Best and Worst Practices: Abandoning 200 Years of Christian Charity

By Stephanie Block

Charitable “practice” has been honed by Christians for 2000 years. In its earliest days, the model was similar to what one would find in most Jewish communities of the time. Congregations reached out to their neediest members (Acts 4:34) and to other needy congregations (Acts 11:28-30; 1 Cor. 16:1; Romans 15:25; Gal. 2:10).

Christ, however, clearly intended Christian charity to include people outside the Christian family. The Didache (100 AD), a brief text of instructions for Christians, contains the exhortation to “give to everyone who asks thee, and do not refuse.” The Roman Emperor Julian (361 to 363 AD) wrote: “The impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours . . . . It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance.” [Epistles of Julian, 49]

Not only did congregations and wealthy individuals make generous provision for all manner of need but religious congregations were established to perform particular charitable acts in an organized way. The Alexian Brothers were formed, in part, as a response to the devastation of the Black Death, nursing the sick and burying the dead despite personal risk. Convent (monastic) schools trained young boys in reading and writing from all economic backgrounds. The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy was founded to ransom slaves. St. John Bosco organized the Salesians to educate and train poor children for future employment.

These are some of the finest examples – the “best practices,” if you will – of Christian charity. They demonstrate practical, self-sacrificing, and generous concern for other people that was personal and effective, on spiritual as well as material levels.

The 20th century saw a perversion of Christian charity that sought to create a utopian “system” rather than provide a personal work of love. One sees this in the work of Jack Jezreel, the founder of JustFaith, a program that seeks to evangelize within Christian communities for exactly this utopian “system.”

In a recent article, Jezreel articulates the subtle twist he has given to Christian charity. For one thing, he wants the parish to put all its resources - its “preaching, teaching, adult education, youth ministry, children’s catechesis, everything” – into pushing Christians to engage in “direct service, advocacy, community organizing, and sacrificial giving.” (Jezreel, “Best Practices for Charity and Justice,” U.S. Catholic, 3-14)

This is an interesting comment. In the first place, for two millennia, Christendom has accomplished heroic acts of charity that fundamentally changed human society without creating a propaganda machine. People acted out of love.

Charity, as a free act of love, is an ancient concept. Tertullian, writing his Apology in the early 200s, speaks of a “treasure-chest” of money for the poor kept in the Christian community. “On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary.”

In the second place, Jezreel’s list of “charitable acts” contains two novel elements bookended by traditional works. Christians have always recognized the importance of “direct service” – what we used to call “works of mercy” – and “sacrificial giving” (alms). “Community organizing” and “advocacy,” however, are new additions that serve the utopian gods but have scant usefulness otherwise.

There doesn’t need to be a restructuring of the parish to persuade Christians that the soup kitchen needs to be staffed; to persuade them to join the local Alinskyian Interfaith and support abortion-dealing healthcare legislation takes a great deal of reeducation.

Jezreel goes on to say that that “there's a large body of work to be done” and those working to help the homeless aren’t in competition with those working to provide communities with clean drinking water. That’s quite true.

But political advocacy and Alinskyian community organizing aren’t ministries. Often, they aren’t even ethical. So, when Jezreel writes that without “enough social ministry opportunities, the great potential in many parishes goes untapped” we see a secular vision. The parish is a resource to be “tapped” by an idealistic social engineer with big plans.

“Advocacy” and “community organizing” aren’t “ministries” that address “structural causes of problems” from a Christian perspective. They approach “structural causes of problems” from a secular perspective, seeking to change “bad” economic systems and “bad” governance. In classic utopian style, the cart is before the horse and, ironically, the actual “structural causes of problems” can never be addressed because one is trying to “fix” the wrong “structure.”

The “best practice” of charity is a life freely laid down for another; the worst is “breaking a few eggs to make an omelet.” In the former, one imitates God; in the latter, on plays God.

There’s an abyss between the two.

Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies', available at Amazon.

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