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On Why Pity Isn’t Charity

  • Posted on February 6, 2010 at 11:59 PM

Recently I had a discussion with an individual who described charity as giving that is motivated by pity, and used this definition in a Christian context.  I tried to explain to this individual why this was not the case.  Yet, this form of “charity” is so engrained in the American culture that she could not see the distinction I was making.  So, I’ll try here in hopes of being understood.

“Charity” as the word is used in the King James Bible is synonymous with Christian love.   Specifically, charity is defined as:

The highest, noblest, strongest kind of love, not merely affection; the pure love of Christ.  It is never used to denote alms or deeds or benevolence, although it may be a prompting motive.

Holy Bible, King James Version, 1979, published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“Charity” when defined as Christian love is never pity.  Pity involves a sense of superiority:  when you pity someone, you look down on them and think they are somehow less than yourself; less fortunate, less talented, less valuable.  Less.

Matthew 25:34-40

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and too thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

While “charity” is not used in the Bible as an action, if it were to be an action, then this would be the actions of which it would speak.  The phrase the least of these my brethren is misleading, apparently.  Some people associate it with pity, because if they are the least, then are they not less than us?  Jesus, who tells the parable, is NOT agreeing that those who are in need are, as so many perceive them, of less worth than those who give; He is comparing the least of these my brethren with a King and as brethren of the King.  Giving unto them is not an act of pity; it is an act of charity.  It is not done because you pity them and look down on them; it is done because you love them and feel compassion for them.

Compare this passage with the following hypothetical scenario:

A woman walks into the church with a Crockpot of hot, home-made soup.  She sets up her offering on the table and gets to work preparing the space for the homeless who will be coming in.  It is 5:30 and very cold outside.  The doors are locked, but she hears the shuffling of people on the outside.  The doors will open at 6, so they have to get busy to get everything ready.

At 6 pm, the pastor opens the door and the stiff, cold people wrapped in layers of poorly mended and unclean clothes shuffle in.  He lines the people up along the buffet so they each can get their dish, while the woman busies herself filling bowls with the hot, savory soup.  The gentleman next to her is putting together sandwiches, some turkey and some ham.

“It’s so sad,” the soup lady says to the sandwich guy.

“I know.  Everyone’s shivering.  We should have opened the door earlier,” the guy says.

These words startle the lady.  “But we weren’t ready yet.”

He smiles at the young man who just made it up to them.  The soup lady hands him a bowl, and prepares another.  The sandwich guy asks, “Would you like turkey or ham?”

“Ham, please,” he says in a gravelly voice that sounds like it doesn’t get much use.  The man takes one of the sandwiches heaping with ham, and asks him whether he’d like mayonnaise or mustard.  Before the young man can answer, the soup lady pipes in, “You see, it’s just so sad that all these poor people can’t find work.”

The young man’s cheeks color, but she doesn’t see him.  His gaze goes dark and his shoulders slouch.  He takes his sandwich and his soup, his milk and his apple, and even his little cookie into a far corner and eats in silence in the draftiest part of the church hall, while families and individuals gather under the blowing heat from the vents.

When everyone is served, the sandwich man tries to talk to him.  But the young man shakes his head.  “She don’t know,” he says.  “She don’t think.”

It’s not an accusation, but his voice is full of sorrow.  Neither of them will ever know that this man works twelve hours day, six days each week, working two back-breaking jobs.  The soup lady couldn’t imagine it.  Yet, he comes to the soup kitchen, because he doesn’t leave himself enough to have more than two meals a day.  Even working so hard, he cannot afford to because so much of that money he works so hard to earn has to go to his mother’s medical bills and his children’s tuition into the one private school that takes children with special needs.

The sandwich man tried to show love; the soup lady only felt pity.  Pity is not about love.  Pity is about making yourself feel better by exposing yourself to the misery of those who are so much worse off than you.  They’re not people; they’re certainly not brethren.

This is why I see pity as being the cousin to bullying, not to love.  Bullying is about making yourself feel better, too.  Instead of the passive harm you do to people when you pity them, you’re harming people actively, intentionally.  That’s the only difference I see between pity and bullying.  You’re harming people either way; you’re looking down on people either way.

Love isn’t about you.  Love is about giving yourself to others.  You may be called to give your heart or your time, your money or your ear.  But you are called to give.  Love—the pure love of Christ—is about recognizing the humanity in others and celebrating it.  You give not out of obligation, not because you feel sorry for them, but because you recognize their need and want to share yourself and your possessions with a fellow human being.  That’s charity.  Pity and charity should never be confused.