Commentary | Love and justice

Reexamining secular notions of charity

Two years ago, only a few days after my arrival in Montreal and before ever stepping foot in a McGill classroom, I sat in a Rad Frosh workshop on anarchism. The presenter was explaining the concept of mutual aid – the reciprocal exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit – which is so central to anarchist social theory. This principle, he told us, was a far superior one to that of charity, a concept which comes down to us from religious traditions. Charity, at the end of the day, largely serves the purpose of making people feel better about themselves.

The concept of charity which pervades our society today is indeed inferior to the notion of mutual aid. Charity, as we know it, is tossing a few coins to a beggar because seeing the homeless makes you sad, or it’s a donation made with an eye toward tax deductions.

It has become an item of common sense that ‘charity’ is something done entirely voluntarily, above and beyond anyone’s moral obligations to their fellow members of society. That one could have an obligation – moral or legal – in this domain seems to many a contradiction. For example, in a political philosophy text which I was assigned last year, Oxford academic Adam Swift asserted that if you think “that the state can justifiably force people to be charitable to one another, you are guilty of conceptual confusion,” affirming the idea that charity is nothing more than a matter of personal whim.

The reason that charity has become such a weak and anaemic concept is not because it is in itself lacking, but because it has become alienated from its roots in the religious tradition. The word charity is derived from the Latin caritas, which means ‘love.’ And in the Christian tradition from which we have inherited this concept, love is anything but an optional or voluntary matter. It is a life lived in love, for God, and one’s fellows, which in Christianity makes for salvation. Charity is not optional, then, unless damnation seems to be a viable option.

This ethic of theological altruism was a vital part of the early Christian community. In chapter four of the Acts of the Apostles, for example, we read that in the communities led by Jesus’ disciples “no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Upon joining the community, believers would sell their possessions, and the proceeds were “distributed to anyone as he had need.” Does this last phrase perhaps ring any bells?

The Christian concept of charity-as-love was in turn informed by the Jewish notion of tzedakah, which is usually translated into English as charity but in fact means ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’. Like caritas in Christianity, tzedakah is anything but optional in the Jewish tradition; it is rather the hallmark of a godly people.

The Hebrew Bible displays a keen understanding of the needs of those marginalized by society. To this end, the Torah institutes a wide range of social programs to help alleviate their condition, among which are a number of agricultural taxes (which allow the hungry to take crops from wealthy landowners), a requirement that interest-free loans be given to the poor, a cancellation of debts every seven years, and a redistribution of land every fifty years.

The notion of interest-free loans has been particularly important in Jewish history, as it led to the creation of an institution known as the gemach (from a Hebrew acronym for ‘deeds of loving-kindness’). In addition to providing loans at  0 per cent interest, their mandate has expanded such that today many gemachim are basically mutual aid societies, where goods (from food to religious articles to household appliances) and services (everything from wedding planning to guitar lessons) are offered for the welfare and betterment of the community.

Gemachim, which have existed for centuries and still do in many Jewish communities, today embody essentially the same values that my Rad Frosh presenter was advocating. It is through a renewal of this notion of charity – a morally obligatory system of mutual aid, rooted in love for humanity – that the anaemic social practice which was disparaged in the Rad Frosh workshop can be redeemed.

Chapter 15 of the Book of Deuteronomy provides an interesting and profound perspective on the problem of poverty from a religious perspective. The fourth verse declares that “there shall be no needy among you…if only you diligently hearken unto the voice of the Lord your God.” If we really, truly hear the call to love, if we make altruism the guiding principle of our social life, then there is no reason why we cannot eradicate want. We have all the material resources we need; the only resource we lack is the strength of heart. And the Torah recognizes this lack. Although only a few verses earlier it commands the ideal – that there be no needy among us – the 11th verse comes to grips with the sad reality: “the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You must surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother.’”

The struggle to eradicate want thus seems to be an asymptotic one – one that constantly approaches the ideal without ever realizing it. We know that we have the tools we need to reach the goal, but our struggle must, it seems, be one of constant approach to a goal never quite fulfilled.

Some might view this situation as a cause for despair, but I do not. For the work we have before us is redemptive. It is the task of transforming ourselves and our world. Love and justice are not options, are not something we can do to make ourselves feel nice or save money on taxes – certainly not something which we can get off of our consciences with an AUS Charity Week. They are not above and beyond our moral obligations; they are rather our central moral demand. The task we face today is much as it was 2,000 years ago, when the Rabbi Tarfon wrote: “It is not yours to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it.”

Vincent Calabrese is a U3 English and Philosophy student. He can be reached at

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