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What is a Charity?

Updated on November 21, 2009

Charity is the last and greatest of the Christian virtues and is so recognized by moralists in many religions and by nonreligious thinkers. The cardinal virtues were named by Plato as prudence, temperance, fortitude, courage and justice. These were elaborated by Aristotle and the Stoics and in the Middle Ages were taken over as the foundation of morals.

Superimposed upon them were the three Christian virtues: faith, hope, and charity (as listed by Paul in I Corinthians 13:13). The whole chapter by Paul is a paean of divine love, which human beings should imitate, participate in, and emulate.

Thus charity is the chief part of the "imitation of God", or righteousness, which the Stoics had enjoined and the Christians had made central to all ethics.

The Greek word used by Paul and the earliest Christians was agape, which meant self-giving love; the alternative, eras, though originally not limited to sexual or possessive love, had come to denote what Renaissance poets and artists called "profane" love, in contrast to "divine" or "heavenly" love. Nowhere in the New Testament is "love" used to mean almsgiving. 1 Corinthians 13 seems to consider a worldly concern for the poor and to contrast it with pure love. Moreover, "charity" fell short of the highest and purest love, with the result that modern English translators of the Bible have substituted "love" for "charity." But in the Middle Ages the Latin word cantos, from which charity is derived, was filled with the richest meanings of self-denial and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. It was only in the post-Reformation period that charity became identified with almsgiving. To the Reformers, giving alms was a pretended means of winning merit, and this led to the rejection of "charity" in Biblical texts and hence in general religious usage among Protestants. But the word is too rich in meaning to be abandoned: pure charity is the noblest of virtues.

Photo by Marco Michelini
Photo by Marco Michelini

The Practice of Charity

The Old Testament stresses charity (Deuteronomy 15:7-15; Isaiah 58:6-7). Obedience to God and care for the needy were cardinal demands upon Jewish piety. The love of God and love of one's neighbor, summarized in the Old Testament, are reinforced in the Talmud and other Jewish writings.

In ancient Greece the practice of charity grew out of the emphasis placed on hospitality and the "sacredness" of the wayfarer, whose rights must be maintained. The beggar must not be passed by or driven from one's door. In Rome the wealthy and the state aided the needy.

In other religions the giving of alms was viewed as a solemn duty, as in Buddhism, where to this day many poor persons and ascetics are supported by the dole provided by generous givers. Muslim law enforces the duty of giving to the poor and the dedication of property for pious or charitable purposes. In all religions charity has tended to provide a self-return. The beggar prays for the donor, and the generous giver feeds three: "himself, his hungering neighbor, and me," the divine being who encourages the charity.

In all lands, the care of the needy is becoming more and more a social obligation, and the state or community is undertaking it. But the religious motivation ("charity") is not always found in "social welfare."

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