Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Charity and the "Abrahamic" Religions
Maimon Schwarzschild

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?

UPDATE: I've posted a reply to several comments.  And thanks to Instapundit for the link!

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Maimon Schwarzschild


A friend takes an active part in supporting an orphanage in Cairo. It's entirely run by foreigners from Christian, or post-Christian, countries. She reports that Muslim Egypt seems to be indifferent to the fate of the children.

Posted by: dearieme | Oct 24, 2007 8:35:33 AM

"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."

You might want to look at this link:

Indeed, just google "buddhism charity" and check out the links.

Posted by: ananda | Oct 24, 2007 2:43:47 PM

We see the Japanese ways clearly, but perhaps not our own.
The Hebrews were unique, especially in their time, in that they saw to the welfare of people, both within families and through the community, in an evironment that was harsh. Christian ethics and missionary work probably evolved from this.
So did Marxism, ultimately.
Goethe--By nature, we have no defect that cannot become a strength, and no strength that cannot become a defect.
The Japanese, despite or because of this apparent cruelty, are not pursuing the liberal fashions of our society that are destroying cutures and classes of people. Pick your poison.

Posted by: James wilson | Oct 25, 2007 8:04:42 AM

That's a big--and rather unlikely--if.

Posted by: y81 | Oct 25, 2007 1:35:33 PM

OH yeah, Islam is charitable ... if you consider chopping off the head of a jew, or blowing up women and children, or flying airplanes into buildings a form of charity.

Let's not delude ourselves. The name of the game isn't "look how perceptive I am". It's "kill our enemies".

Let's get started. Charity begins at home.

Posted by: Paul A'Barge | Oct 25, 2007 6:41:34 PM

I'm pleasently surprised no one has commented bitterly on all the wars and persecutions inflicted on the world by organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. It is a favorite subject among some. Wars and upheavals are very visible and easily documented in history. Billions of people quietly inspired by their faith to help the poor, take care of neighbors and friends, swallow anger and bitterness and donate to charity are almost invisible with the exception of a very few celebraties like Mother Teresa. However, the wolrd would be a much different place without these people. I wouldn't be at all suprised if the number of children cared for in Muslim, Christian, and Budist orphanages since 100 AD exceedds all those killed in the crusades, inquisition, Jihad, witch burnings, and the religios wars of Western Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. I have no idea if this is true, but it wouldn't suprise me.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 25, 2007 6:50:41 PM

"...Christian ethics and missionary work probably evolved from this.
So did Marxism, ultimately."

Wrong, for two reasons. One, "Christian ethics" were not evolved. They were taught by the Master. Two, Marixism is the smart people's alternative to Christianity. They think.

Posted by: Ibeg Todiffer | Oct 25, 2007 6:55:58 PM

Hmmm. My experience in Muslim countries is that there is very little charity work and what little there is is only available to Muslims. Pagans, Jews, and Christians need not even ask - as unbelievers you are unworthy of any care. Even with fellow muslims the strong belief in Allah's will means that if you are suffering or poor, God wants you that way.

Even very rich Islam countries aren't very caring.

I prefer the pagans myself. At least they don't actively hate me. However, I don't see them adopting charity or Christian charity surviving in the post-Christian world. It's really rather unnatural.

Posted by: Kevin | Oct 25, 2007 7:43:10 PM

but Jews have never been numerous enough to change the world, in any fundamental way, on their own.

Well, if you take the fairly reasonable perspective that Christians are Jews that have accepted Christ as the Jewish savior (or, as Ann Coulter controversially put it, have been perfected) then Jews are the most numerous religion.

I do think this points up a flaw in secular humanism that atheists generally deny: secular humanism as practiced in JudeoChristian countries inherits the peculiarities of JudeoChristian morality, and are not arrived at objectively as they like to claim. The secular Japanese, with Shinto rather than JudeoChristian influence, accept practices like this that the secular humanists -- and JudeoChristians -- abhor.

Posted by: TallDave | Oct 25, 2007 8:00:07 PM

Christianity may wane (as it has before), but it will never disappear. It's the whole "struck down/not destroyed" thing. There will always be a remnant to hold on. Rom. 11:5

Posted by: Citizen Grim | Oct 25, 2007 8:03:27 PM

As a Hindu I've heard similar arguments from Christian missionary types who point at e.g. the caste system as a reason to give up those anti-social pagan ways and embrace God-Onna-Stick. Well, caste is complicated and "caste system" is as meaningful as "the patriarchy" which those same people take exception to for some reason but I digress...there are long standing traditions of public charity in Hinduism which predate any influence by Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. At every place of pilgrimage you find dharmashalas -- hostels where pilgrims and beggars can find a meal and a place to sleep for free. Kings and rich merchants were also exhorted to feed and clothe the poor and even less well to do people have this custom on special occasions like marriages at least. In Western India which is chronically drought-stricken, the digging of public wells was also undertaken by the pious. Here is some further information:

I agree that the Abrahamic religions have done a lot to promote the concept and I would even agree they are the major force for charity in the world at this point of time, but if they didn't exist would the world be cruel and bereft of charity? I don't think so.

Posted by: Jaldhar | Oct 25, 2007 8:04:10 PM

Sorry to say, but charity has not accomplished for the poor or for humanity even a fraction of what for-profit, secular busines activities have -- technological and scientific innovations in engineering, medicine, agriculture, etc., that have doubled average lifespan and lifted humanity out of the mud.

The true measures of civilization are creativity, innovation, vision, industry.

Posted by: Joe at Forces blog | Oct 25, 2007 9:33:54 PM

Perhaps sati is a better example of departure from secular humanist norms than the caste system, though like pre-Christian Norse infanticide it was at least arguably an efficient practice, unlike seppuku or the Aztec horrors.

The peculiarity of Christ's charitable message was its inclusiveness; he embraced the stigmatized. That is not a common precept.

Posted by: TallDave | Oct 25, 2007 9:37:37 PM

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.

Are you joking?

Jews brought the Mosaic laws into the world, and a culture that promoted charity towards the poor--which both religions based on Judaism kept.

Islam and Christianity weren't created in a vaccuum.

Posted by: passingthru | Oct 25, 2007 9:58:31 PM

Kevin: Christians are Christians. You can call yourselves Jews all you like, but the moment you accept that Jesus was the Messiah, you are a Christian.

The Jewish Messiah has yet to arrive. And he will be human. Not god.

Posted by: passingthru | Oct 25, 2007 9:59:40 PM

As an aside, isn't the description of gov't welfare benefits in the article pretty much point for point how libertarians and to some extent Republicans would prefer the systems work? If not actually more restrictive.

Posted by: Marc | Oct 25, 2007 10:44:13 PM

This is completely pedantic and in no way takes away from your argument, but tzedakah and zakat aren't cognates, nor are they even from the same root. You're probably thinking of sadaqa - a different Islamic charity concept that, as I understand it, is more voluntary and not one of the five pillars. Both it and tzedakah come from a shared root (sad-daal-qaf in Arabic, tzadi-daled-kuf in Hebrew) that have more to do with truth and righteousness than charity (my hebrew school teachers were always fond of saying that giving to the poor was more about righteousness than philanthropy, according to Jewish tradition).

Ok, I guess now I am criticizing your argument - I think you're reading Christian concepts of charity back into Judaism, whereas based on my own admittedly incomplete exposure to Jewish tradition, I'd say that Christian charity was something of a new thing even conceptually. I certainly wouldn't say there's much about charity in the hebrew bible. Lots of stuff about justice and fairness, but not much about charity in the way Christians talk about charity. As I understand it, even the way we think about tzedakah comes out of Maimonedes, a mediaeval thinker.

Posted by: homais | Oct 25, 2007 10:50:21 PM

Here's another blog post on the same issue:

Posted by: Jim | Oct 26, 2007 2:24:32 AM

Some replies, and further thoughts, from Maimon:

To dearieme, Kevin, and several others: My impression of the Muslim world is mostly like yours - that a lot of misery goes unrelieved, and that religiously-tinged fatalism contributes to this. On the other hand, where Islamists actively do distribute charity, in Cairo for example - with obvious religious and political ulterior motives - I don't really like that either. And a Muslim might say to me "Well, you really can't have it both ways, condemning us for our lack of charity, and also for our charity!"

To passingthru: I agree that Christianity and Islam held on to the Mosaic idea of charity, and hence Judaism had important influence on this score. Of course the Jewish view was never that "the Jews brought the Mosaic laws into the world", but rather that these laws come from God, and have all too often been "observed in the breach" by Jews, and by non-Jews too of course.

To homais: Zakat, I think, as a pillar of Islam, connotes contributing to Islamic institutions, and even payment of formal Islamic taxes, not quite "charity" in the Western sense. And tzedakah, as a Hebrew concept, does indeed connote kindly righteousness, and has evolved perhaps in the direction of charity in more recent centuries. You are right - and I was careless and mistaken - about zakat being a different word from tzedakah (and sadaqa). But Muhammad and the early Muslims were intensely conscious of Jewish institutions, which they were well acquainted with in Arabia. Many Islamic institutions, and the names for them (e.g. fasting: sawm in Arabic, tzom in Hebrew) have obvious Jewish roots and echoes. I still think zakat might have had special resonance, both as a word and as an idea, because of the similarity to the Hebrew tzedakah. Both in Hebrew and in Arabic, after all, the letters of the triliteral roots are often enough reversed as a word evolves.

Posted by: maimon | Oct 26, 2007 3:40:26 AM

Read "Who Really Cares?" by, Arthur Brooks published last year. In it, he looks at the statistics of charitable giving in the U.S. and concludes that Chirstians are the most charitable (by the numbers).

Posted by: joanie | Oct 26, 2007 4:12:26 AM

Is Christianity the only faith that has a history of raising charity for people who generally hate the benefactors' guts? For instance, I hear about Christian charities doing stuff for Muslims - like when Baptists were sending blankets to Kurds somewhere around the time of Gulf War I - but I know nothing of Jewish charities, and all the Muslim charities I know about raise charity for Muslims only.

Posted by: Alan K. Henderson | Oct 26, 2007 6:17:09 AM

Alan K Henderson: Jews have a long history of charity on behalf of non-Jews, which is no surprise since Judaism teaches justice and charity for all. The reason that Muslim charities overwhelmingly are for Muslims only is that the Koran and Hadith say that charity begins at home and should stay there dammit.

Posted by: pst314 | Oct 26, 2007 6:23:53 AM

The true measures of civilization are creativity, innovation, vision, industry.

True to a certain extent. However, most poles taken these days and compared with early or mid-twentieth century don't seem to indicate that people are any happier these days then they used to be. As long as you have enough food to survive and people aren't constanty trying to kill you, technology seems to have had little impact on overall happiness.

Long life spans, not having to do your dishes by hands, WoW and even having all your children survive to maturity don't seem to be fundamental creators of happiness. Making connections with other people (loving them idealy), and feeling like your life has some kind of meaning, purpose, or mission are more important indicators of happiness than creature comforts and modern conveniences.

If you've never felt the kind of generalized love of people that infects your life with enthusiasm in everything from sports and games to work and children, you may not be able to relate to what I'm talking about and probably think this is just a bunch of sappy crap (too bad for you). If you have, an argument hardly has to be made.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 26, 2007 8:02:04 AM

1. What Christian charity accomplished for humanity (and by this I mean "wholesale", as opposed to corporal works of mercy carried out "retail") is to instill the principle that even for-profit, secular business activities ought to benefit the common man. The intrinsic worth and dignity of every man is not a secular idea. The pagans didn't give a damn about the common man per se; bread and circuses were merely utilitarian means to keep the rabble from revolting. Engineering and technology is morally neutral; what a moral tradition governs is the uses to which these are put.

2. Our understanding of charity is colored by the Latin root of caritas, or simply love. Altruism is intrinsic to the definition, which is why it makes no sense to refer to zakat as charity. Islamic "charity" is fundamentally different, as mentioned above by Maimon. The Moslem pillar of zakat is understood to mean monetary contributions that advance the spread of Islam. This means that financing jihad is intrinsically within the scope of zakat.

Posted by: craig | Oct 26, 2007 9:22:29 AM

Sorry to say, but charity has not accomplished for the poor or for humanity even a fraction of what for-profit, secular busines activities have -- technological and scientific innovations in engineering, medicine, agriculture, etc., that have doubled average lifespan and lifted humanity out of the mud.

Perfectly true. I don't share the dislike some believers have for capitalism or technology,although capitalism and technology, like all human activities, can be used for evil ends by dishonest and amoral people.

I think you see a dichotomy that doesn't really exist. I once did volunteer work at a charity clinic run by a Catholic hospital. Many of the physicians who volunteered there were deeply religious people - who used Western technology to aid their less fortunate fellows.

This poor fellow in Japan was surrounded by loads of technology. Didn't help him much. Even in advanced societies, there are always going to be people on the margins, people who need help on a temporary or permament basis (victims of natural disasters, the mentally ill, the elderly poor)and the Judeo-Christian ethic dictates that we should help these folks. (And according to an earlier poster, Hinduism does too - I will defer to he or she since I am unfamiliar with Hinduism.)

Now, what to do about people who can take care of themselves but don't, and whether government intervention is preferable to private charity - that's a whole other ball of wax.

Posted by: Donna | Oct 26, 2007 9:46:49 AM