#elxn42: The Essence of Charity

As a bit of a theology nerd I was excited to hear that Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, cited the Bible in his testimony in Mike Duffy’s trial. When Wright personally reimbursed Duffy for $90,000 of expenses the disgraced senator had to repay, he wanted it kept private—because, he said today, of Matthew 6:

1 Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. 2 So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

In the context of his previous statement, that he paid Duffy out of “obligation”, one is reminded of the Jewish mitzvah of tzedakah, or charity. Mitzvah, while often translated as “good deed”, actually means “commandment” or “religious obligation”. And privacy and anonymity are an important part of tzedakah—the Talmud says that someone who gives tzedakah in secret is better than Moses.

It’s not just about motivation—i. e., ensuring that the donor isn’t just doing it for an ego boost. The more important principle is to preserve the dignity of the poor. This priority is enshrined in the biblical commandments, tucked away in the dead boring parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that farmers should not harvest their entire field, but leave a corner behind for the poor to harvest themselves. From this a vast array of rabbinical laws, interpretations, and anecdotes proliferated: the poor should not have their time wasted waiting for help; one must avoid humiliating the recipient at all costs; someone should not have to sell off their assets or the tools they use to make a living in order to be considered eligible for aid.

The way anonymity preserves the recipient’s dignity is made explicit in the medieval philosopher Maimonides’ ranking of eight levels of tzedakah. The fourth heighest level of tzedakah is when the recipient is unknown to the donor. The third level is when the donor is unknown to the recipient. The second level is when neither the donor nor recipient know who each other is. And the absolute highest level of tzedakah is preventing a person from becoming poor in the first place, by giving them a gift or a loan or helping them find work.

When Jesus was alive, none of this had been written down yet, or codified so precisely; it was a tumultuous period when rival sects and academies were still battling it out. Judaism (as we know it) and early Christianity would each coalesce later. To take Jesus’ view of charity in context, one should also consider the Jewish version, which reflects one of the traditions that existed during his time. Anyway, this is all to say that he probably called people hypocrites not just because they gave alms to feel good about themselves, but because they embarrassed the poor as well.

It is in this light that we should see Nigel Wright’s generous gesture towards Mike Duffy. Repaying $90,000 would surely have put the senator in poverty, probably requiring him to sell off some of his assets. This would not have escaped the press, who would glory in his humiliation. By paying Duffy, Wright intended to allow him to maintain his self-sufficiency. And by requesting secrecy, he stayed true to the spirit of tzedakah—acting selflessly, out of obligation to the Prime Minister God. It is only a mark of our fallen times that this deed landed him afoul of the Criminal Code. Would that we all, Christian, Jew, and otherwise, had such a commitment to charity.

7 Things To Name-Drop In Your “Laudato Si” Thinkpiece

Pope Francis’ much-hyped encyclical drops today. Are you prepared to sound smart? Here, in no particular order, are 7 references that will convince your readers you didn’t find out what an “encyclical” was yesterday. THANK ME LATER, PUNDITS. Continue reading 7 Things To Name-Drop In Your “Laudato Si” Thinkpiece

A little inspirational Easter reading

In this excerpt from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, the Jesuit priest Paul Duré has tracked down the Bikura, a mysterious tribe living in the wilds of the planet Hyperion. Tiny, docile, and unintelligent, they seem to be the degenerate remnant of the original settlers, calling themselves “the Three Score and Ten” and “worshipping” in an immense, ancient cathedral at the base of a canyon. They make Duré one of their own by implanting a cruciform — one of the cross-shaped parasites they each bear — into his chest.

Continue reading A little inspirational Easter reading

“Poor people will be with us forever”

says budget chief Mike Del Grande in this horrifying chat from last summer, echoing that famous line from the Gospels,

The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.

It’s a reference to this verse from Deuteronomy outlining economic policies:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

Note the subtle difference between the two verses. In the Deuteronomy version, the ubiquity of poverty is in itself a rationale for caring for the poor. (Our budget chief’s somewhat unorthodox interpretation inverts this reading: the ubiquity of poverty means we shoud not care for the poor.)

In the Gospels, however, Jesus puts his own spin on it. Context, beautiful context: he and the crew are in Bethany and a woman anoints him with expensive perfume, and the disciples are outraged because they think she should have sold it and given the money to the poor. Jesus, however, knows that it’s only a couple days away from the Last Supper and he’s totally about to die. So he says, it’s not a big deal, after I’m gone, you can take care of the poor (in place of me). It’s an echo of the parable of the sheep and the goats:

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

where service to the poor is considered service to God by proxy.

In Del Grande’s interpretation, however, Jesus doesn’t deserve food or shelter or care. Jesus is not worthy of unconditional love — unjudgmental service for its own sake — because whatever state he’s in is probably his own damn fault. Tough love, man. Sometimes love is impatient and unkind, remembers wrongs, and dishonours and humiliates people.

Take it from a true Christian.

The triumphant return of What I’m Reading

James Blish, Black Easter (1968) and The Day After Judgement (1971)

So it’s a Cold War Earth pretty much like our own once was, except magic (in the grimoire tradition) is totally real and this one guy hires a sorcerer to loose a whole bunch of demons into the world for one night, just to see what happens. (I’m getting the sense that believable motivations are not James Blish’s strong point.) Naturally, it backfires and brings about the end of the world. In the second book, this guy and his buddies take a road trip to Hell, and shit gets cosmic. This may have already become one of my favourite books. More substantial post later, hopefully.

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games (1988)

Yes! I finally started reading the Culture novels! In this one, our gamer hero (a totally cis straight guy, an anomaly in the Culture) goes to a barbaric brutal empire to play the Ultimate Game. It feels like a good entry point into the series, as the Empire of Azad is relatively Earthlike and so Gurgeh’s outsider viewpoint allows for indirect exposition about the Culture. However, I’m looking forward to reading novels that take place wholly in the Culture to see how Banks does compelling stories in a post-scarcity, post-all-those-plot-generating-bad-things society.

Brent Hayward, The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter (2011)

It’s science fiction in a fantasy mode full of unsympathetic characters and machine intelligences and stuff! It’s like Gormenghast crossed with a classic generation ship story! Theoretically I should have loved this, and while I think Hayward did some truly masterful world-building, flitting through a dizzying variety of viewpoints and cultures while creating a very distinct cohesive feel, said world, for me, wasn’t all that fun to spend time in. It’s so unrelentingly dirty and grotesque and downtrodden that I feel like I should take a shower afterwards and read something fluffy and shiny. Perhaps his debut Filaria will be more to my taste.

It would make a pretty kick-ass videogame, though.

so i herd u liek mudkips: Notes on James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

Pondering priest, big dinosaur holding a test tube or something.
Never mind the dinosaur holding a test tube, I'm still trying to figure out this bit from Finnegan's Wake.

A Case of Conscience is a weird little book from the 50’s. It’s aged badly. It holds together well in the sense that when I began imagining what would have to be changed for the story to make sense, I had to give it up because the end product would have been unrecognizable.

If you’d like a synopsis, see Wikipedia; for an insightful review of A Case of Conscience I refer you to Jo Walton’s review. If you’d like to read my disjointed, pop-culture-saturated ramblings, click through.

Continue reading so i herd u liek mudkips: Notes on James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

“He tried to do away with Hell, you know.”

“[The Prophet Tarrant’s vision] was threefold,” he said at last. “One: To unify man’s faith, so that millions of souls might impress the fae with the same image in unison. Two: To alter man’s perception of the fae—to distance him from that power—thus weakening the link which permitted it to respond to him so easily. This meant a god who wouldn’t make appearances on demand, nor provide easy miracles. It meant hardship and it meant sacrifice. But he believed that in the end it would save us, and permit us to regain our technological heritage. Three: To safeguard man’s spirit while all this was taking place, so that when at last we cast off the shackles of this planet and rejoined our kin among the stars, we wouldn’t discover that in the process we had become something other than human. Something less than we would want to be.” […]

“So what happened?” she pressed.

“Humankind learned the lesson too well. Because if man could create a true God in his own image, why couldn’t he create an obliging godling with even less effort? What you worship shall come to exist, the Prophet wrote. The power of your faith will give your dreams substance. And so it was. A thousand selfish men designed their own prayers and their own psalms and gave birth to a thousand godlings, each feeding on man while serving his earthly desires. Even as the Church grew in strength, this trend continued, until there were over a hundred tiny states with their own pet deities, their own claim to power. So we went to war: man’s final recourse when diplomacy fails him. It was a disaster. Oh, if it had been a clean and glorious conflict, filled with images of faith and capped by a clear-cut victory, it might have stirred men’s hearts and won them to our side. It wasn’t. It was a bloody mess that spanned three centuries, and it ended only when we bit off more than we could chew and tried to do battle with the fae itself—or rather, with the evil the fae had spawned. Our power base destroyed, our precious image sullied, we crept back to our churches and our pews to lick our wounds in private.”

“And now?”

“We do what we can, Hesseth. We still serve the same dream, but defeat has taught us patience. We no longer see the Prophet’s vision as the end of a neat progression that’ll be consummated in our lifetimes, but an ideal state that may not be realized for centuries yet. For tens of centuries. Except here,” he whispered, and he glanced towards Toshida’s ship. “Isolated, unified, devout…they may have accomplished what the west failed to do. By establishing a state free of pagan influence, by raising their children in unquestioning faith…what power, Hesseth! It could alter the world. It may already have begun to.”

“And Tarrant?”

He stiffened at the sound of the name. “Cast out by his own creation,” he said sharply. “The Church knew that it would never alter the fae’s response to man until it had done away with private sorcery…and he couldn’t give that up. Not even to save his own soul.” He drew in a deep breath of cool night air, exhaled it slowly. “He tried to do away with Hell, you know. Excess philosophical baggage, he called it. Detrimental to our cause. He erased it from all the text, expunged it from the liturgy. They put it back. The habits of Earth were too deeply ingrained, the image of divine judgment too comforting for the righteous. In the end he lost that battle.” And so much more…

—C. S. Friedman, When True Night Falls (chapter 4)

X. recommended Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy to me and I’m very glad I took her up on it. It’s an impressively thought through blend of science fiction and fantasy, and one of the most ambitious treatments of religion I’ve read in a while. Can’t wait to read the final volume to see if she’s really going to do what I think she’s doing.