Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The New York Times ran a front-page story recently about an elderly man who starved to death in Japan, having been denied help by the welfare bureaucracy. The man kept a diary as he died: heartbreaking to read. The Japanese welfare bureaucracy seems to have been notably heartless, and not only in this case. There are other, similar cases of starvation in the past year or two in Japan, according to the Times.
There is this brief throwaway in the lengthy Times story:
With no religious tradition of charity, Japan has few soup kitchens or other places for the indigent. Those that exist — run frequently by Christian missionaries from South Korea or Japan’s tiny Christian population — cater mostly to the homeless.
Say what you will about the "Abrahamic" religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - can there be any doubt that they have brought an ethic of charity into a world that would otherwise be a crueler place?
The ancient, pagan world, for all its brilliance, was coldly cruel. The Hebrew Bible put enormous emphasis on charity, which was something radically new.
Jewish communities have always been noted for charity, but Jews have never been numerous enough to change the world, in any fundamental way, on their own.
Islam, on the other hand, is a world religion. Islam embraces "zakat" - charity - the Hebrew word is cognate: "zedaka" - as a basic principle of faith. As a practical matter, I don't know what a needy person's chances have been of receiving charity in Islamic societies. Often those chances have been good; at other times and places I think not so good. On the whole, I would certainly prefer to take my chances in a Muslim society than in a pagan one on this score. But has any impartial historian tried to assess this soberly, and over the span of Islamic history?
Christianity has been unique, I think, as a world religion, for its missionary tradition and its history of charitable orders of nuns, brothers, and lay people. As the Times story about Japan suggests, charity runs deep in Christian life - in notable contrast to many other ways of life in human history.
If the Christian world is on its way to being post-Christian, will the tradition of Christian charity persist?
Or is the ethic of charity liable to go down with the faith that inspired it?