News & Politics

Alms-Giving or 'Charity Wounds'?

Charity without reciprocity only serves to stroke the moral egos of those doing the giving and doesn't really help those who need a hand-up.
I'd like to suggest a phrase that should be added to the lexicon of popular dialogue that I first came across last summer.

Anthropologist Polly Weissner, who has studied tribes in South Africa and New Guinea for years, gave a talk about ''charity wounds.'' She said there are certain criteria anthropologists use to determine "biological behavior'': Is the behavior universal and does it manifest itself in children at the same age in all cultures?

The anthropological evidence, she said, refutes the assumptions of contemporary economics, namely that human motivation boils down to maximizing monetary acquisitions.

She noted that market-morality tears at the social fabric that binds communities together. Ordinary charity inflicts ''charity wounds'' on its recipients because such giving violates the needy's moral sense of human dignity and self-determination, she said.

It also runs counter to the biological proclivity to cooperate, which implies a two-way relationship to serve each other's needs; not a market relationship that subordinates the charity recipient.

Also, conventional charity has a negative effect on the giver because human beings have a tendency to consider the ''needy'' as inferior by virtue of them looking for a hand-out.

For example, she pointed to the American rebuilding of Europe after World War II. Because that act of charity didn't involve any reciprocity it has injected a false sense of superiority into the American popular consciousness.

And that's precisely what's wrong with conventional development programs offered by Western economic institutions like the World Bank. The conventional model tends to stress the importance of economic capital at the expense of social capital, which fosters an unhealthy dependent relationship between the aid provider and the recipient.

Furthermore, ''satisfaction from human relationships reduces the desire for material things,'' she said, offering an indictment of our culture of conspicuous consumption.

Now, hold that thought for a moment.

Whenever I write about biblical economic ethics, some offended conservative Christian writes to chastise me for my alleged ignorance of all the great charity work that Christians do, as if I haven't been steeped in a fundamentalist church tradition my entire life.

They go on to chide me for ''hating'' Christians, neglecting to credit, especially fundamentalist Christians, their alms giving. While understandable, such criticism misses the point.

When I say ''charity isn't enough,'' it's not so much a statement about ''stingy'' Christians as it is a recognition of a simple, undeniable fact; namely, if most Christians followed the biblical command of tithing -- giving 10 percent of one's income to fund the church's mission this side of heaven - there wouldn't be extreme poverty or famine in this world.

Contemporary Christians earn a total of $10 trillion in annual income.

Ronald Sider, in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, asks: ''Do you know how long it would take to improve the lot of the poorest one billion by 50 percent -- using just one percent of global Christian income? Just one year!''

This is an opportunity, not a condemnation. After all, what better witness could the church provide the world than to be able to claim that God lived up to His biblical promises to alleviate the suffering of the poor through the church -- and not just by conventional charity, but by valuing the wealth of social assets the ''least of these'' can offer via an act of reciprocity.

Christians and non-Christians alike can stop afflicting ''charity-wounds'' on the poor by fully integrating non-monetary reciprocity into development efforts, which would also go a long way in helping charity-providers get over their false sense of superiority that sees only the poor as ''needy'' while ignoring their own spiritual poverty.

''Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he'll eat forever.'' Charity without reciprocity only serves to stroke the moral egos of those doing the giving and doesn't really help those who need a hand-up.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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