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Christmas charity: Emerson and Barth

December 25th, 2006 by isaac · 4 Comments

It’s Christmas and the bells are ringing. Sure, the jingle bells on Santa’s sleigh. But also those bells at the grocery store doors, where the Salvation Army’s faithful stand with collection plates at hand, ready for the generous overflow of our rampant holiday spending.

I don’t count myself as atypical. I’ve put in my time spreading love and good cheer to the down-and-out this Christmas season. I’ve thrown some change in the empty cups and collection plates I pass by as I walk the sidewalks on my way to buy the perfect gift for a friend. I’ve even given a few dollar bills to a beggar who asked for some cash to buy lunch, and received his thankful “merry Christmas” with a smile. Yesterday I gave a few hours to a homeless shelter to help in their food kitchen. But all this seems like par for the course of Christmas charity. Maybe we should all pat ourselves on the back as we sit around our Christmas trees, with the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, feasting on food, fellowship, and gifts. I can now enjoy my Christmas dinner in peace, knowing that I did what I could to those folks out there on streets.

But I am haunted this Christmas season by two spirits from the dead—two voices from the past: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Karl Barth. It’s an unlikely convergence.

There’s an infamous passage from Emerson’s essay called “Self-Reliance.” It’s a passage that offends liberal concern and conservative piety at the same time.

Do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

Why is the dollar I gave to the man standing at the doors of Target a “wicked” dollar? It’s wicked because I give it to escape his eyes, to dodge the hand that reaches for companionship as much as a dollar. Emerson’s question is also a call for friendship: “Are they my poor?” Of course “they” aren’t. They are the anonymous plural, the anonimity of others who bear no real relation to my life—well, only insofar as I have to navagate their eyes when I walk by. If their eyes meet mine, they they will surely ask me for money. Or worse, they may want a conversation, company, someone with whom to share a story.

“Are they my poor?” Do they know my name? Do I know theirs? Will they remain the generalized poor, an abstract class that we can keep at the distance of anonymity? Did you invite him or her over for Christmas dinner? Or, better, did he invite you to his table?

Karl Barth comes down just as hard on philanthropic charity:

There is indeed a love which is mere philanthropy, a sympathetic and benevolent concern and assistance which we can exercise with zeal and devotion without taking even a single step away from the safe stronghold of being without our fellow-man, but in a deeper withdrawal into our shell. There is a form of love—mere charity—in which we do not love at all; in which we do not see or have in mind the other man to whom it is directed; in which we do not and will not notice his weal or woe; in which we merely imagine him as the object of the love which we have to exercise, and in this way master and use him… There is thus a form of love in which, however sacrificially it is practised, the other is not seized by a human hand but by a cold instrument, or even by a paw with sheathed talons, and therefore genuinely isolated and frozen and estranged and oppressed and humiliated, so that he feels that he is trampled under the feet of the one who is supposed to love him, and cannot react with gratitude” (Church Dogmatics IV:2, p. 440).

It’s the same call: “Are they my poor?” We do our charity work, offer a few hours of our time, then return to “the safe stronghold of being without our fellow-man.” And maybe even a “deeper withdrawal into our shell.” Our philanthropy is a love in which we “do not love at all; in which we do not see or have in mind the other man to whom it is directed.” Our charity never lets the other into our lives, into the intimacies of friendship. The poor and needy remain distant—we never learn how to welcome them as a salvific disruption to our safe journeys, another stranger we meet on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24). Barth: “If he will not give himself to this other, he himself withers and perishes” (443).
Without one’s fellow-man, God is an illusion, a myth. He may be the God of Holy Scripture, and we may call upon Him as the Yahweh of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ, but He is an idol in whom we certainly cannot believe.

Tags: life

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mel // Dec 27, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    eh, yes and no. thank GOD for people who give money to places like L’Arche, Habitat, Brother Andre Cafe, Safehaven, you name it. As much as I love the “fellow-man” bit, it doesn’t pay the electric bill. Maybe awful, but true.

  • 2 isaac // Dec 29, 2006 at 5:44 am

    Mel, thanks for the comment. I should have expected it from you. First, let me say thank you for that piece you wrote months ago for Sojourners, “Biking as a Lenten Practice” (March, 2006). Great work. I just recently stumbled across it. Here’s my favorite sentence: “His voice and his words conveyed the bitterness of the present-day situation in the Middle East, the Iraqi hatred for Americans, and his powerlessness to distinguish himself from the occupying military forces and contractors.”

    Anyhow, I think I might buy a bike and try to find ways to ride in this town.

    Back to your comment…
    I get it. Your community (L’Arche, for those who don’t know) lives off the generosity of others, from folks who may never make their way into your house. And the multitude of other wonderful organizations survive on the gifts of others, sometimes anonymous others.

    On the one hand, I want to also say, “thank God for them.” Their money helps others share Christ’s love. But they don’t have to get involved in the messiness. They don’t have to form friendships that complicate their lives. They don’t get to see the mysteries of Christ’s flesh. But shouldn’t we also be concerned with their souls? And that’s what Barth wants us to see. They love at a distance, without touching.

    On paying electric bills…
    During my couple years in the Black church, they taught me something about how to accept the generosity of others. They said, “God even uses the wealth of the unrighteous for his kingdom.” And they repeated a line from Scripture: “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” There will always be people who give their money out of guilt or pious concern. God will use whatever God wants. But that doesn’t mean we should hold back the offer of the kingdom from those who want to give to the anonymous needy and return to their safe lives (and I have to admit, I’m talking about me, not you).

    The kingdom is found in the mysterious dance of transformed relationships. We find our lives as we give them. It’s just what Jesus taught us. And our lives are more than our money. Jesus told the rich young ruler to give his wealth to the needy, and then he can start his life of discipleship. Giving away our money is only the prerequisite to following Jesus. It’s the beginning.

  • 3 tori // Dec 13, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    what is the porpose

  • 4 isaac // Dec 23, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    Tori, please say a little bit more. I’m not quite sure I understand.