Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Vices and Virtues: Charity

For all my years as a child, I was hearing my mother sing the praises of a certain neighborhood woman as a woman of charity who gave of her time and talents to organizations and individuals. I vowed to be just like her and become a do-gooder too. But my little heart, I must admit, was mainly wanting to do that so that people would talk fondly of me like they did of this person. My desire to do great works of charity was solely based on the fame that it would accrue me. Later, I figured out that there were better reasons to be involved in causes and give of ones time and I also found out that my mother secretly despised the person as a person. So much for heroes and heroics.
I was called to serve in many capacities, planning events at my software design job that would teach people to overcome race and gender bias, planning Arbor Day celebrations and recommending landscape enhancements as part of a city commission, volunteering on prairie restorations and seed gathering work days, and later, giving talks on natural landscaping, giving prairie tours, teaching art classes, working at the co-op art gallery, spending time on various Kiwanis activities and fundraiser and as an officer and board member, working on a local political campaign, even teaching Sunday school once.
All of these were acts of charity but my motivations were varied and not always good. Sometimes, I was motivated by a desire to be recognized, sometimes by a desire for professional advancement, sometimes even, I was motivated by revenge and used my volunteer positions to get something done to get back at others for some perceived offense to me. Even at my most pure of motivations, to make the world a better place, it was to make MY world a better place, and to make the world that my children would be left with a little bit of a better place.
Exclusively, my volunteer efforts were a result of ME seeing a need and offering myself to it because I valued a thing. Never did I approach a random person or situation and say "What do YOU want or need today?" Nobody does that. That might put the conservative Christian giving the welfare mother a ride to the abortion clinic or reading comforting words from the Quran to the mourning Muslim neighbor. We don't work our charity based solely on needs of others but on the needs WE think are important and WANT to contribute to.
One of the first and greatest 'charities' people give to are churches. But church charities are by and large to promote the goals of their church, to swell membership, you don't much see the Lutherans volunteering at the Catholic food pantry or the Catholics volunteering at the Lutheran gift drive for the youth home. Each church builds their reputation with their own interests and then lists those 'charitable' activities on their 'resume' to promote themselves to prospective members.
Charity of money or time to the church itself is more like dues to ones health club than true charity, for it gets services for ones self in exchange for doing services for others of same faith and interest. Lead the bible study and get Sunday school for your kids. Serve as an usher because you enjoy church service. Donations that pay the utility bills and the cleaning service and upkeep on the gutters are much more like dues to the golf club than any sort of real charity.
And what of the do-gooder who does good at the expense of family and friends and other responsibilities? The doctor who spends so much time in the children's cancer ward he does not know his own kids. The wildlife researcher who sends her kids to boarding school so she can save the habitat of the Amazon floodplains? If time spent on the charitable activity is used to avoid other things we should be doing in our lives, it isn't all that noble of a virtue.
Charity therefore must be examined for the motives of the charitable which is not to say that self-serving charity does not also do others good, but if one really desires to do good, one should at least be aware of who is benefiting and how the needs served by this charitable activity stand against the needs served by other. Volunteering at a church fashion show might not EVER count as true charity in light of other needs in the community, for example. And charity needs to be evaluated for its true costs. Charity costs to the giver, but also to the giver's family and friends who maybe ought to have right of first refusal on more of the giver's time and resources. If others are harmed by your 'charity', it ceases to become a virtue and crosses the line to vice. Or is there really any true line between vice and virtue after all?

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