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Love Never Ends, So How Could A Just Society Bring An End To Charity?

December 7, 2009

I have heard it said by many people that if the government provides for the needs of society through its social services, there will no longer be any need for charity. Yet, we are called to charity, and therefore, we must not allow governments to interfere in our acts of charity. There is something very mixed up with this notion. It is perverting the very nature of charity, twisting it in a way to make sure there will be people who are suffering, so that they can be the objects of our good will. We are being told we cannot wish for a more just society because if such a society exists, charity will vanish.

But this cannot be the case, can it?

What exactly is the aim of charity but love? Love can be manifest in many ways; when someone is in dire straights, love seeks to help them out of it. But that is not all love seeks for them. Indeed, does a husband or wife love their family less after they have provided for their family’s needs? Certainly not! If we would not look at our family relationship in this way, why do we look at the world in this fashion?

We have been trained to see charity in an economic fashion. And, sad to say, many people have picked up on this and use it to their own benefit. In this way, charity has become subverted, so it is no longer about love; it has rather become one of many consumer goods, able to be bought and sold like any other. And like many consumer goods, it is becomes a mixed product, where one buys some charity will buying something for oneself. There are so many goods in which the price is higher in order to provide for some charity. But does that not make a joke out of charity? It turns charity into a side product of fulfilling one’s selfish desires.

Slavoj Žižek examines this notion well in many of his works; one recent example he likes to mention is with Starbucks coffee. They have turned charity into big business. They know people seek to satisfy their ethical urges as much as their thirst. So they bring the two together, suggesting that by buying a cup of their coffee, you are doing more than buying a cup of coffee for yourself, but you are helping everyone who has been involved in the process of bringing that coffee to you. “The ‘cultural’ surplus here is spelled out: the price is higher than elsewhere since what you are really buying is the ‘coffee ethic’ which includes care for the environment, social responsibility toward the producers, plus a place where you yourself can participate in communal life (from the very beginning Starbucks presented its coffee shops as an ersatz community).”[1] What we are being told is that our ethical desires are also goods to be bought and sold, and indeed, goods which can be mixed with other goods, so that we can feel smug in our consumption.[2]

While there might be some help being done in this system (and any such help is good, even if done badly), we must ponder what exactly is going on here. It seems a good (charity) is being perverted to help keep an abusive system in place. Is this not exactly how evil works? It uses a good for a perverted end, thus living on the good itself as a parasite (because evil cannot have any existence in itself but only on the corruption of a good).

In this way, the question asked, “If we change the system, whence charity?” seems to be a temptation being used to keep the system in place by perverting what charity is about and what it seeks for others. In the present system, this means charity has become a reified consumer good. The people who profit are not the ones who need help, but the ones who make sure they need the help. Businesses use this ideology to keep everything as it is, to keep everything in place, while creating an illusion that people are doing something substantial for others. Charity has been reduced to an economic tool. Love has been reduced to money. Economic materialism is not just a problem for communism, but for capitalism as well.

Christians should know better. It is a Satanic temptation to turn charity from an act of love with no end to an act which has a real final end.[3] But this is not what charity will ever be. Charity is caritas, love; to act in charity is to follow the dictates of love. Charity seeks for the betterment of others; in doing so, it recognizes that the most immediate need should be taken care of first (food, shelter, clothing, health, quality of life, etc). If these are taken care of, this does not diminish the need for charity: it provides room for greater forms of charity, for greater forms of love.

Footnotes


[1] Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 53-4.

[2] Jesus however suggests a different attitude towards charity. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”(Matthew  6:2-4).

[3] “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1Corinthians 13:8-13).

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11 Comments
  1. December 7, 2009 7:29 pm

    Of course, no conservative would understand charity in economic terms, as you claim.

    No one who understands charity correctly would think of it selfishly, as you contend some do as a consequence of conservatism. I think this has less to do with conservatives than it does with stupid people.

    There are two ways to understand charity, I think. On the one hand, charity is the initiative of the individual human heart. But on the other, it is the initiative in response to other human hearts. You tend to deny the former to emphasize the latter, in almost everything you write.

    I think a proper understanding requires both perspectives.

    • December 7, 2009 7:48 pm

      Zach

      I never said anything about “conservatives.” On the other hand, I’ve seen reactions to all kinds of social initiatives being “well, there goes charity.” It really indicates the confusion. And people do charity for the sake of some sort of self-satisfaction (one kind of another). Jesus had to talk about that in his day; but now we really have turned it into a consumer good, one must ask — why? And it becomes, again, quite clear it has some sort of psychological gain, and is often used as a justification for some wrong (gluttony, lust, etc).

      Beyond that, you really have an ideological blindness when you read what I write, and speak all the time about things I did not say. Like when you say “on the one hand, charity is the initiative of the individual human heart.” I deny this because there are no individuals, there are persons; and persons are never independent, the whole point and problem is you fail to see the interdependent relationship of people together: no one is an island unto themselves.

  2. December 7, 2009 8:02 pm

    One of the things which I keep pondering about is the difference between 2nd century Christianity charity, in which Christianity created a secondary society that radically challenged the Roman system, and 21st century Christianity which seems to use the modern charity system to help keep the system in place, with all its sinful structures.

    How many people thrive on tax deductions due to charity? Please tell me how there is no financial gain going on here, and how charity is not seen as something economic when this goes on. It’s set up in the system we live in to view it as such. Economic materialism is a problem with both communism and capitalism both. We must recognize this and see it as why neither are acceptable as anything more than what they are– fallible human constructions based upon failed philosophical models. It’s time to move on. We can learn from them, gain from the best parts of them, but it is time to move on and not treat either as more than what they are.

  3. Aegis permalink
    December 7, 2009 8:06 pm

    Mr. Karlson,

    I am new to Vox Nova and am unfamiliar with you views. So please tell me: what system and what policies should we as a society enact in order to remedy the problems you highlight?

    • December 7, 2009 8:13 pm

      Aegis

      There is no short answer to your question. Part of the problem is that there is no “best” system. There are useful systems, some better than others suited for different times and places. But all systems have their blind spots which require reformation and movement away from it into a new system when that system becomes a dead idol. Catholic Social Teaching must always be kept in mind when developing or reforming the system — and with it, there are all kinds of principles (subsidiarity and solidarity, dignity of the human person; right to life at all stages of life; etc). Nonetheless, as long as people are focused on systems, not as tools, but ends, then they have the focus wrong.

      Nonetheless, both communism and capitalism fail because they remain two sides of the same economic materialism. They are reflections of a positivism which reduces everything to economics.

  4. December 7, 2009 8:43 pm

    OK.

  5. smf permalink
    December 8, 2009 1:18 am

    I think you have tried to do too much with one article. The questions of government either providing or squeezing out real charity is a topic worthy of a column. Similarly, so is the topic of various convenient, perhaps even false senses of charity such as the Starbucks example. Instead you mash these two into one and it comes of rather muddle headed because of it.

    Further, in your comments I think you fail to understand capitalism. While there are some who try to make capitalism into a complete system in its own right, those are few and far between. For most, capitalism is taken as a practical method of organizing the economic system. While it is not ideal in all respects, it is not some great evil when kept in its proper context. Communism on the other hand tends to be all consuming and ecompasing. Communism is not just an economic theory, rather it is totalitarian (in the sense of bearing on all aspects of life and society) and utopian. The capitalist usually sees capitalism in the same way as some tool or a mathematical equation. On the other hand, the communist tends to see communism as being the one great determining factor. There are obviously exceptions, but this is generally true.

    • December 8, 2009 4:16 am

      SMF

      So you say. However, perhaps the problem is your own ideological bent which fails to see what is fully going on with the post? Either way, your response on capitalism shows a major part of the problem. Do I really fail to understand? You say that it is only a few people who try to make capitalism a system in its own right. Really? Why is it any time one offers some social policy the response is “that’s socialism” and “you are anti-capitalist” as an instinctive response by so many people? It is a method, to be sure, of organizing the economic system, but in what way is it? What is its goal? Seriously, when left on its own, it really is abusive — good intentions does not end abuse (communism has good intentions as well). To say capitalism is not totalitarian is rather amusing when, again, it is used to justify all kinds of abuses. And it is indeed seen as a “tool” like mathematics- – LAWS which cannot be broken. You tell me that is not totalitarian?

      “In the West there exists a system which is historically inspired by the principles of the liberal capitalism which developed with industrialization during the last century. In the East there exists a system inspired by the Marxist collectivism which sprang from an interpretation of the condition of the proletarian classes made in the light of a particular reading of history. Each of the two ideologies, on the basis of two very different visions of man and of his freedom and social role, has proposed and still promotes, on the economic level, antithetical forms of the organization of labor and of the structures of ownership, especially with regard to the so-called means of production.” Pope John Paul II (Sollicitudo rei socialis).

      “In spite of the great changes which have taken place in the more advanced societies, the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing.” Pope John Paul II (Centesimus annus)

      “Everybody knows that capitalism has a definite historical meaning as a system, an economic and social system, opposed to ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’. But in the light of the analysis of the fundamental reality of the whole economic process-first and foremost of the production structure that work is-it should be recognized that the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.” Pope John Paul II (Laborem exercens).

      “Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. ” (ibid)

      “In this context, we inevitably speak of the problem of structures, especially those which create injustice. In truth, just structures are a condition without which a just order in society is not possible. But how do they arise? How do they function? Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves; they declared that not only would they have no need of any prior individual morality, but that they would promote a communal morality. And this ideological promise has been proved false. The facts have clearly demonstrated it. The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful oppression of souls. And we can also see the same thing happening in the West, where the distance between rich and poor is growing constantly, and giving rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.” Pope Benedict XVI, Sunday May 13, 2007, (Inaugural Session of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean)

      “The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’ She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of ‘capitalism,’ individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for “there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.” (CCC2425)

  6. David Raber permalink
    December 8, 2009 3:52 pm

    Henry,

    What you argue against is just one more argument Republicans and their fellow travelers use to attack “Big Gubbmint.” It is not to be taken seriously.

    All good things come from God–I heard it at mass. Government can and does do “charity,” and can do it more effectively than private groups in many cases. If I as a good citizen support good government, which includes aiding the poor, etc., then this is one way I have of acting with Christian charity.

    Catholic social service groups work hand in glove with government agencies doing all sorts of good works. Both the Catholic and government parts of these joint enterprises are doing good works such as Christ had in mind when he told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

  7. smf permalink
    December 9, 2009 4:40 pm

    Henry,

    I think we may be two people separated by a common language to borrow an old joke.

    Great quotes, by the way. I agree with them all so far as I understand them.

    I think you have fallen for the socialist/communist trap in labeling capitalism as totalitarian. (I do not mean you are a communist, rather you have inadvertently conceded its principal falsehood.) Certainly if you are of the materialist and economic determinist views of a communist, then capitalism must be totalitarian, as indeed one would have to think that every possible form of economic organization is totalitarian. However, capitalism requires no such belief (nor, I suppose, does it strictly repudiate it either). I for my part reject economic determinism.

    Now if we take capitalism to mean the entire complete system used by the west in opposition to the communist system during the cold war, I would say this is closer to being true. However, the cold war can not really be reduced to communists on one side and capitalists on the other, though that was a convenient short hand for its time. Such convenient short hand, however, does not lead to clear thinking in our present times.

    When I mentioned the tool or mathematics bit, I was very aware of the danger of that being taken as suggesting capitalism was some sort of natural law, but I hoped that rabbit hole could be avoided. Clearly that was my mistake. What I mean by this is something else entirely. Let us say that I was given the task of building utopia. I could choose whatever combination of systems of government, law, economic organization, etc to make use of. In this sense capitalism is tool. It is one potential way to organize an economy, but the economy is only one aspect of the society, not the defining characteristic of the society itself.

    In any case, I suspect we are actually far nearer to agreement than is readily apparent. These things are rather difficult to make sense of when dealing with strangers in the impersonal forum of the internet.

    David,

    I must say I do not think that government do gooding always, or even often, qualifies as charity. The defining characteristic of charity is love. Government, sadly, does not love, at least not governments of the modern flavor. (Though I think government may sometimes hate, but mostly it is just coldly indifferent, unfeeling, and uncaring, because after all it is an it.) Now, is it possible that some of those working for the government may in fact love those they are paid to help? Yes, perhaps at the level of those in direct service. Is it possible government leaders are motivated by love? Yes, but not exceedingly likely. Is it probable taxpayers pay their taxes out of love? Not very likely at all.

    We should not confuse the terms “charity” or “good works” with any and all forms of good deeds or aid for those in need. Charity is a particular virtue based in love. Good works, in the theological sense are only made possible by the grace of God. After all, even under some theories of utilitarian self-interest a person should still help others, but that is certainly not a good work or charity. Government generally looks to me more like something based on (hopefully) enlightened self-interest rather than charity.

    Now as to Republican arguments against “big government”, no, certainly not all of those should be taken seriously. However, there are serious arguments about this topic. (By serious I mean both the gravity and the intellectual rigor involved.) Obviously what passes for political discourse is largely blurbs that fit on bumper stickers and campaign slogans, and most of these tend to be uniquely unserious and unintelligent on all sides.

  8. David Raber permalink
    December 10, 2009 2:04 pm

    SMF,
    You write:”I must say I do not think that government do gooding always, or even often, qualifies as charity. The defining characteristic of charity is love. Government, sadly, does not love, at least not governments of the modern flavor.”

    I think you may be infected just a bit with the government-hating disease of the Republicans when you dismiss “government do-gooding.” Stop and think for a moment of all the good things government, as a human cooperative venture, does for you–instead of thinking about how it often screws up, or what it could do if it were able to institute the Kingdom of God on earth.

    Government does not love, but its actions as initiated by people (voters, legislators, even bureaucrats) may be indeed motivated by love–a genuine desire to do good. And sometimes–even often!–the good gets done. I think, for instance, that the Social Security System has done a lot of good for a lot of people. Its institution and ongoing operation is a communal “act of charity” broadly speaking.

    As far as confusing good deeds and charity, I am not a Calvinist and therefore I believe that there is no good deed whatsoever that is not an act of “charity” whose ultimate origin is divine love.

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