“I don’t know how it is, my brothers and sisters, but the spirit of the person who actually hands something to a poor man experiences a kind of sympathy with common humanity and infirmity, when the hand of the one who has it actually placed in the hand of the one who is in need. Although the one is giving, the other receiving, the one being attended to and the one attending are being joined in a real relationship.” (from Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 259.5)
The word charity has accumulated connotations over years past such that today doubts swirl around its use: Can we really give to another selflessly? Is charity really just a superficial way to ease my conscience and in the end enable someone else’s self-destructive habits? Given some of these doubts I’ve heard it said many times that we must accept that humans are driven towards self-maintenance and shape our good intentions around this reality.
Like many discussions in modern moral philosophy, this one ends up being circular. As long as you start with the conviction that we are creatures primarily driven by survival instincts, then it is reasonable to conclude that we must organise our societies and communities around the protection of mutual self-interest. As Augustine suggests in the quote I’ve opened with, however, we need not begin with this conviction. This is precisely the legacy of the long history of Christian moral philosophy, which is driven by another starting conviction – that we are made to give and receive love. It is no accident that the Latin word for “love,” “caritas”… is the same root that gave us “charity”.
We cannot rehabilitate this way of talking about how people might live together while relying on a soporific version of love, however. What is required here is something more robust, a sort of loving that, as Augustine points out is inherently reciprocal and self-involving. Giving in love requires that we enter into another person’s experience in empathy. If we do not allow ourselves the chance to feel the suffering (and joy!) of our neighbour, then we may not actually be experiencing “true love.” The long-term consequence of this love is a mutual relationship.
For Augustine and other Christians reflecting in this tradition, it must be noted, this way of approaching our conduct did not apply exclusively to one’s personal life. This same sort of mutually involving Love could be expected to drive the interaction between societies as well. As we have seen over past decades, efficient calculations of mutual self-interest do not necessarily lead to more healthy societies or offer us the tools to truly confront the defining moral issues of our time – including the environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves. An ethic of love provides us a starting point which pursues not mere survival but a principle of self-giving which can seek to help across borders and across generations. This is surely a complicated matter, but it is nonetheless crucial to affirm a starting point by which we can expect to reliably guide our interactions, and the Christian tradition offers us exactly that.