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expansive view

Normally when I hear the word charity I think about helping other people, about being kind to others and cognizant of their circumstances. My focus when I think about charity is on the action of being charitable and the virtue of caring for others. I obviously was aware of charity as “an organization established to help the needy” but this was not what I would usually associate with the word. However the very examination of the actions of one of Canada’s many charities is what has brought me to this more detailed consideration of charity (see feeding children or feeding the façade of corporate social responsibility December 7th, 2011 and Challenging Corporate Charity, December 8th, 2011).

Considering the context is one of the first steps I take in considering a question, an issue or an action. The definition of a word or concept helps to clarify things for me and can either confirm or inform my thinking. We tend to use words in a particular way and I am always interested to discover that there is a meaning of a word that I have completely forgotten about or have never known.

It was interesting to look at definitions of the word charity in a variety of dictionaries. Most dictionaries listed the provision of help to people in need, giving money or food or material goods to people who need it and most listed a tolerant attitude or love of other people and all noted an organization or institution established to help people in need. In talking with a few people, young and old, I heard them tell me they think of charity as giving to others who have less and who need help.

One of the most interesting definitions albeit narrow definitions I found was under the “British English” section of the Cambridge Online Dictionary where they defined charity as:

“a system of giving money, food or help free to those who are in need because they are ill, poor or have no home, or any organization which has the purpose of providing money or helping in this way

The narrowness I see in this definition is the reference to a system which for me pushes aside the value of charity offered by individuals alone. That we have created systems and organizations for the distribution of charity creates stumbling blocks for people to exercise their natural desire to be charitable. This brings me to another interesting discovery in the definitions of charity where “love of mankind” is considered the archaic definition of charity. Has the complexity of our world and a move away from the archaic also taken us to a systems approach that does not focus on “love of mankind”?

Looking at the origin of a word is often a good way to build up the context for the word. Charity comes from charite in Old French and caritas in Latin. Caritas in turn refers to love (carus) and more specifically to love of God or the Divine Power which translates into love of all men. My take on this meaning is that this includes love of all men regardless of whether they are like us, whether they are of the same color, race or from the same country, whether they believe in the same God or Divine Power or nothing at all. This reverence for all mankind extends to nature and includes all flora and fauna.

Charity in this understanding is all about compassion and respect for others and a commitment to do no harm and in this sense is a form of unconditional love. Understanding charity from this perspective takes us to the heart of the teachings of all the prophets, all the major religions and spiritual practices to a form of the “golden rule”: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. 

I believe that over the years the increasing complexity of our society, our over-reliance on technology, economics, power and control has removed the blanket of true charity/caritas and has left us vulnerable to misconstrued ways of returning to the warmth of “love of all mankind”.

I am interested in exploring how we may have progressed to this point.


Irene McDermott © 2011