How re­li­gion mo­ti­vates peo­ple to give and serve

Malta Independent - - FEATURE - David King

The stark re­al­ity is that the world is fac­ing the great­est hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis since 1945: Mass star­va­tions are threat­en­ing mil­lions of peo­ple in South Su­dan, Nige­ria, So­ma­lia and Ye­men, while an un­matched refugee cri­sis con­tin­ues in Syria.

World Hu­man­i­tar­ian Day is also a time to re­mem­ber the sac­ri­fice of those who risk their lives to serve. What of­ten gets ig­nored, how­ever, is the role that faith plays in peo­ple’s de­sire to give and serve. This is where I fo­cus my re­search.

Philanthropy and re­li­gionLet’s first look at avail­able data to un­der­stand how much giv­ing is tied to one’s faith.

Ac­cord­ing to Giv­ing USA, the lead­ing an­nual re­port of philanthropy in Amer­ica, re­li­gious con­tri­bu­tions (nar­rowly defined as giv­ing to houses of wor­ship, de­nom­i­na­tions, mis­sion­ary so­ci­eties and re­li­gious me­dia) made up 32 per­cent of all giv­ing in Amer­ica in 2016.

An­other study found that 73 per­cent of all Amer­i­can giv­ing went to a house of wor­ship or a re­li­giously iden­ti­fied or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Many of these or­ga­ni­za­tions make up the world’s largest NGOs. For ex­am­ple, three of the top 10 big­gest char­i­ties by to­tal rev­enue last year (Catholic Char­i­ties, Sal­va­tion Army and Na­tional Chris­tian Foun­da­tion) are ex­plic­itly re­li­gious. Re­li­gious agen­cies make up 13 of the top 50 char­i­ties in the U.S.

It is true that fac­tors such as wealth, in­come, ed­u­ca­tion and mar­i­tal sta­tus are all pre­dic­tors of giv­ing. But re­li­gious be­lief and prac­tice are one of the best pre­dic­tors.

Over­all, re­li­gious Amer­i­cans vol­un­teer more, give more, and give more of­ten not only to re­li­gious but sec­u­lar causes as well. Among Amer­i­cans who give to any cause, 55 per­cent claim re­li­gious val­ues as an im­por­tant mo­ti­va­tor for giv­ing.

What re­li­gions tell usTh­ese val­ues of giv­ing are deeply rooted in the texts, tra­di­tions and prac­tices of many faiths. Take, for ex­am­ple, the mes­sages within the three Abra­hamic faiths.

In Ju­daism, the He­brew Scrip­tures re­fer to “tzedakah,” lit­er­ally mean­ing jus­tice. Tzedakah is con­sid­ered a com­mand­ment and a moral obli­ga­tion that all Jews should fol­low. The com­mit­ment to jus­tice places a pri­or­ity on their giv­ing to help the poor. Be­yond giv­ing just time and money, rab­bis even spoke of “gemi­lut chasadim,” lit­er­ally mean­ing lov­ing-kind­ness, or fo­cus­ing on right re­la­tion­ship with one an­other as the pre­rog­a­tive of re­li­gious giv­ing.

Even more broadly, an an­cient Jewish phrase, “tikkun olam,” mean­ing to re­pair or heal the world, has been adopted by many re­li­gious and sec­u­lar causes. Barack Obama, when he was pres­i­dent, would of­ten re­fer to the phrase. So did past Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton and 2016 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush hinted at a vi­sion of tikkun olam in his sec­ond in­au­gu­ral ad­dress.

Sim­i­larly, the Chris­tian tra­di­tion has con­sid­ered giv­ing a key re­li­gious prac­tice. Many Chris­tians still look to the He­brew Bible and the tithe (giv­ing one-tenth of an in­di­vid­ual’s in­come) as God’s com­mand­ment.

In the New Tes­ta­ment, Je­sus spoke of giv­ing not only a tithe but chal­lenged fol­low­ers to give far be­yond it. For in­stance, in the Gospel of Matthew Je­sus told the rich young ruler to sell all his pos­ses­sions. Pur­su­ing those val­ues, a long monas­tic tra­di­tion has seen men and women tak­ing vows of poverty to give them­selves to the work of their faith. Today, while the tithe might not be prac­ticed by a ma­jor­ity of Chris­tians, most un­der­stand the prac­tice of giv­ing as a cen­tral part of their faith.

For Mus­lims, giv­ing is one of the five pil­lars of Is­lam. “Zakat” (mean­ing to grow in pu­rity) is an an­nual pay­ment of 2.5 per­cent of one’s as­sets, con­sid­ered by many

as the min­i­mum obli­ga­tion of their re­li­gious giv­ing. A ma­jor­ity of Mus­lims world­wide make their an­nual zakat pay­ments as a cen­tral faith prac­tice.

Above and be­yond the re­quired zakat, many Mus­lims make ad­di­tional gifts (re­ferred to broadly as “sadaqa”). In­ter­est­ingly, the word shares the same root as the Jewish “tzedakah,” mean­ing jus­tice. Mus­lim giv­ing also fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on the poor.

Of course, char­i­ta­ble giv­ing is not just for the rich. For those with no money to give, the Prophet Muham­mad con­sid­ered even the sim­ple act of smil­ing to be char­ity, a gift to an­other.

Build­ing a com­mu­ni­tyReli­gious tra­di­tions are clear that the value of giv­ing does not sim­ply rest with those re­ceiv­ing the gift. Givers them­selves ben­e­fit. As so­ci­ol­o­gist Chris­tian Smith makes clear, there is a para­dox to gen­eros­ity – in giv­ing we re­ceive and in grasp­ing we lose.

At the same time, the goal of re­li­gious giv­ing is not just about what it brings to in­di­vid­u­als. Rather, it is more a fo­cus on hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and a vi­sion of com­mu­nity.

Per­haps most fa­mously, the 12th­cen­tury Rabbi Mai­monides out­lined eight lev­els of giv­ing – the low­est be­ing giv­ing grudg­ingly and the high­est to sus­tain, but also to em­power a per­son to no longer need char­ity.

Mai­monides made clear it is not so much the amount of giv­ing but how one gives that is im­por­tant in es­tab­lish­ing a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the giver and the re­cip­i­ent. Giv­ing should avoid hu­mil­i­a­tion, su­pe­ri­or­ity and de­pen­dence.

With the ma­jor­ity of global cit­i­zens be­long­ing to a re­li­gious tra­di­tion, it should be no sur­prise that re­li­gion of­ten be­comes the great­est as­set in hu­man­i­tar­ian work. Whether fight­ing AIDS, malaria or poverty, the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity has re­al­ized that the suc­cess of local pro­grams so of­ten turns on the sup­port of the local faith com­mu­nity. The en­gage­ment of the local imam or priest is es­sen­tial.

Just a few years ago, the hu­man­i­tar­ian in­dus­try was con­vinced of the truth of this view when they found that a ma­jor­ity of the health care work­ers left on the ground in the midst of the Ebola crises were mis­sion­ar­ies. Faith was the chief mo­ti­va­tor for those both fund­ing and serv­ing in some of the most dif­fi­cult parts of the world.

The pos­i­tive side to faithIt is true that too of­ten, faith also ap­pears to serve as the mo­ti­va­tion for ex­clu­sion, big­otry and hate: Bru­tal ter­ror­ism by the Is­lamic State, at­tacks on re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in Myan­mar, the de­fac­ing of mosques, syn­a­gogues and churches across the United States and even the re­cent clashes in Char­lottesville, il­lus­trate how re­li­gions can also be used to pro­mote vi­o­lence.

When it comes to hu­man­i­tar­ian aid, there are cer­tainly crit­i­cisms of re­li­gious aid agen­cies whose work does not fol­low min­i­mum hu­man­i­tar­ian stan­dards – for ex­am­ple, the pro­hi­bi­tion against dis­crim­i­nat­ing or pros­e­ly­tiz­ing be­fore giv­ing aid.

But re­turn­ing to the cen­tral­ity of re­li­gious giv­ing, evil in the name of re­li­gion does not have the last word.

Take the case of the United Na­tions staffer Michael Sharp, who gave his life work­ing for peace in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo this past March. Sharp had worked ear­lier with the Men­non­ite Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, a hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tion set up for al­ter­na­tive mil­i­tary ser­vice by the Men­non­ites, a his­toric peace church. Sharp’s faith guided his call to peace­mak­ing.

There are many such ex­am­ples around the world where peo­ple of faith were moved to shared sol­i­dar­ity. It was their faith work that in­spired Jor­da­nian Mus­lim youth to pro­tect local Cop­tic Chris­tians at this year’s Easter ser­vices af­ter re­peated at­tacks on the Chris­tian mi­nor­ity by Is­lamic ter­ror­ists. It was the same with Mus­lims in the Philippines this past June who hid fel­low Chris­tians in their homes to pro­tect them from Is­lamic State fight­ers.

In work­ing through the man­date of our var­i­ous re­li­gious tra­di­tions to­wards the healing of the world, we of­ten come to un­der­stand that we have more in com­mon than we had ini­tially re­al­ized. And per­haps, we might want to re­mem­ber this, as we com­mem­o­rate World Hu­man­i­tar­ian Day.

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