Monthly Archives: January 2014

Can we please stop saying “Charity begins at home”?

Slide2I was recently forwarded an email by an older, distant relative complaining about the “injustice” of huge amounts of foreign aid being given to other nations while Australian pensioners struggle to get by. The closing words of the email, the “clincher” to prove the point that we should stop giving “so much” away, was that old saying, “Charity begins at home.”

Now the fact that my country has recently drastically decreased its foreign aid giving and completely abandoned the commitments we have consistently made over the last 30 years to play our part in addressing world poverty is a subject for another post! Today, I want to take a closer look at that supposed “trump card” saying.

Because I’ve also noticed its use on social media.  When someone advocates for greater foreign aid spending, it doesn’t take long for someone else to reply that it is more important to care about a group in need in our own nation, and to pull that same supposed clincher, “Charity begins at home.”

Is it just me, or do the people who say “Charity begins at home” usually seem to be implying that they think it should end there?

Here are my problems with the phrase ..

1. It’s a false dichotomy

Slide1The assumption seems to be that if I care about the global poor, I don’t care about people doing it tough here in Australia; as if I can only care about one thing at a time. But compassion is not a zero sum game.

I don’t believe I have to make a choice between the two and I don’t believe our nation needs to either. We need to stop assuming that standing up for one cause means you don’t care about any others.

2. It’s a false equivalence

I don’t want to get bogged down in ‘ranking’ needs, but to me there is a qualitative difference between people struggling to afford the costs of living in Australia and people dying of preventable diseases because they don’t have access to clean drinking water or basic sanitation in other parts of the world. I understand that I am generalising here, and I know there are people in my own backyard who are doing it tough, but mostly I think that our perspective is a little off.

Just for one example, the current Australian single pension is $751 per fortnight.  We have widely available free health care and education. On the other hand, 1.3 billion people in developing countries live on less than $7 per week, 768 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and over 1 billion have no access to basic sanitation.

In 2013, the Australian government spent 27 times as much on welfare/social security as it did on foreign aid. Whatever you think about the adequacy of Australian unemployment or pension rates, I think it is clear we are not comparing apples and apples here.

3.     The saying is not biblical

The first use of the phrase “Charity begins at home” in print is found in Thomas Browne’s 1642 book Religio Medici. It is now quoted as if it was gospel truth, often by Christians, and it is surprising how many people claim it is biblical or “based” on the Bible. It’s not.

In fact, my reading of Browne is that he is arguing against the saying. He uses it twice, in these two sentences:

  • “Charity begins at home, is the voice of the World…”
  • “That a man should lay down his life for his Friend, seems strange to vulgar affections, and such as confine themselves within that Worldly principle, Charity begins at home.”

 Read it for yourself and see what you think.

The Bible itself is pretty clear that we are called to love not just our family and our neighbours, but even our enemies. [Matt 5:44] The Old Testament laws laid a foundation for justice and generosity for the marginalised, including widows, orphans and foreigners. [e.g. Deut 15:7-11]

4.     That’s not what that proverbial saying means

More to the point, and I’m happy to be corrected on this, but my understanding is that the saying as it was originally taken up as a general English “proverb” was meant to refer to the fact that virtues are cultivated in the every day – that is, we learn to be compassionate and charitable people at home; that capacity within us as human beings begins to develop there, and then grows as we exercise it outside the home.

It’s worth noting that the word charity at that time didn’t mean what we usually assume it means today. It is the word the King James Version uses to translate the Greek αγαπη or love in the famous 1 Cor 13 passage. So “love begins at home” might be better, meaning again that ideally we learn love from our families so that we can then exercise it in our interactions with others outside the home.

What we usually mean by charity today (donating to the needy) actually doesn’t make any sense with the saying – providing for the welfare of the people in your house is by definition NOT charity!

So … this is my question for today, and I’m aware that it is idealistic and unlikely … but whatever debates we have about generosity, global poverty, foreign aid, and caring for the needy at home, can we at least stop pretending that the saying “Charity begins at home” is some kind of magic bullet that trumps all rational discussion?!

Today would be a good day to be in Canberra

Parliament House
Parliament House

It’s the Australia Day long weekend, and while there are some challenges celebrating all of our history and all of what is happening here at the moment, it’s still a good opportunity to appreciate this wonderful country. And so if I could spend today anywhere, I’m thinking our nation’s capital would be a good choice.

View of Canberra from Mt Ainslie
View of Canberra from Mt Ainslie

I think sometimes Canberra gets a bad rap … or it just gets forgotten. Perhaps it suffers the most from Australia’s cultural cringe. While most people wouldn’t dream of visiting England without London, or France without Paris, even many Australians don’t have much time for Canberra. Perhaps it is because our media insists on using the name of the city as a synonym for our federal government … and not usually in a positive light. Or because we think it’s not quite as ______ (insert adjective here) as Sydney or Melbourne or London or New York. But I’m a fan of Canberra and I think it is well worth a visit.

Heading out onto the Hume Hwy
Heading out onto the Hume Hwy

I’ve been to Canberra many, many times, including as a young child on holidays with the family and on a school trip in Grade 6. The year I was 18 I lived about an hour away and it was the nearest city and since moving to Adelaide it’s become a good stopover when driving to Sydney. Some good friends have lived there for the last few years so a longer visit is always nice too.

The view from Parliament House
The view from Parliament House

But preparing this blog made me realise that I don’t really have many good photos of Canberra! That’s partly because the first few times I visited I had a film camera! 🙂 But could it also be due to that old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt?” Have I not thought it important to take photos, or have I just always assumed I would be back so there is no urgency?

This is the kind of photo I used my film on when I was in Grade 6 - lining up to enter the Mint
This is the kind of photo I used my film on when I was in Grade 6 – our class lining up to enter the Royal Australian Mint
What do I love about Canberra?
Black Mountain Tower
Black Mountain Tower

I actually quite like its location – chosen as a compromise city, neither Sydney nor Melbourne, it’s in some ways in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve had some good times driving the Hume and Federal Highways. If you take the time to stop and look it can be quite pretty and peaceful.

Somewhere on the road to Gundagai
Somewhere on the road to Gundagai 

It’s also one of the few areas of Australia where you might see snow in the winter.

Snow between Canberra and Goulburn
Snow between Canberra and Goulburn

I love visiting Parliament House and seeing what our politicians are up to. There’s usually something interesting going on somewhere if you look.

The Australian Girls Choir performing in the Great Hall
The Australian Girls Choir performing in the Great Hall

Old Parliament House has a great exhibit on our political history and also a nice café for lunch. I’m a bit of a legal geek, so a visit to the High Court is always on my list, to see our nation’s top judges in action.

Old Parliament House
Old Parliament House

Lake Burley Griffin is pretty and the Carillon on Aspen Island is a great spot. One of my Canberran friends planned her wedding there, although the afore-mentioned snow made for a last minute change of plans.

The 55 bell-Carillon on Aspen Island
The 55 bell-Carillon on Aspen Island

As a kid, Questacon was always a favourite stop with plenty of hands on science exhibits. We also loved just driving around the various embassies, trying to guess which was which.

Corrugated iron cows on the NZ embassy lawn
Corrugated iron cows on the NZ embassy lawn

As an adult, my favourite places include the War Memorial, National Gallery, National Library, Portrait Gallery and the new Museum – these all really are world-class treasures.

Looking out from the tomb of the unknown soldier, Australian War Memorial
Looking out from the tomb of the unknown soldier, Australian War Memorial
What have I learned from Canberra?

As I child I think Canberra was probably the place that started my interest in law and politics.

The Prime Minister is currently being updated … (Taken the day after Julia Gillard's ascent to the office)
The Prime Minister is currently being updated … (Taken the day after Julia Gillard’s ascent to the office)

As an adult, particularly after visiting many other national capitals around the world, I think Canberra holds its own and Australians should be proud of our democracy. There is much about my country that I take for granted, including the opportunity I have to freely critique it (which I’m sure I will continue to do). And if I’m honest, Canberra is probably a place I have taken for granted too. Next time I visit I will make sure to take some better photos! There is plenty there to enjoy and also much to reflect on as we continue our national journey.

Subtly objectifying women in the church … and “subjectifying” men?

Last week I blogged some of my thoughts about whether I should call myself a feminist and what that means to me as a Christian. In my church experience, issues of gender inequality are usually subtle rather than overt, and therefore easier to dismiss as trivial. But they are still reasonably commonplace.

I wanted to follow up with a couple of specific examples. These are not necessarily the strongest or best (worst?) examples I’ve seen, just two things I’ve come across recently in my own experience as well as read other people’s blogs about. What I’m noticing is that sometimes the Christian leaders who speak out against harms in our culture are still operating from some of the same underlying assumptions, probably without even realising it.

The first example is a trend of usually young, male pastors making comments about their “smoking hot wife.” (See this great post by Jayson Bradley).

This is said publicly, either from the platform in church or on social media. I understand that it is intended as a compliment to their wives, one I would have no problem with them making to her privately. But when said publicly it makes me wince. Because to the women listening, it reinforces the idea that they are valuable primarily for their sexual desirability … and not much else.

I also wonder what message it is intended to send to the men listening. It could be heard as a boast, “Look at me, how good must I be to have ‘scored’ a wife this sexy?” Does that really have anything to do with your credibility as a minister of the gospel? Or worse, it could be heard as an invitation, “Check out my wife!” Really? You want all the teenage boys in your church to be thinking about how sexy your wife is? Is that helpful for anyone?

The second, more concerning, trend is the refusal of some male pastors (again, usually young) to mentor or counsel women. Any women. Ever. (See this great post by Jenny Rae Armstrong).

Again, I can understand something of the intention. They want to avoid being put in a compromising situation; they want to be “above reproach.” But again, the message they are sending to women is that we are all temptresses. That the only thing that matters about our personhood is our sexuality, and that we can’t be trusted with it.

Simultaneously, it sounds like they are suggesting that men can’t control themselves. That they are incapable of viewing a woman as anything other than a potential sex partner. (Now maybe that’s true of some of the teenage boys posting on the internet, but godly Christian pastors? Really?) In no other profession would it be acceptable to have a blanket rule refusing to meet with people because of their gender.

If these pastors do genuinely have a sex addition or are struggling with lust in a particular case then they absolutely need to get some help. But this should never be a rule which then becomes an excuse as to why women can’t be taught, mentored or encouraged, or even serve on church staff or boards. (Unfortunately, that still happens.) I’d want I remind them that Jesus didn’t say, “If a woman causes you to look at her lustfully, remove her from your sight.” He said, “If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out.” (Matt 5:29) He placed the responsibility exactly where it should be!

In both of these situations, silly or well-intentioned as they might sometimes be, what I see happening is an underlying assumption which objectifies women. Let me explain. When women are “objectified,” they are treated as though they are objects. An object, basic English grammar tell us, does not act but is only ever acted upon. This term is usually used in the context of sexual objectification, meaning women are viewed or valued purely for their sexual desirability to the male subject. This means all the other things that make up an individual human being – their intellect, their dreams, their character, their will – are irrelevant. Women are thus treated as less than human; less than who they actually are. That’s not the good news of the gospel and it’s certainly not how Jesus treated women. That’s a problem.

But here’s my other question to those pastors. Aren’t they also “subjectifying” men, if I can make up a word? Aren’t they making men only sexual subjects, who can do nothing else but view women sexually, lust, or be tempted? Aren’t they then also reducing men to one thing, ignoring their character, intelligence, decision-making ability, self-control, wisdom and integrity? By implying that men “can’t help themselves” or are just “boys being boys,” aren’t we then reducing them to a caricature of the full humanity they too were created with? And doesn’t that also run the risk of contributing to the problems we face in our culture rather than addressing them?