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The rise & fall of Christian charity

2010 Books Issue | A 19th-century text speaks to 21st-century care of the poor

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

"Make new friends but keep the old" goes for books as well as friends. "Some are silver and some are gold." In this issue and throughout the year we emphasize new books, but in May I ran across a golden oldie, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church (1883). The author, Gerhard Uhlhorn, was a German Lutheran theologian and historian who described how ancient Romans thought of work and charity, how the coming of Christianity changed attitudes and behavior, and what went wrong as the ancient church slouched toward medievalism. Readers may make their own judgments as to whether history is repeating itself.

Uhlhorn begins by describing how, in the early A.D. years, "the Roman populace became more and more a work-hating, pleasure-seeking crowd, which cheered every new leader in the hopes of new largesse." People began seeking a handout rather than a hand up: "The Roman of that day would much rather busy himself as a beggar and sycophant in the hall of some great man, than stick to any ordinary and regular work."

Roman charity was self-interested: "Of the duty of love . . . of such a compassion as is self-sacrificing for the sake of others, we hear nothing. Even in the making of gifts and presents, it is not the individual, but the State, the town, the citizenship that is regarded. There is plenty of liberality, but no compassion; plenty of good deeds, but none of the works of charity. While one furthers the interests of the State, one furthers one's own interests, for one depends upon the State; without it, one is nowhere. Here again we find selfishness at the bottom of all."

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Uhlhorn grounds the lack of charity in a worldview that did not see humans as possessors of eternal souls: "If the individual man be only a passing shadow, without any everlasting significance, then reflection quickly makes us decide: Since it is of no importance whether he exist or not, why should I deprive myself of anything in order to give it to him? For the rule of life soon becomes this, that every one makes himself as comfortable in this life as possible; and this implies that he need not trouble himself about the poor and needy, whose existence or non-existence is at bottom a matter of no importance."

Uhlhorn connects the beginning of a change in thinking about charity, 2,000 years ago, with a spreading realization of God's sovereignty: "The rich gave what he gave to God, and the poor received what he received from God. Thus the temptation of the rich to exalt themselves above the poor, and the humiliation of the poor at being obliged to receive assistance from others, were removed, while at the same time discontent and murmuring, as well as insolent demands and presumptuous requests, were done away with."

Through this process both rich and poor learned humility: "The rich became conscious that he only gave back to God what he had first received. . . . Gifts had not the effect, so often occurring in other instances, of separating between rich and poor by increasing and rendering still more prominent the chasm existing between them, but were a bond which united them in God, by making them conscious of their oneness in the one Lord." As Clement wrote late in the first or early in the second century, "The rich give to the poor, the poor praises God, for sending to him someone by whom his wants are supplied."

Discernment in giving was as important then and now. Basil, a fourth-century bishop in Cappadocia, noted, "Great experience is required to distinguish between those who are really poor and those who beg only that they may collect money. He who gives to a distressed and sick person gives to God, and will receive a reward. But he who gives to a vagabond and parasite . . . gives it to men who deserve contempt for their audacity, rather than pity for their poverty." Ambrose, Basil's contemporary in Milan, described "the arts of pretended beggars" and emphasized the need "to take care lest the portion that belongs to the needy becomes the prey of rogues."

Discernment was possible because church deacons "rendered a great individualizing possible in the relief of the poor. Every one received the assistance that his necessities required. Efforts were above all made to render the poor again capable of work, and to put them in a condition to earn their own livelihood. They were directed where to find work, and were furnished with tools. Where there were still connections or relatives, their aid was first requested; they were not to suffer the Church to be burdened with those whom it was their own first duty to help."

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