kind of charity that is patient.
“I have in mind the charity that impels us to be sympathetic, compassionate, and merciful, not only in times of sickness and affliction and distress but also in times of weakness or error on the part of others.
“There is a serious need for the charity that gives attention to those who are unnoticed, hope to those who are discouraged, aid to those who are afflicted. True charity is love in action. The need for charity is everywhere.”
In this version, charitable behavior was movingly demonstrated in 2006 following a shooting at the West Nickel Mines one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The shooter, Charles Carl Roberts, was a milkman who worked in the area. In agony over the death of his first child, Roberts tied up 10 Amish girls in the schoolhouse and fatally shot 5 more girls before killing himself.
Almost immediately the Amish community openly forgave the Roberts family, who were naturally anguished by the shooting. The day after the shooting an Amish neighbor came over to the Roberts’ home and, wrapping his arms around the shooter’s father, said, “we will forgive you.” About half the mourners at Roberts’ funeral were Amish.
What happened to the Amish of West Nickel Mines was heartrending and distressing. And provoking. It’s almost impossible to hear this story without asking ourselves, “could I be as charitable if this had happened to me?”
Few us will know. But all of us are likely to be offended by someone less enlightened, righteous, or virtuous than we. For these more mundane life tests writer Chieko Okazaki suggests three disciplines to help us practice this third kind of charity.
o Avoid being judgmental
o Earnestly seek the inward person
o Actively seek opportunities to serve others
I’d add a fourth;
o Cut each other a break
As humans almost nothing comes easier than judging others in a harsh light. I’m most willing to give the benefit of a doubt to myself after my own boneheaded deeds or words, and I’m pretty willing to do the same for people who I love or trust. But for people I don’t trust or don’t know well, I’m not always ready to pardon their frailties or mistakes.
This lack of charity is most pronounced online, which is why I tend to steer clear of Twitter these days. Because of the anonymizing nature of online media, anger and contempt towards those we find less enlightened are the coin of the realm these days.
So back to the question of charity. If you have the time and or the means, be as generous as those who tithe, whether you do so out of caritas or justice or almsgiving. Charity also means being generous with ordinary human kindness, simple courtesy, everyday thoughtfulness, human sensitivity, leniency, and forgiveness. And you can practice that kind of charity today.