CNEWA is known for its charitable activities around the world — but what, exactly, does that mean? What does the idea of “charity” convey?
In dealing with “charity” in the three great monotheistic religions of the world, it is interesting to note that each faith approaches it in a different way and uses different concepts to describe it.
In Christianity, for example, English-speaking Christians use the word ”charity,” often in relation to the the three “theological virtues” of faith, hope and charity. “Charity” can also be an attitude of kindness and compassion—someone is “charitable,” for example— or it can refer to separate acts of philanthropy, i.e. one gives to charity. This differentiation, however, is actually foreign to the New Testament. Individual acts of philanthropy—as Jesus mentions in Matthew 6—are referred to as “doing eleemosyne,” which comes from the Greek verb eleeo, ”to have pity, mercy.” When we find caritas in Latin translations of the Greek New Testament, it translates the Greek word agape, which is “love.” In Paul’s great treatise on love in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul uses the word nine times. Although the Latin translates these as caritas, modern English translations do not read “charity is patient and kind; charity is not jealous or boastful.” The word used is ”love,” and that is the correct word. Likewise, at the end of the chapter, Paul uses the same word, when he writes: “So faith, hope and love abide…but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13).
Therefore, in modern English, “charity” does not always clearly convey the Gospel call — which is, simply, to love. Again and again, Jesus does not call his followers merely to give alms but to love— to love the least among them, to love their enemies, to love as he loves. Love is key—a fundamental message of the Gospels. Thus, even when Christians engage in acts of philanthropy, it is done not so much “out of charity” in the common sense, as it is from the command of Jesus that his followers love.
The approach in Judaism is slightly different. The whole notion of social justice— of care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and stranger—is a resounding message of the Hebrew prophets. Amos, the first of the prophets, preaches against “the crimes of Israel.” He writes: “They have sold the poor person for a pair of sandals; they trample on the head of the poor and push them out of their way.”
In the Hebrew Bible, acts of philanthropy are referred to as tsdaqah and mitzvah — the former with the connotation of that which is right, the latter with that which is commanded. Philanthropy is not an optional or occasional act of kindness. “Charity” in the Hebrew Bible is intimately connected to justice. For the prophets, to ignore the poor and needy is not merely an act of ungraciousness; it is disobedience to God. It is a punishable crime. Even today, a pious Jew will refer to a gratuitous act of kindness as a mitzvah something he or she feels obliged to do because of their faith.
Finally, in Islam, one of the Five Pillars is zakah. It is the donation of 2.5 percent of their holdings (differently calculated in different Muslim schools of theology), which Muslims are obliged to give annually for the support and help of the poor. Most Muslims would look upon that as the absolute minimum for them to do. The Arabic root zkh indicates purity, righteousness and goodness. Muslims also use the word sadaqa to refer to acts of kindness and compassion. It is basically the same word used by the Jews, although the root sdq in Arabic has an additional connotation of truth, authenticity and friendship.
I have looked at “charity” in Christianity, Judaism and Islam not because they have a monopoly on it. In fact, all religions require their adherents to be compassionate towards the weak and the poor. I looked at these three faiths because CNEWA’s work embraces all three; it is a Christian association working with Christians but not only Christians. Paradoxically Christian “charity” just for Christians would not be Christian at all.
In the world of the Middle East, where CNEWA does so much, the three religious traditions offer their adherents a call, a challenge and, indeed, a command: to take responsibility for the weak, the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
This is the very essence of charity.
And we are called to do all this not merely because it is a nice thing to do — but because the one God we worship demands it of us.