Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Faceless Charity vs The Good Samaritan

We all know the story, I think, from St. Luke, the 10th Chapter:
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.   A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.   So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.   But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.   He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.   The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
What strikes me today about this passage is how sharply it contrasts with the most common modern ways of practicing Charity.  It seems to me that, ideally, Charity should be:

1.  Without coercion.
2.  Cheerfully practiced.
3.  Personal (intimate).
4.  Sacrificial (it should cost the giver something).
5.  Particular as opposed to general.

All of these elements are present in the story of the Good Samaritan.  Few are present (perhaps only the Sacrificial element) in the most common forms of Charity practiced these days.

The government coerces me to help other people through taxes.  This makes me an involuntary participant in Charity and, therefore, not all that cheerful.

One rarely sees the face of the recipients of his charitable acts these days.  And it is generic as can be.  To give to the United Way is to cast a limp, pallid economic vote for an inchoate and indistinct "good" as over against a nondescript "evil".  It carries none of the power, none of the emotional intimacy of the Good Samaritan story: 

"He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him."
"I paid my United Way pledge" is weak sauce by comparison.

I had rather give money to a stranger in obvious need than to write a generic check to a meta-charity.  Of course, I can't claim that as a tax deduction.  It is okay; it is supposed to cost me (Point 4, above).


Castanea_d said...

I agree. For me, the turning point was when I joined with others some years ago in a "pledge to not-pledge" to our parish operating budget so long as the current Rector was in place (he still is, and I am still withholding my pledge, though I have given some money for specific projects in the parish). The end result was that it opened my wallet to giving money to individuals a lot more than I ever had; panhandlers on the street (of which we have many in our town), people who come to our parish seeking assistance and are turned away because we don't have any money, occasionally some friends or choristers that are in a financial bind.

Much of the money is doubtless "wasted" -- I have little doubt that some of my gifts to the street people have gone straight to the liquor store, or the friendly neighborhood drug dealer. But I don't know any way around that. Much of any charitable gift is doubtless wasted.

You are right about how this puts you in touch with the person who needs help in a way that a gift to the United Way does not.

Anglican Beach Party said...

Wow - Thank you for sharing that.

Of course, the "official" routes of charity are not without their own forms of waste.

Bureaucracies always cost something.