Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a solidly reasoned article on how we should address the issue of poverty. Much of what she says parallels my thinking, but there was something that jumped out at me. It was a way of thinking about the issue that I had never considered before. Citing John Bossy, author of Christianity in the West 1400-1700, she summarizes a medieval conception of charity as follows: “we must care for the poor so that they will use their superior standing with God to pray for us who have an inferior standing with God.”
“In that formulation, care for the poor was an exchange that helped to ensure the spiritual destinies of the rich. That the formula has been reversed in modern times [with the rich presuming they can grant spiritual as well as material blessings upon the poor] tells us, among other things, that we are now distrustful of Christ’s repeated statements that He is with the poor; rather we presume them to be in immediate need of evangelizing by the well-off. It further demonstrates that there is no sense of exchange left to charity; at this point, it’s treated like a curative measure, physician to patient.”
This is an important point for those of us who would seek to help the poor (and for those who see no reason to render aid). We need to realize that we are every bit as much the beneficiaries of our acts of charity as they are. We have (rightly, I think) moved beyond the medieval concept that we need others to intercede with God on our behalf, but that doesn’t mean that we ourselves don’t benefit from our acts of charity. Rather when we help those in need we receive a number of “spiritual” benefits. Such acts of mercy are means whereby we encounter God and receive God’s grace (God’s loving power). They are also means by which we may discern the Imago Dei in a fellow human being and thus better understand every individual’s infinite worth in God’s eyes.
It would be great if our charity were motivated solely by disinterested benevolence, but we are fallen, sinful human beings. We cannot remain motivated by disinterested benevolence for long. If we can bring ourselves around to see that charity benefits both the giver and the receiver, we’ll all be better off.