Real Charity Lifts Up And Seeks To Right Wrongs

Real Charity Lifts Up And Seeks To Right Wrongs March 29, 2012

It is often been said that it is better to train someone to fish than to give them a fish because then they would be able to eat for a lifetime. Such training is indeed important, but if someone needs fish today in order to survive, they might not be able to fish, and so, they will not be able to live. Sometimes the immediate needs are more important than long term development. While it is indeed good to help someone so that they can attain something for themselves, we must not forget that they need help to get to the point where they can do such work, and until such a point, we would be remiss in giving them immediate aid. And thus, the kind of charity which helps lift someone up from a terrible position in life is commendable, as is the training associated with those who help those who have attained such a level of ability that they can make a living without need of alms. But to think these are the only ways charity can be engaged is a rather simplistic notion of charity. What exactly is charity? Is it the act of helping someone? No, it is the love behind the act, the love which manifests itself in prudence, seeking to better one who needs help. The kind of help is not always the same.

It is indeed better to try to make it so one doesn’t need help, but often why they need help is what is in question.  How can we forget what lies beyond the fish or the acting of fishing? Can we forget those who would rob the fishermen of their fish? Would we forget those who make a claim on the fish of a given place, saying all the fish are theirs, often with legal documentation declaring the land and all that is within it is theirs?  When someone is trained to become a fisherman, they need more than the training but the opportunity to use that training. If that opportunity no longer exists because all the resources needed for it have been taken by others, the fisherman will not fish. They will not earn a living. Indeed, they would be accused of being lazy and told that they don’t deserve aid because they aren’t working as they could. Or, someone else, some wise thinker might think the solution is to train them, to teach them how to fish, not realizing that it is exactly what they know and it is a skill which cannot be used to earn a living.

Those willing to train others often do not realize the problem. It is not in the person they want to train, but in the system in which they live. The social structure one finds oneself in can create the circumstances in which one falls into a great number of evils, including poverty, through no fault of their own. When the system does this, it doesn’t matter how much training and willingness to work the fisherman has, they will need help to live. There will be those who have will give what they can to help, and that is good; but, what is more important is that one who sees the injustice of the system and a desire to expose it and work for its overturning. When the universal distribution of goods is disrupted, then those who take more than what is just are (no matter what the law says) thieves, taking from the poor men and women their livelihoods, their dignity, their right to life.  Yes, when the universal destination of the goods of the earth are disrupted by people who accumulate wealth and keep it to themselves instead of use it to work for the benefit of humanity, people die and those who keep the wealth cut off from its proper end are guilty not only of theft, but of the deaths which come out of their greed. But we are distracted by what money can buy us, so, when we have it, we ignore the way it is directing our lives, to the destruction which is wrought, not only on others, but on ourselves. Thus, St. Maximus wrote, “Excessive and delicate eating are the cause of licentiousness; avarice and vainglory, of hate for one’s neighbor.”[1]

It does no good to talk about someone being lazy when there is no place for them to fish. It does the fisherman no good to keep training him to fish once he has become a fisherman. One who truly has a desire for the good of the fisherman will want the system which makes the fisherman impoverished to be changed. They will know that it is a greater act of charity to make for a more just situation than it is to keep the fisherman alive, even though to make the situation more just, the fisherman will need to be fed until justice prevails. Thus, there will be the need, not just for immediate material help, but a long term goal in which one changes an unjust system. Even though utopia cannot be created, we must strive for making things as just as possible, to help people live : this is what it means to be pro-life. When we see someone suffering unjustly, when we get to know them, we know they have a moral imposition on us:    “The face of the other addresses an appeal to my liberty, asking me to welcome him and take care of him, asking me to affirm his value per se, not merely to the extent to which he may happen to coincide with my interests. The moral truth, in this case the truth of the unique and unrepeatable value of this person made in the image of God, is a truth that makes demands on my liberty.”[2] When the system pulls them down, when the system itself follows through with evil, even if it costs us some of our own so-called freedom, our own so-called liberty, we must fight for the overthrow of the system and seek to change it into something just. In reality, though we might think we were free, when we live through injustice, we can never be free – it is an illusion of freedom, not the reality, an illusion which thrives on the sacrifice of the masses for the appearance of liberty. Being trapped by the illusion shows, however, shows that – despite our claim, we are enslaved as much as everyone else by the system, enslaved and being forced to perpetuate it unless we revolt and become workers for justice.

One of the ways evil prevails is it suggests itself as a good. It looks like a good, indeed, hides itself in some good as a parasite of the good, allowing the exterior dimensions of the good to remain while what is within is eaten away and destroyed. This charade of the good can be seen in the way many justify evil social structures, indeed, justify great poverty: many say that we need the poor in order to do works of charity and if there is no one who needs our help, if the system is just, charity would be lacking.  What great evil can be seen in this pretense of the good! It does no one any good to defend a social structure because “one can show an act of charity this way.” It is no charity to give scraps to someone who is being pushed down when they can, in a better society, find themselves without such need. It shows no love for them but rather a love for oneself, with a desire to feel good about oneself while not doing anything to really improve the situation. What St. Maximus said is proven true: avarice shows no love for one’s neighbor, but only for oneself. When others are seen as a tool for self gain, what is given in “charity” is anything but charity, but an attempt hide oneself from the ramifications of the system while claiming to care about others. There is no care, no heart, involved. True charity is concerned about others. It seeks to help them out of a tough situation, while fake charity seeks to find people one can respond to with fake benevolence, seeking accolades for one’s so-called acts of charity. Fake charity enslaves and seeks a perpetual underclass so one can give the pretense of caring for others. Is it any wonder slavery is always justified by such fake charity? Of course, one can have real charity and little ability to change the situation; one can have reality charity, a real heart for someone, and be ignorant of the way a given system creates injustice, and so think one is doing all one can do merely be giving alms. And it is again a relief to those who get the alms that someone thinks to give them out. But those who see the evils produced by a given social structure cannot remain satisfied with keeping it in place – if they truly loved their neighbor as themselves, they would want their neighbor to be as free from injustices as they are.

Charity, true charity, is often ridiculed by those who love an unjust social structure. Those who seek to overturn injustices are mocked, being told that they want to get rid of charity. How can someone who wants the betterment of others be said to lack charity? And how can someone who wants to make sure there is always “someone to give alms to” really be someone who shows charity, love, for their neighbor? This way of thinking must end. If we want charity in society, we must think under the dictates of love. How love would act, what love would seek for the beloved, that is what true charity will seek. How would we want our families treated? Would we find it acceptable that our children were seen as mere tools for self-praise, and not people worthy of their own dignity and liberty? No. So how can we say we love others if we would not want their situation to be shared by our children? Would we consider it love if we told our children we are making sure they remain poor so we can give them food and drink, to prove our love? How ridiculous that would sound to them – and how ridiculous it sounds to claim charity when we seek no structural changes to society.  True charity is love, and without it, even good deeds, even the giving of alms, ends up being dead: “Just as the body cannot live without the soul, so the rest of the virtues may have some form without charity, but they cannot have true value.”[3] Without charity, without a heart to see the other’s proper place, we end up doing deeds which have no true value, deeds which not only don’t help the situation, but often make it worse. Wisdom is needed, a wisdom drawn out of law, not apart from it. We can pretend all we want that we are pro-life, but as long as we show not the love for the least among us, we show no love for the dignity of the human person and for life. And what is worse, we show we love not Christ, who is to be found in those we ridicule: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matt 25:45 RSV).

We can indeed seek to teach someone to become fishermen in the world, to make their way in the world. But we must do more than that.  We must make sure that they can be fishermen after they are trained. We need to make sure the resources are there, and are being reasonably distributed so all can receive what is necessary for them to make a dignified living. No training in the world is going to be enough when the goods are not being shared, but hoarded. We have created a legal fiction to justify all kinds of thieves. We cannot abide by it much longer. If we have any real charity in our heart, we will do what we can to overturn the robber-barons of the world and make sure the way they steal from the livelihood of others is no longer acceptable to society. We can’t accept legal fictions any more. We must abide by natural law when positive law is created to enslave the people of the world.


[1] St. Maximus the Confessor, Four Centuries on Charity in The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity. Trans. Polycarp Sherwood, O.S.B. (New York: The Newman Press, 1955), 174.

[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 66.

[3] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 234 in St. Caesarius of Arles: Sermons. Volume 3. Trans. Mary Magdeleine Mueller, O.S.F. (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1972), 202.

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  • Julia Smucker

    Very Rerum Novarum: the responsibility to work presupposes the right to “what is necessary … to make a dignified living.”