Sunday, December 10, 2017

'Tis the Season: Sectarian Religious Charity and Intra-Community Moralism

I live in a charity-free world. As a consummate Capitalist, I find myself generally uninterested in giving charity on a personal level. Now, I know that many of you, perhaps deservedly, have just uttered a gasp of altruistic revulsion after my little confession, but in my defense I must offer that I have no problem with the fact that a portion of my tax money is used in state-run programs to help those who are in need. I also happen to be virtually surrounded by people in my life who give to numerous charities, in my opinion perhaps even excessively.

On the other hand, I give quite readily, and generously, in exchange for any service offered or rendered. Thus, if an individual displays a talent in a public forum, such as singing, dancing, etc., etc., I am much more inclined to reach for my wallet than if they just accost me otherwise with an empty cup shoved at my chest. Likewise, I am very liberal with gratuities for my server in any exchange, including retail eateries and the like. In my opinion, good service should always be rewarded.

As to the content of this post, I normally do not address moralistic issues here on the Gauntlet, but let me lead you through the my motivation for creating this outing. While working on a variety of forthcoming posts which focus on politico-religious community interactions, specifically in the form of three specific articles respectively dedicated to speculation on the future of Islam and reformation, Palestinian collective religious-political psychology, and my admittedly partisan observations regarding the US Jerusalem embassy move / two state solution, I stumbled into a general discussion regarding the abuse of charity by religious institutions with extended friends on Facebook.

This is of course nothing new, and I'm sure that a fairly large percentage of pretty much everyone out there is familiar with one story or another regarding a friend, acquaintance, or family member, who fell under the spell of a movement, charismatic figure, or just plain had become so emotionally invested in giving charity, specifically of the religious sort, that even other believers felt that the person in question had "gone off the deep end" of giving too much for their own good.

There is no denying that helping those less fortunate than ourselves is a noble endeavor. In fact, I suggest that the origin of charity arose historically in concord with our earliest forays into group social dynamics - that of the first simple prehistoric hunter-gatherer clan bonds. Surely, in a tightly knit extended family peer group, the care for those who could no longer, or were never particularly good at, providing for themselves, was part and parcel of being a member of the community, if not objectively quantifying one as "a good person" by others in the said peer group.

As civilization grew from immediate blood bond groups to include a plurality of extended identity groups, this notion was not simply abandoned. Quite the contrary, it became codified in law and discussed philosophically. Frankly, it behooved even the most despotic ancient Mesopotamian king or emperor to promote programs to feed the poor, care for the incapacitated, and the like, not just as a means to display their magnanimity or beneficence, but more so to assist their civilization in running smoothly. This was no different, regardless of any religious pretext, than building roads, waste removal, and public safety. These endeavors aided commerce and helped a city flourish. Many modern thinkers often conflate, sometimes intentionally, these programs with some kind of proto-Socialistic leaning, or as an outgrowth of tribal identitarianism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Charity, of the organized sort helped oil the wheels of civilization, and clearly assisted in keeping per capita income up, and consumer spending higher than if left unattended.

This in turn  led to the creation of organizations, many times themselves a part of the extended Temple structure, and these structures applied collected personal charity in proxy for the donator. Sure, the king, public official, or a magistrate, attempting to curry favor with the community, could gift a large public donation as a means to virtue signal, but they were also giving to the same organization as the average Gilgamesh. Micro, or macro-cosmic charity is a great equalizer. A man or woman of modest means could donate like a king, if so driven, and if he or she was more interested in the result of the donation, rather than the virtue signalling of it all, they were of course free to contribute their donation anonymously.

Overall the evolution of the "charity concept" manifested in three distinct paths. One, personal unrecorded donations given from individual to individual; two, voluntary donations to organizations; and three, mandatory donations levied by the state that were in essence a tax. Linguistically I must add that "levied" is the best word to describe this latter form, because it was most fully developed in the Hebrew Torah as per the laws of pertaining to the Levim, or Levites, as they are called in  Latinized English.

The ethno-religious priestly castes of ancient Israel, known as the Kohanim and Levim, and some other minor family clans, were commanded by God to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was to be their hereditary lot, because in this deal with Yahway, and the other Israelite tribes, the prior inherited no actual land territory as a means to support themselves. Thus, their welfare fell to the other tribes, who were commanded by the faith to donate to the Temple, enforced of course by the reigning king. This "tax" is referred to as a "tithe" in English, as reflected from Old English word for "a tenth", which was the amount of the Mosaic Levirate tax in the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judea - 10% per household.

The tithe went to directly support the physical upkeep of the temple itself, and the welfare of the Kohanim and Levim who were appointed to manage operations therein. After the final destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Roman army in 70 C.E., the collection of the tax, as well as its purpose, ceased to exist, and thus, Jewish charity shifted to a more general moralistic notion known as "Tzdakah". Tzdakah has little to do with donating to a specific religious edifice or even organization, but is considered a morally righteous act and is, by extension, is part of the "Tikkun Olam", or "healing the world" concept. As an intra-community faith group it is also incumbent upon Jews to give charity to Jews in need, prior to giving to non-Jews. This premise may have obliquely evolved out of the Levirate tithe, but more so it arose out of post-exile rabbinic philosophy, and was intentionally designed to insure the continuance of the Jewish community as a distinct, mobile ethno-religious minority within the larger gentile world. This was crucial, specifically in light of the fact that the population of Judea had been severely diminished by up to 80% in the aftermath of the Roman genocide.

In the aftermath and subsequent birth pangs of the derivative monotheistic faiths, both Christians and Muslims inherited parts of the charitable notions kicking around Judaism as it shifted from its Temple-driven base to a Talmud-driven base in the early centuries of the first millennia.

Islam, as a similar "community solidarity machine" embraced the Tzdakah concept and made it one of the five pillars of their faith, known as the principle of "Sadaqah", or "Zakat". It varies somewhat from the ancient Jewish tithe in that Zakat doesn't quite make the full 10%, and accounts for 2.5% of a Muslim's annual earnings. Nevertheless, It could be argued, linguistic similarity aside, that the premise and practice of the two are extremely similar. I expect that Islam sought to offset this personal fiscal "loss" to individual Muslims by instituting the "jiyza" tax on non-Muslims to be collected by the state, and which served the dual purpose of coercing non-believers into the fold - a necessity completely superfluous to Judaism as a non-proselytizing faith.

According to traditional Islam, a Muslim who consciously refuses to pay Sadaqah-Zakah-Zakat is considered an apostate, and in a Sharia compliant society they can be jailed. Today, in most Muslim-majority countries, as in Israel and Christian-dominant nations, charity has become wholly voluntary, while only in a handful of Muslim lands; notably Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen, Zakat is mandated and collected by the state. Shiite Muslims, unlike their Sunni counterparts, have traditionally regarded Zakat as private and voluntary, and rather than forward it to the national government, give charity directly to imam-sponsored endeavors and programs.

In contrast, Christianity, with its retro-active focus on Christianizing the "Old Testament", and finding means to incorporate biblical lifestyle and morals into their community in an emulation of the Christ, embraced the pre-exile tithing principle iterated in the Torah and Gospels, and seamlessly morphed it into "donations to the Church", thus insuring the fiscal solvency of the papacy. While not compulsory, the Synod of Macon in 585 C.E. made tithing canon law, and in reaction to the nascent Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century, ruled that Catholics who failed to pay the tithe suffer excommunication.

The birth of Protestantism saw a redistribution of the Catholic Church's wealth by monarchs such as Henry the VIIIth of England, who appropriated Catholic wealth and land to benefit his nationalized Church of England, with the continuation of "tithing" in the pews for the masses of course. Not to say that Catholic monarchs didn't seize land and wealth for themselves as well, and to be fair we should never forget King Phillip the Fair's decimation of the Knights Templar, and the French Catholic persecution of the Cathars, Waldensians and Huguenots.

In the Protestant context, and reflecting the many competing sects therein, the means and methods of giving charity has become manifold, and as diverse as the sects in question. Though giving is always and uniformly encouraged as an act of faith. While not overtly intra-community oriented, Christianity, as an evangelizing faith, does require that the "good news" be spread, and thus, while a very public seasonal collection endeavor like, say, the Salvation Army, may aid non-Christian people in need. Nevertheless, the goal is designed to encourage those who receive the "Armies" aid toward "salvation", and it offers to those who contribute "points" toward their own salvation. This works on a visceral psychological level when you have proposed that only people ascribing to your doctrinal system are viable candidates for admission to your specific idyllic vision of the afterlife. The distinction here being of course that many Christians and Muslims believe that their respective heavens are only inhabited by their "righteous" coreligionists. For Jews, such concepts are decidedly more abstract, and the thinking has more commonalities with "enlightenment-driven" non-monotheistic faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism. This is perhaps not surprising in light of the antiquity of Judaism and in the general polytheistic context in which it grew and evolved.

For we in the west, the concept of secular humanism developed as part-and-parcel of the Classical Liberal Values of the Enlightenment, and encouraged, or maybe demanded, the separation of faith and state in a very explicit manner. One may give to an organization, religious or otherwise, if one so desires, but by no means can it, or should it, be enforced by law. In the United States, most political Conservatives would be overtly adversarial to this sort of government mandate, but I must also add that statistically Conservatives donate slightly more cash to charity, though maybe not time, and certainly they contribute more to religious causes.

I don't know if any of my observations regarding the evolution of the charitable ideal are anything new, but I hope that they were at least educational. Perhaps one day humanity as a whole will all share the optional nature of charity, regardless of faith or nation, and give if and when one sees it personally fit, or not at all, and not be judged either way. But hey, who am I to change human nature?

Till next time.

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