I 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
The 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?!