Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: charity

Time to Rethink Charity

Charities are in the news. Many seem to be failing, failing as businesses, failing in standards or failing in their role as advocates. Standing back, we can see two tendencies, one very negative, the other potentially positive, although currently much weaker.

The negative trend in the UK is the on-going collapse of the public and voluntary sectors and the invasion of large private organisations who are privatising Whitehall, the NHS, schools, local government and even the voluntary sector. For some this is called ‘modernisation’ but it is hard to see what is so modern about disastrous and corrupting inefficiency of projects like the Public Finance Initiative, the Work Programme or the inane procurement regimes which drive out community organisation and true innovation.

Again and again we find that when the public sector tries to harness the ‘dynamism’ of the private sector it often finds itself on the losing side of the deal. This is not surprising, when one side of the deal comes motivated to maximise profit, while the other is just following procedures, then expect a mess. Neither side is to blame – oil and water do not mix.

One of the saddest features of this collapse is the way in which so many charities, many with long and noble histories, have found themselves climbing on board the privatisation bandwagon. Today many charities are no more than inefficient private business – with high CEO salaries, poor terms and conditions for staff and bureaucratic cultures. There is nothing dynamic and creative about this new kind of voluntary sector – often there is nothing particularly voluntary about it either.

However this is not the full story. There are also a new forms of organisation emerging, ethical businesses, who do not just focus on profit; and community organisations that are dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative. For organisations like these the old charity model no longer seems to apply.

This old charity model still dominates our legal structures, and it fits into an understanding of civil society which goes something like this:

  1. The public sector provides core public services – from policing to healthcare. The sector is managed and controlled by politicians, who are accountable to the public (every few years).
  2. The private sector provides services or goods that people pay for. It is commercial and focuses on profit. It survives only when we buy what it offers.
  3. The charity sector harnesses our citizenship, enabling people to give, time, money or passion to supplement core public services.
  4. In particular the governance of charities must be voluntary, for this is meant to make it immune to the profit motive (and hence it is protected from corporation tax).

This model may have worked reasonably well in the past. But it is not clear how these distinctions hold when:

  • Government stops providing services and starts to buy them (what is called commissioning).
  • Instead of services people are given budgets to buy their own support (what is called personalisation).
  • Some business are choosing ethical objectives (what is called social enterprise).

It would be easy to declare the whole thing a farce, to dissolve the distinctions and to leave the market to sort everything out. Let people and government buy what seems best, let businesses grow, transform and become ethical. Let charities wither, if they no longer offer ‘good value’.

But, as G K Chesterton said, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” In this case the reason for the strong distinction between the profit motive and the ethical motive is that it doesn’t take long before the profit motive wins hands down. Profit enables businesses to buy political influence, control and even the appearance of being ethical. This is the reason that the likes of SERCO, A4E and G4S keep winning contracts from the public sector, while the small, the local and the ethical struggle to survive.

Instead of abandoning the distinction between the profit-seeking and the charitable it may be better to redefine it. In fact there may be a much better distinction available to us.

Today, when we use the word ‘market’ we usually think only of commercial exchange – buying and selling. The term has become captured by narrow liberal economics. However if we go back to ancient Athens and revisit their version of the market – what they called the ‘agora’ then we find, not just commercial exchange, but a whole range of human activities: teaching, praying, playing, politics, government. The agora is a public space and it was marked off by a series of sacred marker stones which could not be moved and beyond which no private property could be claimed.

So Athens, one of the most creative and fruitful places in human history, protected its public spaces from private enclosure. However Athens did not put all of the activities of the agora under control of the ‘demos.’ It was not public (or democratic) control that made something public – it was its appearance in the public space. It was the transparency of these affairs, as opposed to their privacy, for privacy is the essence of the private. The agora was a space in which we came outside and behaved as individual, diverse and interacting citizens.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the assembly, where the people met to make democratic decisions in together, was actually outside the agora – on a hill called the Pnyx. The Pnyx overlooks both the agora and the Acropolis, which was also a distinct site, and which was protected for the sacred purpose of worship. The agora, the space for free citizen action, was therefore distinct from both those areas where people came together to act as a whole people – in making decisions or worshipping God. The agora was plural, diverse and sacred.

Can we then replace the profit-voluntary distinction with a different public-private distinction?

Perhaps we should distinguish what makes something public from what makes something private, and in particular we should work hard to define and protect those things which are public – which we all share together – from those things that are private.

Here are some thoughts on what measures we might use to guard the public:

  • Local – Things that are rooted in the local are more reliable than the national or international where only a brand, a logo or profile is visible.
  • Transparent – When we aim to serve the public we will be quite happy to let people know our salaries, our savings, our funding and our workings.
  • No copyright – If we are interested in the public interest we will not want to protect private property rights and milk citizens for years to come.

Perhaps a further advantage of this approach might be to help us think about what David Miliband used to call “double devolution” the shift in power back to people and to communities. Devolution to the individual means that some public services need to be converted into private entitlements – in particular incomes sufficient to meet our basic needs. However other public services need to be converted into public goods – resources that communities themselves can examine, support or transform.

In this way we can overcome the reductive simplifications of Marxism with its ludicrous suspicion of private property and the very natural human activity of trade. Yet we can also remember that we also need public goods, safeguarded from the invasion of the private, that there to be enjoyed – in one way or other – by all of us.

The Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke: 10: 25-37

One way of bring this story up to date is to replace Samaritan with Palestinian.

Does the Jew have the right to be assisted by the Samaritan? Does the Samaritan have a Duty to assist the Jew? Although we might want to say assistance is a ‘good thing’ it might seem initially implausible to treat it as a matter of Rights or Duties. [Or we might want to say its a different kind of Right or Duty – I think some people call this a ‘duty from beneficence’ – but I’m not sure if this is what they really mean.]

First of all here is what we can say to support this feeling of implausibility:

  1. Rights and Duties imply Law, and Law means politics, policing, and prisons – in other words the only point to reference to these heavy-weight concepts is to bring in the weight of the law – enforcement. But our moral life must not be too closely connected to the Law (a) different things are important to different people and so cannot be legislated for (b) and many important things, like love, involve morality but would still be damaged by heavy-handed interference by the Law.
  2. We want to value the act of assistance but we don’t want to start demanding too much of people. How would we get anything done if people’s right to assistance trumped all the other valuable things we wanted to do? Duties are burdens and we don’t want to let them grow too big and we certainly don’t want then to adhere to us just because we happened to be passing by.
  3. Why should the Samaritan have to help the Jew who despise him. We might accept that the Jew has the right to assistance from other Jews – but there can be no right to assistance from Samaritans.

Despite this feeling of implausibility the truth is that the Jew has a right to assistance and the Samaritan has the duty.

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil, Waiting on God, p. 97

So let us see if we can deal with the counter-arguments:

1. Disconnecting Law and Morals

On the view of Weil, which I support, Duty and Right precede the Law. The Law is informed by our Rights and Duties, but it is not going to exactly mirror our Rights and Duties. Of course this means distinguishing a Legal Duty or Right and a Moral Duty or Right. But this is as it should be. The Law can be unjust and I can therefore, sometimes, reject the Law. If we make the Law primary we would not be able to evaluate the Law – this would mean that Law could never be Just because it could never be evaluated – morally – by Justice itself.

This view can also reconcile the worries we have about the limitations of the Law. Moral Duties and Rights don’t mirror the Legal but they do extend into other areas of the Moral Life:

a) Many of my Duties are highly personal to me, they may be linked to my choices, vocation, self-development or much else. The Law may or may not offer a helpful discipline to the fulfilment of my Duties. Freedom is not a moral-free zone.

b) Many Duties flow from features of relationships that are outside the reach of Law. Some of the Duties of a husband cannot be legislated for. In other areas relationships do give rise to contractual Rights and Duties.

This raises an interesting question. If the Law is not Justice then what role is there for the Law? If Justice is primary and precedes the Law then there is no reason to expect that Law will merely try to enforce Just behaviour. It may be wiser to ask the Law to do less work. It is not plausible that the Law is always the best means to promote the development of the virtuous person, to encourage self-development or good relationships. The Law may undermine virtue by either intruding where it has no place or in over-specifying human behaviour. The Law is necessary, but clumsy.

2. The Ending of Charity

Weil’s concern is that by trying to separate out moral Duties from some other weaker category of good deeds we are simply letting ourselves off the hook and misrepresenting our relationship with the Right-holder.

There is also the risk – as Weil also notices – of giving too much and this is also an important part of her argument. In human relationships doing good is a fine balance where we can do too much as well as do too little. The challenge is to do what is right – not just to do good.

3. The Universality of Love

It is certainly easier to assist those to whom we are joined in community and our communal relationships may also create very specific Duties – like paying taxes. But it is of the very nature of Justice that it is universal; we must face our Duties despite their costs and difficulties. Duties are, on this reading, simply an aspect of Love.

And here is Dorothy L Sayers on duty and love:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

So, in summary, we should not expect to see all our Rights and Duties mirrored in legal Duties and Rights. Nor should we seek some kind of softer and less demanding form of moral obligation – kindness or charity. It is morality itself that must underpin and interrogate the Law. Morality is experienced though love and, when we are not feeling so loving, through Duty.

Christian Love (Agape)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

Where is the newness to which Jesus refers? It lies in the fact that he is not content with repeating what had already been requested in the Old Testament and which we also read in the other Gospels: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

In the ancient precept the standard criterion was based on man (“as yourself”), whereas in the precept to which John refers, Jesus presents his own Person as the reason for and norm of our love: “as I have loved you.”

It is in this way that love becomes truly Christian: both in the sense that it must be directed to all without distinction, and above all since it must be carried through to its extreme consequences, having no other bounds than being boundless.

Those words of Jesus, “As I have loved you” simultaneously invite and disturb us; they are a Christological goal that can appear unattainable, but at the same time they are an incentive that does not allow us to ensconce ourselves in what we have been able to achieve. It does not allow us to be content with what we are but spurs us to keep advancing towards this goal.

Benedict XVI from The Apostles

The absurdity, the impossibility and the boundlessness of this Christian conception of love (agape) is disturbing.

We want something more sensible.

But what we want and what we need are two different things.

One aspect of this absurdity is the way in which love drives confronts the injustices that many civilisations simply take for granted. Slavery, apartheid, racism, discrimination and all forms of exploitation are quite natural. Power seeks to extend itself – how else could it be power. The self seeks to look after itself – how could it do otherwise.

Yet love does challenge injustice – love denies that these natural inequalities must simply be accepted – love is always seeking for a new Jerusalem, even amidst the ruins, confusions and complexities of the present.

What’s Wrong with Welfare Dependency?

Discussions about dependency and welfare dependency are full of illogicality and moral confusion.

Within the political system the term ‘welfare dependency’ has become code for a bad thing which is damaging the social fabric and the moral character of the poor. Everyone seems to be against welfare dependency. But what is wrong with dependency?

A dependency – in this context – is a need for help, from another person. Its opposite would be independence. But is dependency bad and independence good? Obviously not. If we do not need each other then we do not belong. If we could live without love, support, education and assistance we would be living in a bubble. As Aristotle puts it:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be a beast or a god. He is no part of a state.  (Politics 1.2)

So need for others – dependency in this first sense – is not bad, it is good.

Of course there are many ways in which we can get help. It is not the needing of help that is the problem, it is the threat of powerlessness, slavery or abuse which can make dependency risky.

Some dependencies are secured by love. Children need parents, and their shared love acts to keep that need safe. Loving parents protect, nurture and support their child to develop. Although, as we know, even something as beautiful and as important as family love can become damaged or twisted.

Some dependencies are secured by justice. Our rights, private property and the law, act to ensure that we are not taken advantage of in our dealings with others. Civil society is full of institutions that, at their best, enable us to get what we need, without being harmed or abused.

However injustice, inequality and poverty always seem to develop in every society. It is poverty that creates the most toxic dependencies. If I cannot secure what I need then I become dependent on others in a way that seems to guarantee abuse – begging, slavery, exploitation and oppression.

It is for this reason that modern societies have developed welfare systems. Their purpose is to create systems of mutual assistance that enable people to avoid toxic dependency on others and to replace it with a healthy welfare dependency. Welfare systems create healthy dependencies when:

  • People are enabled to get enough to meet their needs – not too little, not too much
  • People get what they need as a matter of right – not by charity
  • People are treated with dignity and respect at every stage – not stigmatised or treated as less worthy

The problem with welfare in the UK, therefore, is not that it creates dependency. Dependency is good and inevitable. The problem is that the system is badly designed. It is certainly less toxic than a system with no welfare provision – which creates abject poverty and corrosive dependencies and beggary. But it is more toxic than an effective system of universal, guaranteed income security – ideally provided through an integrated tax and benefit system with no visible stigma.

If we are to avoid further savage attacks on the poor – in the name of reduced welfare dependency – we need to move to a universal system to which we would then all feel connected.

The Eight Degrees of Charity

Level One – There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Level Two – A lower level than this is one who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he recieved. For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone. This [type of giving] was exemplified by the secret chamber that existed in the Temple. The righteous would make donations there in secret and poor people of distinguished lineage would derive their livelihood from it in secret. A level close to this is giving to a charity fund. A person should not give to a charitable fund unless he knows that the person managing it is faithful, wise and capable of administering it in a proper manner as Rebbe Chananya ben Tradyon was.

Level Three – A lower level than this is an instance when the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the poor person does not know from whom he received. An example of this were the great Sages who would go in secret and money into the doorway of the poor. This is an appropriate way of giving charity and it is as good a quality if the trustees of the charitable fund are not conducting themselves appropriately.

Level Four – A lower level than this is an instance when the poor person knows from whom he took, but the donor does not know to whom he gave. An example of this were the great Sages who would bundle coins in a sheet and hang them over their shoulders and the poor would come and take them so they would not be embarrassed.

Level Five – A lower level than that is giving the poor person in his hand before he asks.

Level Six – A lower level than that is giving him after he asks.

Level Seven – A lower level than this is giving him less than what is a appropriate, but with a pleasant countenance.

 Level Eight – A lower that that is giving him with sadness.

Maimonides from the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim 7-14

This important analysis of the demands of social justice should be given to all students of social policy, political theory and theology. For it sets out more clearly than anything else I know the real challenge of charity and social justice.

We forget that many society’s before the welfare state have figured out systems of mutual care and support. For instance, Jewish society had a long history of making social justice part of the institutions of agriculture, work, religion and society. Moreover, as Maimonides shows, Jewish thinking has been particularly sensitive to the need to ensure that charity is always an act of justice – not patronage.

Another way to read Maimonides is in reverse – the quality of giving improves to the point that the act of giving becomes utterly invisible:

  1. Resentful giving
  2. Insufficient giving
  3. Giving only when asked
  4. Giving directly
  5. Not knowing to whom you are giving to
  6. Not knowing who gives to you
  7. Giving that is utterly private
  8. Giving that is not giving

In other words we ascend to that point where there is no sense of weakness, vulnerability and dependence. The gift is still there – but it is absorbed into everyday life in a way that feels rightful and proper to both.

To my mind our efforts to create a system of universal entitlements, without stigma, in order to reform the current welfare state are probably analogous to Level 2 giving. Such a system would not be necessary in a society where everybody already had enough and where mutual exchange and support were natural and universal. But we are not that society. We live in a time of great inequality and for most people the economy offers little fundamental security. Most of us do not own land we can rent, have savings or a guaranteed income. Our securities are collective and guaranteed through democratic politics – for better or worse.

Those who seek to dissolve rights in the name of charity have not paid attention to the fundamental questions of human dignity, respect and equal citizenship which is at the heart of social justice – “you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.”

Justice and Charity

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil from Forms of the Implicit Love of God in Waiting on God

Many of us are suspicious of charity, because it is a kind of patronage where the giver is powerful and the recipient is powerless; the giver is to be thanked and the recipient is pitiable. Weil sees the same problem, but also from the direction of charity itself. If charity is an act of love then it must be welcomed – for love is the lifeblood of the universe. It is central to our proper nature – however when we split charity away from justice trouble begins: the recipient is no longer entitled – as a matter of justice – to what we give. Our giving comes from being extra-nice – the bounty of the rich and powerful.

However some worry about giving too much priority to justice, to rights and obligations. They worry that this is to cut love out of the picture. How can love be about rights and duties?

Another interesting quote from Dorothy Leigh Sayers approaches this same problem:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers from What Do We Believe, Unpopular Opinions (1940)

I think Sayers observation helps us see that love only becomes a matter of mere duty when it no longer drives us. We are merely ‘doing our duty.’ But whether from love or duty the right remains the same. The person for whom we act is fully entitled to our assistance – but we won’t notice that entitlement because we act from love.

Justice remains central. It stops us from patronising those who need our help – their needs create entitlements and we have no right to feel pleased with ourselves for doing our duty. But it does not exclude love – we can do our duty and yet have no awareness that we are merely doing our duty. It remains our duty, even when we act from love.

Fair Incomes and Welfare Reform

One of the simplest ways of understanding what is wrong with the current welfare system and why current efforts to reform it will continue to fail is to consider this question:

Do we want to ensure that nobody has to endure absolute poverty?

There may be a few extremists who will say no to this – they are happy to see their fellow citizens die in poverty, but their views should be discounted. Almost everybody from Right to Left actually agrees that we do not want to live in a society where anyone would be left without support.

So does that mean we have a guaranteed minimum income?

Well we do, and we don’t.

Our current benefit system – for all its craziness, complexity and poor design – does attempt to provide a minimum income – through the Income Support system. We will (almost) always get something if the system’s rules say that we are entitled, but these rules are designed so that this are right is conditional upon our poverty. This is how poverty traps work:

You can get x, but only if you are poor enough.

The current welfare system is an incoherent compromise and it reflects a point of indecision in the body politic. We don’t want poverty; but we don’t want to guarantee the end of poverty. We feel uneasy: Can we afford it? Do we trust each others to make the necessary contributions? Do we trust ourselves not to abuse the system? And so we continue with a crazy system that gives millions a pitiful income and at the price of robbing them of the natural incentives to contribute, earn, save and grow their own families. In a way we are all caught in a collective poverty trap – unwilling to trust each other, unable to move forward together – we guarantee social insecurity, fear and the waste of human talent.

But we can spring the poverty trap by moving away from conditional rights and towards universal rights. If instead of making a minimum income conditional upon poverty we make it unconditional – universal.

It is as if each citizen were to say to each other:

Let us each pay a fair amount in taxes, and guarantee to each other a fair minimum income; using this we can each of us build our own life and make the best use of our own talents.

In practice we could make this shift by (a) merging tax and benefits into one system and (b) creating a guaranteed minimum income for all which then acts as the threshold at which we begin to pay taxes.

I describe these ideas in more detail in a joint policy paper with The Centre for Welfare Reform and the University of Birmingham:

Fair Income Policy Paper

I am not the first to make these arguments. In fact societies have, from ancient times, constantly attempted to achieve the right balance between income security and personal freedom. The system of Jubilees, part of the Jewish tradition of social justice, had exactly this function. No one could be cast into the slavery of poverty for ever – there was always the potential for redemption and the chance to build afresh because land that was lost through differences in trade, luck or talent would be returned to the family every fifty years.

The current UK government has at least realised that the current benefit system does penalise the poor through high taxes (dressed up as benefit reduction rates) but unfortunately it is unwilling to take the next logical step and to create a universal system of income security. Instead it is attempting to devise a complex new tax regime for those on the edge of the benefit system – which will leave some people better off and some people worse off. Given that we already live in the third most unequal developed society it seems that increased poverty for some is a price we should not be willing to pay.

Ultimately there are only two ways to reduce poverty traps either (1) to push some people deeper into poverty or (2) to lift everyone out of poverty together. The government has quietly set about the first strategy. Surely it’s time to consider the second approach – the only sane and moral solution.

Mr Pye and Do-Goodery

Mervyn Peake’s novel Mr Pye is a wonderful fable on the perils of do-goodery. Bringing boundless wisdom and benevolence to the island of Sark he ends up, much to his own disgust, turning into a winged angel.

What is at the root of his strange fall is his own pride, his determination to not just be good – but to look good.

Several symptoms of his prideful benevolence shine though the pages of the novel:

Unlike Christ, Mr Pye never asks the person he is about to help whether he really wants his assistance. 

Power is never questioned. Confident in his own benevolence and greater wisdom he treats people as puppets – at times quite literally. 

God becomes the “Great Pal” – always smiling, always present. Only in his final reconciliation with God does he experience any fear and trembling.

Do-goodery is not good. Goodness follows the path of justice: it is always respectful, humble and mindful that any good that is done never really came from the self anyway.

Do Not Harvest to the Edges – Biblical Social Justice Theory

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.
I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.
Do not lie.
Do not deceive one another.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endagers your neighbour’s life.
I am the Lord.

Do not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.
I am the Lord.

Keep my decrees.

Leviticus: 19:9-8

This ancient account of social justice theory is not just interesting because it demonstrates how our awareness of the demands of social justice has a very long history. It also shows that about social justice in the past was often more sophisticated – even if it is framed in terms of an agricultural economy – than our thinking today. Notice in particular:

  1. The priority of making sure the most needy are provided for, but also the way in which this maintains the dignity and the autonomy of the poor – who do not need to beg or receive patronage.
  2. The importance of fair dealing and the imperative to not exploit those who work for you by delaying payments.
  3. The need to create an environment of dignity and respect for all – especially for those who can easily be taken advantage of.

These observations are all reinforced by the fear of God – his knowledge of all your actions and all your intentions. There is complete awareness that enlightened self-interest is not sufficient to protect those who might be  exploited by the more powerful. The constant refrain – “I am the Lord” – puts everyone in their place, reminds everyone that the power or status in this world is illusory – it justifies nothing and entitles us to no special treatment.

Giving as God has Given

Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. On the first day of the week let everyone of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whosoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality to Jerusalem. And if it be meet that I go also, they shall go with me.

 1 Corinthians 16: 1-4

This description of charity in early Church has two interesting features. Clearly Paul expects his listeners to give according to their means – or better according to how God has given to them. Paul knows that what we have is not really ours at all.

Paul also knows that care and attention must be paid to how these alms are distributed so he asks people to think carefully about who they will entrust with the important job of taking the alms to Jerusalem. This same thought is found in Maimonides and clearly reflects an important Jewish awareness of both the need to give and the hazards of giving charity thoughtlessly.

The Citizenship Imperative

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would help an alien or temporary resident, so that he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

 Leviticus, 25:35-38

This is a powerful moral test. Notice that the imperative to help a fellow citizen is put on the same terms as help for the alien. This may seem strange to us – because we have forgotten the ancient imperative to take particular care of the alien. To the Greeks Zeus was the champion of strangers. To the Jews – who really understood slavery and isolation – the duty to the stranger was absolute. So here the imperative to treat a fellow country man as if a stranger is to lift him on to the same, honoured footing. This means not taking advantage, demeaning or exploiting him.

We believe we are so advanced. But we treat the stranger as if he shouldn’t be here and we treat the needy as if they deserve their fate and anything we do for them is not from duty but from our own patronising kindness. We have fallen down from these ancient Greek and Jewish standards, but we close our eyes and pretend that we are rising. But we are simply rising on the back of the success of industrial production – there has been no moral advance.

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