Why Give? Religious Roots of Charity

December 12, 2013
Why Give? Religious Roots of Charity

In the United States, the end of the year swells with charitable and giving occasions: clothing and food drives, Hanukkah and Christmas gifts, and end-of-year charitable appeals are all opportunities to be generous.

But what do some of the world's major religions say? What is the basis for the mandate to be charitable? Below are some thoughts from Harvard Divinity School instructors.

Charitable Giving in Judaism
Jon D. Levenson
Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies

"Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments in the Torah combined," reads an early rabbinic law code. The formulation comes from the Roman period, but the origin of this characteristically Jewish idea is much older. Its beginnings lie, in fact, in two places: in the general ancient Near Eastern notion that the king is the protector of the weak and the defenseless, and, more particularly, in the biblical story of God's redemption of the people Israel from Egypt and his gift to them of the Promised Land.

In Exodus, these two related streams come together pointedly when Israel's divine king gives them this revealingly phrased law: "You shall not oppress a resident alien, for you know what it feels like to be a resident alien, since resident aliens is what you were in the land of Egypt."

Through a host of institutions—most notably the tithe—Jewish law makes the giving of charity a mitzvah (a commandment), not an option. The framework is once again theological; charity is based in something higher and more enduring than feelings of compassion or guilt. A verse in Proverbs pregnant with repercussions in both Judaism and Christianity renders the vertical dimension explicit: 'He who is generous to the poor makes a loan to the LORD; / He will repay him his due.'

Lest potential givers think that by performing the mitzvah they will harm their own financial status, the proverb assures them that in the divine plan their gift is accounted as a loan—one that the ultimate protector of the poor can be trusted to repay in full. In this theology, charitable giving is not a zero-sum game. It results in wealth for both the donor and the recipient.

A celebrated passage—traditionally, the Jewish husband chants it in praise of his wife before the Sabbath evening meal—includes women in its ethic of giving: "She gives generously to the poor; / Her hands are stretched out to the needy." For a woman as for a man, generosity toward the poor is a sign of the God-fearing person.

Maimonides, the great codifier, philosopher, and communal leader of twelfth-century Egyptian Jewry, speaks of eight levels of charitable giving. Which is the highest? It is, Maimonides writes, "that of the person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment—in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people's aid."

The ideal mode of giving inhibits both paternalism in the giver and dependence and resentment in the receiver. Sometimes the best love is tough love.

The Ministry of Healing in Christianity
Dudley C. Rose
Associate Dean for Ministry Studies and Lecturer on Ministry

For Christians, the role of charity is first built on the injunctions of the Hebrew Bible. But in the New Testament, Jesus's parables and actions also speak to the morality of charitable sentiments.

In the Gospel of Luke, for example, an expert in the law notes the Hebrew Bible injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself" and asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?"

Jesus responds with the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. A man on the Jericho road is robbed, stripped, and lies half-dead. After others pass by him, a Samaritan—whose people were historic rivals of the Jews Jesus was talking to—takes pity on the unfortunate, binds his wounds, and transports him to an inn for care.

Jesus asks, "Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The expert says, "The one who had mercy on him," and Jesus responds, "Go and do likewise."

Through the parable, Jesus essentially tells his listeners: everyone is your neighbor, even the stranger by the side of the road. Those who show mercy obey God's law.

Throughout Luke, Jesus breaks through class barriers, consorting with sinners, the ritually suspect, lower-class people, the "other." That's what got him into trouble all the time! He socialized with people who made others uncomfortable—sort of how we might be uncomfortable with people who live on the street today. That was his "ministry of healing"—caring for the poor and others.

The parables, the stories of Jesus being among the poor and unfortunate are important. Narrating these stories, thinking about them, moves us. It gives us a way of thinking of "the others" as human beings. It's really easy for us to see such people as somehow not worthy of our respect. Telling these stories gives the poor the fullness they deserve.

As a minister for many years, the concern I have is that, at Christmastime, shelters and other places end up with more than they can use but very little the rest of the year. And so I think there is a danger of unburdening our conscience at Christmas. I would like to see a more continual reminder of the need to care for others. When we do that, the gifts of Christmas locate themselves within a larger tradition.

Islam: The Many Reasons for Charity
Jocelyne Cesari
Lecturer in Islamic Studies (HDS), Director of the Harvard Islam in the West Program, Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center (Georgetown University)

In the Islamic tradition, there are different forms of giving. The one that is best known is zakat or almsgiving—one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is usually defined as a mandatory way of redistributing wealth. In the days of Islamic empires, it was very much institutionalized, like a tax system, where citizens were expected to give a percentage of their income to satisfy the needs of the community. In the modern world, we see charity as a much more personal act, but in the ancient Islamic world it was much more a community duty.

Having said that, there is another important aspect to giving in the Islamic tradition, one that is centered on the idea of purification (one of the meanings of zakat is purification). Being charitable is a way of purifying your material deeds, and thus never losing track of the most important goal, which is serving God—in this case, by serving your fellow humans.

Today, where there is no longer an Islamic empire, almsgiving still exists, but it doesn't mean that it goes automatically to the Muslim community. It can go to other charitable causes as a way of providing stability and solidarity within society. The whole goal of almsgiving is about social stability and improving the relationships between human beings. During the month of Ramadan, for example, charity becomes even more important as a way of feeding anyone in need, not just Muslims. It is seen as a way to provide civil cohesion and peace.

Besides zakat, there are multiple other ways a person can give, preferably in secret. It is known as sadaqa. Sometimes people ask, 'If you don't have any money, how can you fulfill this duty?' According to one of the prophet Mohammed's sayings: 'Even meeting your brother with a cheerful face is charity.'

Mohammed was asked, "What if a person has nothing?" The Prophet replied, "He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity."

The companions asked, "What if he is not able to work?" The Prophet said, "He should help poor and needy persons." The companions further asked, "What if he cannot do even that?" The Prophet said, "He should urge others to do good." The companions said, "What if he lacks that also?" The Prophet replied, "He should check himself from doing evil. That is also charity."

Charity in Buddhism
Chris Berlin
Instructor in Ministry and Denominational Counselor to Buddhist Students at HDS

Rather than being a "necessity," the act of giving voluntarily in Buddhism is motivated by a recognition that all beings exist in interdependence. The interdependence of all things, combined with an awareness of the helplessness of those less fortunate, inspires compassion. Practicing selflessness in this way is thought to increase one's own merit and is also an antidote to greed or grasping to possessions or other resources. Giving is an expression of the natural qualities of kindness and compassion.

Recognition of the interdependence of life also means taking care of the environment by keeping it pure and unspoiled, as well as attending to animals and also to spirits in some traditions by offering prayers, rituals, ceremonies, or other acts dedicated to the well-being of all life.

Traditionally, Buddhist lay people have long practiced the giving of alms, food, medicine, and clothing to monks and to monasteries in exchange for teachings and merit. This relationship is seen to be a sacred mutual dependence, and merit is shared on both sides for the benefit of all.

As a spiritual practice, generosity is the first of six "perfections," or virtuous qualities, one cultivates for spiritual awakening. As such, one offers both material donations as well as the giving of spiritual resources out of kindness and compassion for the benefit and enlightenment of others.

In addition to giving to the poor, generosity also includes sharing one's spaciousness of heart, such as sharing in the loss of a loved one or family member, offering a practice of loving-kindness through meditation, or being present with someone within their suffering.

Buddhists often quote the Buddha from an early scripture: "What is the accomplishment in generosity? A noble disciple dwells at home, with a heart free from the stain of stinginess, open-handed, pure-handed, delighting in relinquishment, one devoted to charity, one who delights in sharing and giving. This is called accomplishment in generosity."

The Sikh Perspective on Acts of Charity
Harpreet Singh
Department of South Asian Studies, Harvard University

Sikhism is one of the youngest of world religions, founded by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of South Asia in the early sixteenth century. Guru Nanak has an interesting perspective on charitable giving. In the context of many South Asian traditions, a person's salvation is dependent on charitable acts. Nanak, in the Japji—which serves as the Sikh morning prayer—makes a startling statement, especially for the time and the social context in which it was made. He repudiates common practices, including an engagement in charitable acts, which were considered essential for salvation:

tīrathu tapu diā datu dānu/ je ko pāvai til kā mānu//
Pilgrimage, penance, compassion, and charitable giving,
[Only feed one's ego] and bring merit as much as a sesame seed.

Guru Nanak also provides a scathing critique of religious figures who do not work for a living and instead live on the charity of others. This, however, does not mean that he is discouraging Sikhs from engaging in charitable acts. In fact, Nanak sought to create a society in which the indigent and the oppressed are looked after. He emphatically expresses his solidarity with them:

nīcā aṅdari nīc jāti, nīcī hū ati nīcu//
nānak tin kai saṅgi sāthi, vaḍiā siu kiā rīs//
jithai nīc samālīani, tithai nadari terī bakhsīs//

Those who are lowest of the low class, the very lowest of the low;
Nānak seeks the company of those, for what benefit can be derived from imitating the high classes?
The place where the lowly are cared for, it is only there your merciful glance and grace exist.

Guru Nanak provides Sikhs with a new ethical framework in which people who are fit to work are required to earn a living through honest means, while sharing the fruits of their earnings with sections of society that are the most needy. This theology can be summed up in his famous pronouncement that is recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture: 'Only they are on the True Path who eat what they earn through earnest work and help support the disenfranchised' (page 1,245).

One of the institutions that comes out of this ethical framework is the langar (or free kitchen). The Darbar Sahib—also known as the Golden Temple—in Amritsar, Panjab, serves free food daily to 100,000 people, regardless of their status or religious affiliation. As a consequence, it is said, no one in Amritsar has slept hungry in the last four centuries.

—by Gordon Hardy