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The cost of charity

Why helping someone in need can harm the giver and the receiver

By Jamie Munday

Positioned carefully in the vacillating shadow of a large palm tree, the three of us exchanged stories as we sought relief from the oppressive afternoon sun. As we began to walk back into the classroom, the young Congolese student lowered his head slightly, cupped his hands together and submissively requested a few dollars to provide a meal for his children.

Murray Nickel, my associate, reacted with indignation: “Why would you do that?” he queried the student. “You and I are colleagues!”

At the time I felt Murray’s response was harsh, if not uncharitable. Over time I’ve come to realize that it was indeed uncharitable and therein lays its significance.

Murray, who is a medical doctor, and I had come to Kinshasa along with other Canadian doctors to host a training conference for Congolese medical students. Murray was well aware that a couple dollars would have no lasting impact on this young man’s family. Much worse, he knew it had the potential to transform the power dynamics of their relationship and slowly eat away at the dignity and self-respect of the young man. Taken in isolation, Murray’s response would be harsh, but given his experience serving and loving the Congolese people, his actions pointed to a more profound and effectual impact that lay beyond the “charitable impulse.”

“Charity,” in its modern definition, has come to mean "the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need (Oxford.)” In recent years the word has taken on a markedly pejorative connotation.

It is not uncommon to hear the refrain, “I don’t need your charity!” This is because people know innately that charity is not free, but it will cost them something.

According to theologian Jacques Ellul in the book Money and Power, “Almsgiving affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before. Almsgiving acts this way because it is a money relationship and not a love relationship.”


Harming the giver

Charity may be harmful to the giver. As we offer our time, money and expertise we are filled with purpose and significance. This in itself is not a problem. However we are in grave danger when the nobility of our cause overshadows our compassion, for it spawns a mindset of superiority that is hostile to God’s kingdom. Our charity becomes self-serving and we are no different from the Pharisees who “give a tenth of their spices…but have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23.)

When we give in a manner that is self-serving, we isolate ourselves not only from God’s deeper purposes but also from the poor themselves, who, as Ellul points out, need our love much more than our money.

A second and more significant point is that our charity can be harmful to the poor. Regardless of intent, an act of charity can never be neutral. If it does not empower the poor to act with dignity and agency, the outcome will be negative over the long term.

In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, the renowned Brazilian educator and advocate for the poor states, “False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands.” This is not only a physical posture but also a psychological one that imprisons the poor behind the bars of shame, inferiority and worthlessness.


GIving that is truly generous

The Bible not only urges us to reject false charity, but also instructs how to give in a way that is truly generous. It is illuminating to note that the familiar Greek word agape was translated into the Latin Vulgate as caritas. This is, of course, the root of the modern English word charity. When we maintain this intimate connection between love and charity, we get a fuller understanding of what Christian charity should entail.

For example, 1 Corinthians 13 would read: Charity is patient; charity is kind; charity is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

More than just the voluntary giving of help, we see in the ancient understanding of charity a dimension of empathy and sacrifice that is demanded of the giver. Givers are in fact not asked to simply reduce the burden of the poor but in some way to bear that burden upon themselves.

A brief story from Acts 3 gives us a picture of what caritas might look like. We can easily relate to the apostle Peter who, walking through the temple courtyard, runs into a man clearly disabled from birth who asks him for money. After hearing the man’s request, Peter commands him, “Look at me!”

It is a shocking remark because for a first century Jew it flies in the face of social convention. With trembling hands extended and eyes cast downward, “Look at me” marks the beginning of this man’s transformation. You can almost see his posture begin to change, even before his physical disability is healed.


Look at me

This is the place where true charity begins. To look into the eyes is to consider one’s being and to recognize one’s value. To see the poor eye-to-eye is to renounce any perceived hierarchy or condescension and to see individuals for who they are. It is to risk observing their sadness, loneliness or anger and in a small way to bear it upon oneself. 

Ultimately Peter offers love instead of money: “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” In order to move towards caritas we must first lay aside easy and reflexive solutions and look into the eyes of the poor. In doing so we come to realize that poverty is more than a lack of things—food, skills, knowledge—but a psychological and spiritual phenomenon that demands transformation at a deeper level. 

In Walking with the Poor, his seminal work on transformational development, Bryant Myers suggests, “The greatest point of transformational leverage is transformed people.” In other words, the outcomes we desire to see in health, education, peace or social justice will be unrealized no matter how carefully we evaluate the needs or how skillfully we engineer the solutions.

Myers continues, “The fulcrum for transformational change is no longer transferring resources or building capacity or increasing choices, as important as these things are. But these things count only if they take place in a way that allows the poor to recover their true identity and discover the vocation God intends for them.”

Is it possible to lay aside our penchant for problem solving? Can we turn our attention from the needs of the poor so that instead of having to “extend their trembling hands,” as Freire remarks, they might extend them “less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work, and, working, transform the world.”

Instead of asking, “What do you need?” we must look into the eyes of the poor and ask, “What do you have?” Inherent to this question is the belief that God has uniquely created and qualified each person, and acting upon that recognition is the beginning of transformational development.

In 2 Kings 4, a woman laments to Elisha that her husband has died and she is about to lose her children as indentured slaves. Elisha responds to her need by asking, “What do you have in your house?” She replies, “Nothing,” overlooking for the moment a small jar of olive oil tucked away in her cupboard. When she recognizes this important asset and faithfully offers it to God, it becomes the source of transformation both in the life of her family and the wider community.   

“What do you have?” represents a seismic shift in development thinking. In my experience it is so counterintuitive that the initial response of the poor is often bewildered silence, since they are accustomed to working with sympathetic benefactors and problem-solvers.

It is not, however, a quick-fix methodology but an attitude by which we must relate with the poor and evaluate the merit of our poverty interventions. It is a question that negates the self-importance of the giver, while affirming the significance of the poor as valued citizens and agents of change. Unlike charity as we know it, it is an attitude that is rooted in love, reflecting the true generosity of caritas

Jamie Munday is the community development coordinator at MB Mission whereby he trains, collaborates, learns, writes, listens and grows alongside a global team of holistic practitioners. He and his wife, Leah, have two young boys.



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