[“It was a rude and simple society, and there were no laws to punish a starving man for expressing his need for food, such as has been established in our more humanitarian age…” – G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi]
Aristotle defined charity as the perfection of natural friendship. But it was St. Thomas Aquinas who polished the classical understanding of charity as loving one’s neighbor with God as its object. Aquinas’ contribution illustrates the universality of charity: loving God, loving our neighbors as well as our enemies. Charity is love. Indeed, this archetype, according to the late pontiff Benedict XV, is best expressed in giving, an imitable act unmatched and stapled forever by the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of St. Luke gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan. But in the Gospel of St. Matthew is the uncomfortable passage known to generate relative uneasiness in people.
Here we encounter Christ’s warning of the severe repercussions awaiting us if we do not feed, clothe, or show clemency to our disadvantaged neighbors. At the Final Judgment, the sheep and the goats will be separated. Those who did not display the compassion of Christ to their fellow man will reap what they sow. This precise text, along with the Beatitudes and the two greatest commandments, profoundly influenced the Middle Ages and laid the cornerstone for the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. St. Francis of Assisi, one of the greatest medieval saints, wrote, “Men lose all the material things they leave behind them in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve.”
Justice and charity are often confused. Justice is one of the cardinal virtues, while charity, according to St. Paul, is the greatest of three theological virtues. Justice is directed at the structural causes of social problems. Charity responds to injustice, particularly through social services. Justice is public. Charity is private.
In his book Heretics, Chesterton wrote:
“It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them.”
Across our nation a war is brewing against charity. New state and local regulations discourage volunteer groups from street feeding the homeless and destitute, making food sharing prohibitive and outreach difficult for unincorporated associations, churches, and charitable organizations. Local ordinances mandate daily permits ranging from $125-$175, food certification and dry goods licensing, the training and hiring of food managers, storage and serving requirements, and portable bathrooms and sinks. Fines for violations are up to $2,000. Legislation dampening the efforts of citizens who are selflessly providing aid for the homeless and poor on the streets is passing in cities all over the United States. Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Nashville—all have jumped on the bandwagon.
In Myrtle Beach, public park feedings require permits that are only issued four times a year. In the city of Gainesville, Florida, meal service is limited to 130 meals per day. Volunteer groups in Houston, Texas, like Feed a Friend, which has been operating for many years, are shut down by state Health and Human Services. The Skid Row soup line, run by World Agape Church out of Los Angeles, operated for five years until they were cited for lack of permit, inadequate provisions, as well as safety violations. Commenting on the story, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry said, “Feeding people on the street is not hygienic, it’s not sanitary, it’s not good for their health.” Neither is starving, but never mind.
In fairness, some regulations should exist out of interest for the general welfare, and these protocols shouldn’t discriminate against the poor or homeless. But hypersensitivity to food-borne illness and the poor’s limited access to health care are excuses meant to protect job security and hinder charity. One has the same potential for acquiring “food-borne illness” in the soup kitchen as in any restaurant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all food-borne outbreaks have no identifiable cause. With scientists exposing the health risks in high fructose corn syrup, mass outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella originating in the factories of leading food manufacturers, and the revolving doors in the USDA and FDA representing the interests of genetically modified foods, perhaps the aisles in our supermarkets pose greater health risks to us than mobile food sharing does to the poor.
However, while some states impede food sharing, other communities are taking the opportunity to nurture their relationship with the homeless. Through cooperation with local service providers, governments are transformed from enemy to ally of the poor. For example, the city of Fort Myers, Florida, abandoned its efforts to limit street feeding and instead formed a Hunger Task Force, collaborating with charitable organizations to supply the needs of the destitute through mobile food pantries. Local governments can also support charity by partnering with networks geared to locate funding, volunteers, and resources for missions seeking to provide shelter and food aid.
Religious and secular charitable organizations are tackling poverty with fresh ideas. Local churches are donating parking lot space for urban gardens, which supply food kitchens and “free farmstands” with enough produce to run their operations. The Feeding America’s Backpack Program is designed to offer non-perishable, nutritional meals to hungry children during weekends and school breaks. “Pay What You Want” non-profit coffee shops and restaurants like St. Louis Bread Company’s Cares Café offer innovative pricing models to combat local poverty.
The erosion of charity is a sign of our “humanitarian age”. With the growth of tent cities, high unemployment figures teetering between 9 and 10 percent, and the attack on charity, now is the time to remember the Christ in our neighbor who sits in prison, knocks on our door seeking hospitality, and hungers. If charity is love of the undeserving we may fare well to remember the ultimate charity bestowed upon the many unworthy.
Deus caritas est.