Almsgiving

I spent yesterday at the Las Casas Institute conference A Poor Church for the PoorIt was an excellent, thought-provoking event. Hopefully recordings of the talks will be available at some point. Time at the event was divided between plenary sessions and a variety of afternoon session based around group discussion of a topic. I went to a group on Catholic Social Teaching. To make the issue more concrete, we were looking at the question “Food Banks: Charity or Injustice?” Well, I don’t think food banks are an injustice, but I certainly think that they are a sign of injustice. And the question might arise whether in going along with them, we are tacitly helping to perpetuate that injustice.

“Justice, not charity” is a slogan I’ve heard more than once. In recent years, under the auspices of the Big Society, collective provision of services on the basis of needs has been cut back in favour of uneven, local, and voluntary alternatives. This might well play into the suggestion that there is a tension between efforts for social change and charity, in the everyday English sense of the word ‘charity’. This is no bad thing, since there clearly a tension between efforts for social change and immediate work to alleviate suffering, at least to the extent that all of us have only a finite amount of time and energy. If I spend my spare time campaigning against cuts to a local hospital, I can’t also spend that time laying on a meal for the homeless. But now there’s an apparent problem: what we do during Lent under the auspices of ‘almsgiving’ falls broadly under the heading of charity. Is our almsgiving incompatible with fighting for a better world?

McCabe’s wonderful catechism tells us that whilst it is good to alleviate suffering, it is better to do away with suffering. This is clearly right; the virtue of caritas (‘charity’ in an older, theological, sense) involves love of our fellow human beings for the sake of God. When I love someone, I will their good. And it is not good for someone to be kept radicallydependent on my gifts when they could be provided with their needs in a more secure and equal fashion. It follows that charity demands that I ensure my neighbours can flourish in a fashion that is not radically dependent. This, of course, is not the same thing as complete independence, something that is humanly impossible, capitalist ideologues notwithstanding). Anyone who thinks that this will not involve radical social change might find their outlook challenged were they to leave their house from time to time. As Terry Eagleton once put the point, ‘The most blatantly naïve form of idealism is not socialism, but the belief that, given enough time, capitalism will feed the world. Just how long do you let such a view run before judging it discredited?’

Yet there’s something troubling about the enthusiastic activist. I do not mean the, undoubtedly disturbing, phenomenon of people enjoying activism, failing to realise that social movements exist, as does the Church from a longer-term perspective, only for the sake of a day when they are no longer necessary. Instead, a few decades of engaging in left-wing activism – an engagement which is ongoing – leave me fearful of the monomaniacal political animal, for whom the cause is everything. The human beings, whose fulfilment is the ultimate point of all the activity, vanish from view as the urgency of the latest campaign or event takes centre stage. The end justifies the mean, and in the meanwhile there is no time for sentiment. What is missing here is a sense of something Catholic Social Teaching has insisted upon, the dignity of the human person. This is similarly absent in the attitude towards political opponents. Do not confuse matters here; conflict, struggle, is a necessary part of political engagement in an unjust world. The challenge is to still see the humanity, even whilst fighting.

It’s here that I think the discipline of almsgiving is helpful. In giving, we acknowledge the here-and-now humanity of those in need. Giving, I think, means more than giving money in a general way to an organisation (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It really ought to be a giving of self. I think it’s better to give food, money, or whatever to someone face to face, and to give ourselves in friendship, conversation, and so on. Unless we have these kind of things in our life there’s a real danger of becoming hardened. I struggle with them, and find Lent a helpful annual reminder.

Justice or charity? I think the two are complementary. Activism without giving becomes inhuman. Giving without activism becomes a cover for injustice. Although I don’t agree with the Catholic Worker movement on everything (in particular, pacifism), I like what this guy says about resistance and works of mercy:

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