Sunday October 15, 2017
To Give and to Care:
Uniting the Undivided
Fr. Silviu Bunta
–presentation given to the youth at the Sts. Constantine and Helen Romanian cathedral in Chicago–
As the title suggests, these two aspects of Christian life (to give and to care) are naturally united, “two sides of the same coin” as the saying goes. We could say that naturally there is no giving without caring and no caring without giving. Yet, as many statistics today suggest, this is no longer the case. Lately we have become in a sense more compassionate, while being less engaged in actual acts of charity than the previous generations.1
It is our Golden Rule itself that warns against this unnatural dichotomy and, I daresay, prohibits it: “All that you might desire that people do for you, likewise you also do for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12–my translation).2 The strength of the passage lies, in logical order, in the use of the conditional “you might desire” ἄν θέλητε (a subjunctive present preceded by the particle ἄν, which does not limit the application to what one would actually desire, but opens it up to all possible desires), of the pronoun “all” πάντα (everything, not missing a thing of all these possible needs), the double use of the verb “do” ποιέω (when it comes to ourselves being in need, we would desire action and not a distant and disengaged sense of goodness in our fellow human beings, so also others’ needs can and should only be met by action), and the adverb “likewise” οὕτως (which leaves no room for doing charity to others another way or to a different, lesser degree than we would have it done to us). Compassion, defined here as looking at one’s own needs, real and possible, and naturally expecting those needs to elicit actual acts of charity, which is an acknowledgement that one’s experience of pain is first and foremost of one’s own, must therefore be always practiced in giving to others. In a sense then compassion is what we feel based on our own pain (actual and possible) and always extend to others, in truly heartfelt actual care.
What follows can be easily misconstrued as a criticism, but it isn’t. It is rather meant as a spiritual exercise in mindfulness, specifically mindfulness of one’s self. It draws attention to how these two aspects can be split specifically within the young person, but not only. More specifically, it answers the question, Within today’s young soul what breaks apart caring and giving?
Looking for the particular mechanisms that can produce this dissociation, several stand out, although doubtlessly these are only a small part of the problem. Barring even the remote possibility of coming up with a comprehensive list, I would like to bring to your attention only ones that are either religious or cultural but religiously significant3:
The first dichotomizing mechanism is what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error”, defined somewhere as “a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.”4 A fundamental aspect of this outlook is known in the field as “actor-observer bias”: “When we watch others, we tend to see them as being driven by intrinsic personality traits, while in our own case we know that, for example, we acted angrily because we’d just been fired, not because we’re naturally angry people.” In other words, in this dissociation of the self from others, which amounts to the ultimate collapse of the Golden Rule, the others deserve their poverty, while I never deserve my own. Therefore, the other is not me and while I deserve compassion, he/she doesn’t.
The second dichotomizing mechanism is related to the previous. It is what has been in short called “the just-world view,” namely “the belief that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.”5 This belief has been growing tremendously in the last few decades. In a 2009 study Lori Malahy and others examined scores on a scale measuring belief in a just world (that people get what they deserve) and found that 75% of 2006 college students scored higher in this belief than the average 1970’s students.6 The implications of this world view on giving are obvious and would not merit further explanations.
Underlying the first two dichotomies is the concern of giving to the deserving and not to the undeserving. Arguably one of the issues at the heart of the poverty discussion today (overly cerebral to begin with) is the issue of fairness and abuse. It comes up in many discussion, private and public, with almost obsessive frequency. The concern may play a certain self-justifying evasive function, yet the sincerity of it cannot be discarded offhand. Regardless, I wish to point out that such calculative take on giving is addressed in both the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church in the most trenchant ways (it seems to be quite perennial). One of the most eloquent and succinct examples from the Fathers, brought to my attention by a fellow priest and dear friend, is the following: “It is easy, of course, to understand that we must give alms and a helping hand to the needy, because Christ receives it in them… We can understand that we have to give alms and that we must not really pick and choose to whom we give them, because we are unable to sift through people’s hearts. When you do this [i.e., give alms] to all, then you also reach to the few who deserve them. Let in the unworthy, so that the worthy might not be excluded. You cannot be a judge and sifter of hearts.” (Augustine, Sermon 359A.11) Augustine’s argument to give to both worthy and unworthy, without concern of differentiating, is threefold. First, we must do so because what we give does not go merely to the person who receives our gift, but also always to Christ Himself. This is as scriptural as it gets (Mt 25:31-46). Second, we must give to all, worthy and unworthy, because in not doing so we would only end up excluding the worthy with the unworthy. It is better to include the unworthy with the worthy than to exclude the worthy with the unworthy. Now, Augustine even refers to the “few” worthy (pauci), making the case of giving to all even if the vast majority were unworthy. The third argument is that “we do not know people’s hearts,” and worthiness is an issue of the heart. Therefore it is only for the one “judge and sifter of hearts,” God (also as scriptural as it gets), to discern this distinction. Simply put, this discernment could not possibly be worked out based on human, objective criteria. Some poor may appear unworthy by all human means, because they refuse work opportunities that they DO have, refuse help that IS being offered to them, turn down long-lasting solutions that ARE set in front of them. Yet, only in knowing their hearts can one understand why they do so. Since a perfect knowledge of the human heart inevitably escapes us, we are always to “err” (if this is what it is, at all) on the side of giving to the unworthy, even if the worthy are a small minority of the poor.
Moreover, there is a gospel foundation to this insight of the Fathers, which goes even beyond what Augustine says. This is in the Lord’s own explanation of “being merciful” in Luke 6:35-36: “do good and lend expecting nothing in return (δανίζετε µηδὲν ἀπελπίζοντες); and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil; be merciful (οἰκτίρµονες), even as your Father is merciful (οἰκτίρµων).” Let me point out something crucial about this paragraph: this is the only time in all the four gospels that human action is directly compared to God’s: in doing this we are God-like. In other words, in giving without thought of getting it back and without regard to worthiness or gratitude we resemble God, who gives exactly like that. In such actions we are most God-like. This commandment leaves no room for being selective about whom we give to.
A third mechanism dissociating giving and caring is what one could call “compassionate distance.” As this name suggests, unlike the first two factors mentioned so far, this non-giving mechanism is genuinely compassionate. Among other things, it is a consequence of the practice of compassion from a distance, a practice facilitated by social media. Unlike my own generation, who always encountered compassion physically, mostly in a person begging on the street, newer generations are mostly engaged in it in the virtual world, on a screen. More often than not this compassion cannot even be immediately converted into giving. Moreover, almost always such stimuli of ungiving/impractical compassion exist in an overwhelming and vitiating torrent of cute puppies, practical jokes, movie previews, ads etc.
A fourth danger we need to be mindful of is a pervasive aspect of today’s culture, namely an unprecedentedly positive outlook on money and wealth.7 We have come a long way from “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), which is these days badly mistranslated in ways that reflect this fundamental shift.8 This shift is not only reflected in our unprecedented comfort with richness (and passionate quest of it), in attributing to it moral neutrality or even moral superiority (as we have recently invented meritocracy and even the “prosperity gospel”), but, even more disturbingly, we even put a charitable outlook on wealth and assume the wealthy either are naturally charitable or do their part in society simply in virtue of their richness. Such new attitudes can blind us to the intrinsically corrupting power of money (“banul e ochiul dracului” my grandma used to say, as did most Romanians of my childhood) and blind us even to statistics to the contrary: the rich are proportionately hiding more money than the poor9 and are proportionately giving less money than the poor.10 In passing let me also mention the gospel truth that the widow’s two mites is more charitable than a rich man’s fortune (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4).
A fifth danger comes from the realm of faith itself (adopting the atomization of the contemporary human being). This is the pervasive presence in all aspects of our religiosity of what one sociologist called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.11 This disarticulation and demise of traditional faith runs primarily along the following principles:
- “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
- “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
- “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
- “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
- “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
This is so pervasive today that more often than not one’s traditional beliefs will only mask this omnipresent nucleus. If questioned carefully, the majority of adolescent participants in a recent study have turned out to be this sort of deists, regardless of the denomination they purportedly belonged to. The involvement in charity of this deism is only limited and superficial. One is supposed to be good, but goodness is defined so loosely and is such self-centered terms that charity will be practiced at one’s whim than as a well-defined religious virtue or obligation.
A sixth danger is an attitude even more subtle than this and in many ways even more dangerous and arguably even more pervasive. Traditionally this attitude has been defined by one word, cunning (in Romanian viclesugul), which is seeing the world in a worldly, calculating way. This is the ultimate death of the spiritual life, the ultimate suffocation of Christ in us. In the terms of the parable of the sower, this attitude is to see the world without a sower, to see the fields without seeds and fruits, but to project one’s shallow self unto everything.
Even more subtle than this is the complex of the brother of the prodigal son. This is primarily the danger of a good, dedicated soul. In seeing the unconditionality and unfairness of God’s love, such sensitive and hard-working souls can become despondent. One needs to be mindful then of the Fathers’ advice never to measure ourselves in anything, neither good nor bad, neither against commandments nor against other people. This is a difficult word, so here is Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra on it:
“Do not measure yourself in any deed” (St. Isaiah ). Do not judge yourself for what you have done–good, bad, virtue, sin–or compare it with others. How often we are dealing with this thing! Let us forget what is behind us and show no interest in what we have done. For by analyzing, we discover that we have done something important or something bad, something great and good and more accomplished than someone else or something smaller. Whether we judge the thing in itself, or in connection to our neighbor, we will fall into one of the traps: either into pride, if it is something good and greater, or into despair, misery, into the disintegration of our self, if it is not good. This is so since, as long as we believe that we are mature, that we have power within us, we bear the inaptitude of Adam and Eve, the frail ego that our ancestors bequeathed us. Therefore, in order to remain untroubled by thoughts, never stay to analyze what you have done. This is valid for all that happens with us. But how then will I confess if I don’t judge? In confession I don’t make an analysis of my deeds, but the revealing of my sins. This is a different thing, since I do not evaluate my deeds, but I simply relate them. I don’t stay to think what I have done that morning, what I have done and what I have not done, since this thing creates in my soul a suffocating atmosphere. If we convince ourselves that we have done something good, you do understand into how much egotism we can fall. The word “do not measure yourself in any deed” is the true wisdom. Most, when they fell, they also fell for this reason. Or we use it to justify our passions. For example: I sinned once and afterwards I tell myself “what good is repentance”? What misery! How much is our self torn to shreds this way! (Elder Aimilianos, Λόγος περί νήψεως)
The dangers of this despondency stay with us until only selflessness will remove them.
Lastly, we should also be mindful of the inertia of life, or more appropriately of the flesh, living life without mindfulness, being taken over by it. St. John of Kronstadt had the following warning: “Life without effort isn’t effort, it’s something monstrous. It’s the duty of all of us to strive relentlessly, without ceasing, against the inertia of the flesh. May God preserve every Christian from this weakness.”
In lieu of conclusion, the above are some dangers that I encourage you to be mindful of. They will do away with charity, often even in a compassionate soul. The atomization of contemporary life has pervaded even one’s goodness, has separated even the inseparable, and today one may even have a self sense of goodness without actually doing anything good. Against this unnatural, absurd attitude we have the constant reminder of the Golden Rule: “All that you might desire that people do for you, likewise you also do for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Naturally when it comes to ourselves being in need, we would desire action and not a distant and disengaged sense of goodness in our fellow human beings, so also others’ needs can only be met by action. To put it bluntly, no one can be charitable from a distance.
- As one institute almost entirely dedicated to generational giving statistics puts it, “when it comes to volunteering, Gen Y talks the talk while Matures walk the walk.” See the Blackbaud Institute website at https://institute.blackbaud.com/.
- Most translations soften the language, as in the following: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (ESV)
- Although people have been increasingly compartmentalized the last few centuries, many aspects of culture still inform the way we conceive ourselves as religious beings.
- Maia Szalavitz, “Why do we think poor people are poor because of their own bad choices?” The Guardian, July 5, 2017.
- This has been first theorized by Melvin J. Lerner in his The Belief in a Just World; A Fundamental Delusion (New York: Plenum Press, 1980).
- Malahy, L. W., Rubinlicht, M. A., & Kaiser, C. R., “Justifying inequality: A cross-temporal investigation of US income disparities and just-world beliefs from 1973 to 2006,” Social Justice Research 22(4) (2009): 369-383.
- Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark, “Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that,” Washington Post, July 28, 2017.
- For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (NIV); For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils (ESV); For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil (NASB); But the root of all these evils is the love of money (Aramaic Bible in Plain English); For from love of money all sorts of evils arise (Weymouth NT); for a root of all the evils is the love of money (Young’s Literal).
- Ana Swanson, “The ultra-rich are hiding way more money overseas than anyone realized,” The Washington Post, June 1, 2017.
- Berkeley Wellness,“Do Wealthy People Give Less to Charity?”, Berkeley Wellness, March 17, 2016. “In fact, the National Center for Charita-ble Statistics finds that households earn-ing less than $50,000 donate 4 percent of their adjusted gross income, while those earning $200,000 to $250,000 give away about half that—2.4 percent. Only the super rich—those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $10 million a year—give more to charity (5.9%) than the lower middle-class, according to data from the IRS.” Yet, the motives for this generosity of the super-rich can be justly questioned.
- See Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching. The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), esp. 118-171.