Early charity in America was based on the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. These have their basis in the Bible. We are to provide for those in need (Matt. 5 & 6). We are to take care of those first within our family (1 Tim.), and those who are capable of taking care of themselves are to do so to the extent they can (2 Thes.). Charity is a matter of helping another create their own independence. Not an independence in respect to autonomy from God, but instead a greater ability to each fulfill our purpose - that of being transformed toward good by our actions and the virtue we develop.
Charity is about teaching another to fish and not simply providing someone with fish. Those who know how to fish, and do so, are a step closer to fulfilling their purpose. But what about those who do not or cannot fish? Are they all the same? Below is a simple analogy. There can be many more categories added, but these suffice to demonstrate the point. As with all analogies, this one too breaks down at some point. It is not an end, but simply a means to increase our understanding.
Let’s say that there are five people who don’t currently fish. The first doesn’t know how. The second has a broken rod. The third does not have access to water that can be fished. The fourth fishes, but only wants swordfish - nothing else will do. The fifth simply does not care to fish at all. None of these has any fish to eat, but should they all be treated the same? If we simply look to our shared nature, one might be tempted to say yes, as they are all in need. But if we look to our purpose and the transformation required, I would say no, they are not equivalent.
Those in Need
The first requires education. This education should not only encompass the technique of fishing itself (the end), but also why fishing is important (the means, or purpose). If only one of those aspects is taught, the person will not be very successful, and they will not in turn be in a position to teach someone else later. Other things may be required later for this person, but his immediate need is education, and in this person’s case receiving that education would be a form of charity. As we are to care for those closest to us, this duty should primarily be the responsibility of the person’s parents. This too is a principal reiterated in many places within the Bible (see Deut. 4, 5, or 6).
The second and third individuals both lack some resource. The one lacks a piece of equipment necessary to fish and the other access to a location where they can fish. Both bear some responsibility in attempting to make the best of their situation by trying to provide for themselves, such as the one trying to create their own rod or purchasing one by their own means. However, acts of charity would include providing equipment or access if these individuals are unable to do so on their own.
These first three individuals all have something in common, they have a need. It is not practical to fish, and be successful, without the things mentioned. The fourth and fifth persons also have something in common. They have a want, and as a people we seem to have forgotten the difference between the two. A need is something necessary. A want is a desire or wish. The first you cannot do without; the second you can.
Those in Want
The fourth person wants something which they may or may not be able to get, and want only that. They can of course trade for a particular type of fish, if it is available and they have enough to purchase it. The fifth person wants to be provided for, instead of providing for themselves. This is not virtuous behavior but sloth/laziness, unless the person is not capable of taking care of themselves. If we are able to take care of ourselves we have a responsibility to do so to the extent they are able, as is stated within 2 Thessalonians.[i] To do otherwise is an undisciplined act of lawlessness.
Showing charity to the first three individuals mentioned above is something we should do where it is needed. That charity should lead to the building of virtue in both the giver and receiver. This is the notion underlying St. Thomas example of the king’s grace noted in the last article. It is no different with charity. Charity begins in faith and ends in an act performed out of love, simply because of the nature two human beings share, it represents fulfilling divine law.
Charity’s act leads to a greater independence within charity’s receiver. Again, not in the sense of being autonomous from God, but rather in being better able to fulfill our purpose. In a word, self-reliant. Nowhere is this more aptly shown than in receiving an education that allows one to take their proper place in society. One who is both able to contribute to society, and teach its virtues so that it can be handed off to the next generation.
Unfortunately we seem too often be off the mark today. We often turn away from God and to ourselves, we want what others have and view charity as a means of redistribution to attain someone’s corrupted notions of both our purpose and how it is to be achieved. In the process that idea (statism or collectivism, in all its forms) prevents us from growing, learning, and developing the capacity to act with that grace and charity we are to show. But this is our choice to make, and we can change it at any time. We need both the understanding and the will to act accordingly.
I’m going to close with an example from a book about charity that I read several years ago. I apologize but I do not recall where I read it. There was a tribe in Africa that had a festival coming up, and needed some tables for the festival. They went to a local church, run by Western missionaries, and asked for help. The church’s first thought was to give them tables for their festival, but there was a village elder on the church’s council who said they should ask more questions. The elder asked if they needed wood for the tables. The villagers responded no, they had wood. The elder asked if they needed a carpenter. The villagers responded no, they knew how to build the tables. The elder asked if they needed nails. The villagers responded they had nails. The elder asked if they needed a hammer, and the villagers responded they had a hammer. It turned out all the villagers needed was a saw to cut the wood, so that they could build their tables.
Simply providing tables would have been a step toward creating dependency, looking merely at an end and not a need. What was needed was a saw that helped provide the means to becoming more independent, through an act of charity. May we all go and do likewise.
[i] 2 Thessalonians 3:6-11, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.”