Down the centuries, we have seen that the major religions all understand the word “gift” as something fundamental to living rightly in the eyes of God and in the eyes of our fellow human beings. Giving is a universal trait of all peoples: our common moral urge.
I hope you will go along with me this Christmas and gaze on the Nativity, as I revert to my own tradition rooted in the New Testament, and in the wonderful insights of St. Paul. This tradition is actually of great relevance to all serious people, not least because it is an attempt to spell out in detailed terms exactly what it means to live with the belief that the world is ordered—ordered by a loving God, who demands love from each of us, not toward himself only but also toward our neighbors. As the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, neighbors include those next door and far away—around the nation and the globe—with whom we have no other connection, not even one of tribe, nation, or faith.
Reflect on what the word “gift” has meant in the Christian tradition, the tradition that has shaped Western culture, and on the concept of charity, as “the love to which we are commanded,” to use Kant’s striking words.
At Advent, we focus on God’s gift to humanity—his only begotten son, Jesus. This means giving is not just a duty, it is foremost a pleasure. For it is a way of opening yourself to another, of putting yourself at his or her service, which is an invitation to friendship. The natural response to a gift is gratitude, which, in turn, is a way of opening yourself and inviting friendship.
Gifting and Gratitude
One of the most important features of a society in which gift-giving is prominent is that it is a society in which gratitude unites people to their benefactors. But gratitude is not expressed only to those who have helped you. It has a natural tendency to lead, in turn, to giving. The grateful person usually wishes to “give back” to others in the same way that he has received from them. You see this very vividly in America, where people will give to the schools and colleges that have educated them, to the hospitals that have cared for them, to the sick and needy, and also will give their time, knowledge, and energy in significant volunteering. This is a feature that Alexis de Tocqueville noticed already in his journeys through the American hinterland nearly two centuries ago. And it is a feature of which we are rightly proud, which in many ways defines Americans at their very best.
You don’t see this so much in Europe, where the state has taken charge of those who have been defined as needing help. When you receive something as a “right” rather than as a gift, then gratitude is not just inappropriate, it is quite impossible. It would be a sign that you did not believe that you had a right to what you received. If what you are giving me is mine by right, then it is something you owe me; to be grateful would be to deny my ownership. On the whole, socialism is hostile to private giving. Philanthropy depends on private property, industry, and wealth—commodities that are hardly compatible with the socialist objective of a strictly equal society in which nobody has more than anybody else.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that one of Lenin’s first acts after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was to abolish and expropriate all private charities. The same happened in other countries that fell under the Soviet yoke after World War II. When the communists took over Hungary, there were some 10,000 voluntary societies in that tiny country of 8 million souls. Every one of them was abolished within two years. As is in China today, people had to give in secret and at risk of imprisonment.
Through sharing what we have, we recognize the existence of the other as a free being fulfilled through love. And by feeling gratitude, we acknowledge our dependence on others, and our need to love and be loved. Remove gift and gratitude from human society, and what remains is not a community but a “lonely crowd,” in the famous words of the sociologist David Riesman.
Charity as a Form of Giving
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul delivers his celebrated encomium on the three theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity. And the word that he uses for charity—agape—denotes a new kind of love, a love that has been brought to the world by Christ, and which is the love God extends to all of us, and which we are each asked to extend to one another.
This selfless love is not, as St. Paul makes clear, a form of bargaining or negotiation. It does not lay down terms or aim for reciprocity. Among the Eastern Orthodox, the bread and wine that are consecrated during the Divine Liturgy are themselves referred to as “The Gifts.” They are first of all the gifts of the community (both individually and corporately) to God, and then, after the epiklesis, the gifts of the body and blood of Christ to the Church.
From St. Paul’s discussion, we inherit our entire concept of “charity” as a specific form of giving—the form in which we give to those in need. Why do we do this? The answer is surely simple. We do this as an expression of gratitude—gratitude for what we have, and a recognition that, in the end, the entire world is ordered by the principle of gift.
Being itself, as St. Thomas Aquinas argued, is the fundamental gift, granted by God to himself by his own nature, and to the world by choice. My life, your life, and the lives of all others are a gift, and so too are all the goods that come to us. They come from the source that granted life. Once we see the world in this way, which is the way of faith, then we see the chains of gift and gratitude spread through all things, and our own spiritual well-being depends on joining ourselves to them.
The greatest gifts are those which put the giver at risk. As Christ himself taught (and also exemplified): “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”
In wartime and times of crisis, people understand this more fully. They are constantly being confronted with acts of heroism in which one person offers up everything, like the officer who falls on a grenade to protect his troops or the person who enters a burning building to rescue those inside. We saw some of this kind of heroism displayed by the city fire brigades of New York, during the dreadful events of September 11, 2001. And the spectacle of their sacrifice had a transforming effect on those who witnessed it: suddenly they were presented with the proof that life is worthwhile—worthwhile because it is a gift that can, in turn, be given.
Charity, therefore, can be shown in many ways. The schoolteacher who stays behind after class to help her slower pupils, shares something more precious than wealth—and that is time, encouragement, and concern. The businessman who forgoes the opportunity to increase his own wealth in order to run a youth club or coach a team in a deprived neighborhood, imparts something that money could not supply—which is the confidence and self-esteem that enables his pupils to give and receive in turn, and so to enter the greater society from which they might otherwise feel excluded.
Charity and the Law
An interesting question that arises with respect to charitable activity is how it should be acknowledged and fostered by the law. English and American law both employ the concept of the trust, in order to administer funds given to charity or left to charity in a person’s will. Trustees are legal owners, but they have no rights in the property that they own, only duties. They must dispense the property according to the terms of the trust. They are not giving. They are merely fulfilling the duties of their office. And this has led to distortions and abuses that have to some extent discredited the idea of institutional charities in the public perception.
Consider a British charity called Guide Dogs for the Blind. When it was first established, it was a worthy cause. There were many blind people; the training of guide dogs had just been perfected. And of course, the sight of a blind man, guided by a dog, moves everybody. Compassion for the blind and love of dogs combined to motivate people to give generously, so that today the charity is sitting on a vast accumulated fund which it cannot dispense according to the terms of its trust.
But blindness is a dwindling ailment in modern societies, and few dogs are required. The charity compensates by paying its director an enormous salary and granting him an expensive company car. It also employs ever more staffers, who spend their days studying how to raise more money to pay more staff to raise more money to keep the grift alive.
Charities can also be turned in new directions by trustees who refuse to be bound by the spirit of the bequest. It is notorious in America that the Ford and Rockefeller foundations (among others), established to promote a culture of free enterprise, civic responsibility, and patriotic loyalty, have been taken over by trustees who have no respect for those ideals. Instead, their missions have shifted to pursue political agendas antithetical to their founders. The trustees have control over assets they did not earn, but which they can nevertheless use according to their own purposes. From this practice arises the familiar spectacle of the entirely political NGO, which operates in the public arena exactly like a political party, dispensing funds that some innocent donor gave a decade or a century ago for purposes entirely alien to the newly invented agenda.
True Charity Means More than Dispensing Money
I mention those examples so that we can take a lesson from what they imply. Giving is not only dispensing money. It means an offering of what you own. The money dispensed by the foundation or an NGO is not a gift, nor is it appropriately received with gratitude. It is “unowned surplus,” circulating in society sometimes to good effect, sometimes bad, but in no way turning people in the direction that I advocate here, which is toward the society joined by a common purpose, in which charity in its true meaning is the ruling principle.
Is it too much to hope that today at Christmas, in a world beset by momentous choices and unprecedented problems, people will look once again to that ideal, and seek communities, united by giving, as Christ himself taught? That first gift, born in a lowly manger to an unwed Jewish girl in a backwater village of a Roman-occupied country, transformed life forever.