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  ‘Charity’ is how the King James translation of the Bible renders the Latin word caritas, itself a considered, Biblical translation of the Greek word agapé. In Latin caritas is one of several words denoting ‘love’ of different kinds, and the distinctions between them greatly occupied the attention of medieval Christian scholars. Essentially, caritas was seen as a form of love untainted (as others were) with fleshly longings of any kind: it was the love God felt for humans, and which humans in return should aspire to feel for God and for all God\'s creation. It was not the same as love of country, love of virtue, or love of love itself. It was unselfconscious, altruistic and inspirational. Of the three pillars of Christian belief and practice declared by St Paul, faith, hope and ‘charity’, it was, in his word, the ‘greatest’.

Having defined charity, Christian exegetists next went on to consider how it should be shown. Their conclusion was that human charity should model God\'s, who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…’. The giving which arises from love was not charity itself, but a product of charity. Nonetheless, this narrowing and crudifying of the meaning of the word became standard, and is now universal. Because we feel charitable, we give to those in need. In this sense, charity is close to zakat, the almsgiving which is the third of the five pillars of Islam (usually involving devout Muslims in giving 2.5% of their annual income to the poor); the difference is that zakat is a sacred obligation, whereas charity is not. In Buddhism almsgiving is also common, but here it is to support monks and nuns, and is regarded by most donors as a privilege rather than an obligation.

Secular forms of charity (in the sense of helping those less fortunate than oneself) sometimes take us into dark areas of motivation, conscience and guilt. Often, charity-giving is institutionalized: we prefer to give goods or money for others to disburse on our behalf, than to hand them over directly. In capitalist societies, charity has often been seen as a supplement to or replacement of the Welfare State, the so-called ‘trickle-down’ of wealth symbolizing a society ‘at ease with itself’. In socialist societies, charity is often seen as unnecessary: in a state in which each contributes according to ability and receives according to need, the concept of ‘charity’, and the personal altruism of which it is a consequence, have no meaning. In the present-day politics of First and Third Worlds, ‘charity’ is often a hated concept, thought to contain overtones of patronage and imperialism, and to override ideas of equality and natural justice. In all such attitudes, we seem to have moved a long way from the original meaning of the word; is one right to infer, as some social anthropologists do, that ‘conscience’ and ‘altruism’ are not innate human qualities, and need some kind of objective correlative, some external imperative, if they are to work at all? KMcL



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