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Christian Regimes Of Philanthropy

The radical, roving holy man Jesus of Nazareth rebelled against all existing regimes of self-serving philanthropy in the ancient world simply by proclaiming: "Blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20). The master commanded early apostles to abandon without recompense all material possessions by almsgiving and to strive for ever deeper humility through personal alms seeking, courting rejection and abuse at every door. The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul—composed c. 54–58 C.E.—advocate in part this radical social ethic demanding that all believers become tireless benefactors. Those formerly accustomed to being mere protégés of greater patrons must now aspire themselves to become protectors of their neighbors no matter how humble they all may be. Paul raised up new communities of donors to be inspired by Jesus's manifest love and empowered spiritually and philanthropically through the church. New Testament evangelists amplified this charitable theme, emphasizing how Jesus immediately cared for the suffering even by doing good works on the Sabbath in contravention of Jewish worship protocols (Mark 3:4 and 6:2–5). Jesus personified as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37) emphasized that one's obligation to help the stricken must extend to all and transcend ethnocentric notions of racial superiority, caste privilege, and self-interest. Fundamental tenets of Christianity formed as its exponents did battle with more ancient regimes of philanthropy.

Early Christian bishops, locked in vicious power struggles with old pagan elites for control of crumbling Roman imperial cities, could not be so generous. Anxious to portray themselves as potent "lovers of the poor," they continually revised Christian doctrines on alms, riches, and the poor to gain disciplined blocks of loyal followers. Fidelity to Jesus's more selfless teachings was sacrificed as bishops toned down earlier rebukes of the wealthy, courted rich donors with preferred places in new congregations, and increasingly described alms-giving as a means by which the ordinary faithful could atone for their personal sins under reinforced church discipline. The crucial Christian linkage of philanthropy and penance enticed givers to look upon their alms as a form of spiritual capital accumulation and intensified self-centered motives for giving. Worldly charitable deposits would ultimately enable pious donors to boast in heaven about the purity of their own souls and to secure personal salvation.

Church efforts to monopolize regulation and distribution of alms, especially through fixed monastic offices, were continually challenged during the Middle Ages. Philanthropic insurrectionaries—like St. Francis of Assisi—embraced poverty in apostolic fashion and preferred direct care to the wretched within recovering European cities. Lay members of medieval civic confraternities, who pledged to help one another and to care for needy fellow citizens, thereby diminishing urban violence, also challenged ecclesiastical control of philanthropy. Voluntary brothers and sisters sought to convert their good works into better lives for fellow citizens, enhancing the social and spiritual capital of all.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPhilanthropy - Ancient Mediterranean Examples, Christian Regimes Of Philanthropy, Early Modern Refinements, Modern "scientific" Philanthropy