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?!

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

  1. Just for clarification, Melinda, the Single Aged Pension you are quoting is fortnightly, NOT weekly. Having said that, I certainly agree with your article! I hope you don’t mind me posting this article to my FB page with this correction noted in my comments. Blessings Marianne

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    1. I was going to make the same comment but didn’t want to negate the rest of the quality of what you’re saying Mel. 🙂

      Also we could learn A LOT about good local development (aid) from our international practitioners … Such as the fact we seemed to finally have understood that it’s not a great idea to send rich white men to save African women and children… But we don’t seem to be able to translate that into a local context!

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      1. No worries Jo, I’m always happy to have any of my mistakes corrected!
        One of my biggest challenges/frustrations from working with GIA was seeing how much good thinking and good practice was being done overseas, and then coming home and seeing people asking the same questions and trying out ideas but not considering the wealth of learning that was already available from our international practitioners!

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  2. Haha! Seems I had always misunderstood the phrase so could never understand why people would use it in the first context. I thought it always meant that charity should begin with me and the people in my sphere of influence (my household, children etc.), rather than being the responsibility of someone else. So much confusion is now gone!
    Don’t think that was the aim of your post, but thanks anyway!!

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    1. I was taught that this saying, which is being thrown around ad infinitum lately, meant that we LEARN to be charitable to OTHERS (not our own families) in our own upbringing.

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  3. 1 Timothy 5:8King James Version (KJV)

    8 But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

    You BEGIN at home, helping those you know need help and branch out. Should you let your neighbor next door go hungry while donated to another charity for the recognition?

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    1. Exactly I was going to post this as well. Yes the bible does show our charity does start at home. God : Family : Extended family, Friends; Neighbors, Country Other nations In that order. God bless.

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      1. Dear KimH and Liberti
        So you place your own interpretations on a verse taken out of context from a particularly misogynist and authoritarian chunk of early Christian writing (usually attributed to Paul), which reflects the norms of the time and goes on to provide protection for ‘elders’ from scandal (presumably justifying religious authorities more recent suppression of claims of clerical child abuse) and effectively justifying slavery, translated at the behest of a Scottish King of England to ensure an orthodox and conservative slant on the bible to combat the more radical puritan versions in circulation and provide an essentially Anglicised version of a religious text which had its real origins in the middle east and whose early faithful spoke in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and other languages with totally different syntax, vocabulary and grammar to the English Language.
        I think your interpretation is a reflection of your own attitudes, and nothing to do with the text you quote.
        Melinda’s article is spot on!

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    1. I agree with KimH I have a relative who likes to do numerous Charity Fund raising locally throughout the year, she is a social butterfly. People in town refer to her as such a great Humanitarian ! She is obsessed with the recognition and the pats on the back!
      Now her Dad passed away this past March and her Handicapped sick 90 year old Mother is Home and needs round the clock care when her other two siblings try to speak to her about taking turns staying with their mother She get furious and replied “IM NOT GIVING UP MY LIFE” So you see there is a perfect time to say CHARITY BEGINS IN THE HOME ! The key word is BEGINS

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  4. I agree to the post “CHARITY BEGIN AT HOME” these words has a way to criple ones ability to expand their journey to motion. They even bring fear as to not allowed to care for oneself and presume to being brought to life for such use.

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    1. The rest of the quote (that people seem to omit or forget) is ” …THEN spreads abroad.” It simply means that home is where it should begin, not end. I’ve heard and seen first hand how people get recognized for giving away shoes, clothes, or even money to sometimes perfect strangers. But, at home, they’re children or spouse is in dire need of the very things they’re praised for giving to others.
      I’m not just talking about tangible things either. I’m talking about LOVE. I’m talking about TIME. The saying “Charity begins at home”, simply means that a person’s love, time, etc. should be given at home first before given outside. It’s a saying that encourages responsibility.
      Personally, I feel the saying could be said more AND acted out, instead of people using it as a scapegoat not to handle their business.

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  5. Charity, (love) is defined. In Corinthians 13. Nurturing the attributes of love must flow from within. Individual people, assuming the responsibility of understanding how we become a better society must recognise that true charity comes only when we relinquish control of everything we perceive outside of ourselves and for the purposes of self inquiry and self awareness, come to know(experientially) what charity actually is. The world will benefit when the number of people making this commitment to the world is greater than the sounding gongs and clanging cymbals drowning out the “still, small voice within.

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  6. A Good discussion and very convincing.” Charity begins at home, is the voice of the world: yet is every man his greatest enemy.” is the original from Sir Thomas Browne in ‘Religio Medici’ in 1642.

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  7. You obviously all want to ignore except for one person the Bible clearly shows “Charity” does begin at home first. I Timothy 5:8 is very clear on this. God : Family : Extended family, Friends, Neighbors, Country. Outsiders other nations. In that order. God bless.

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  8. The passage is simply saying it would not be wise to pay someone else’s light bill if you have not paid yours. It is not that deep, our families are our first congregation. The scripture is not telling us not to share.

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  9. The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy Chapter 5 Verse 8

    But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

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    1. Buda, As Sonja above wrote perfectly: “The passage is simply saying it would not be wise to pay someone else’s light bill if you have not paid yours. It is not that deep, our families are our first congregation. The scripture is not telling us not to share.”

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  10. Thank you! I really needed to read this today. My family and I run a charity to support others in another country and it is sometimes hard hearing people use this like as an excuse to not support us. If you don’t agree, don’t support us, it’s that simple. Please don’t use “charity begins at home” as an excuse though because (in my experience) most of those who use this sentence do not do anything charitable, either at home or away. Thank you, this made me smile

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    1. Very true, if, for these people, the saying “charity begins at home” had real meaning we wouldn’t have the problems of homelessness and poverty here!

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  11. I’ve heard many socialists try to twist the meaning of this phrase without justification before. While it’s fine to interpret it any way you like, the actual original meaning as per the Cambridge dictionary and many other well-known biblical and quranic sources is in fact the one that indicates you should first concentrate on being charitable to your own, whether that be your own immediate family, friends, neighbors, or country. To ignore your own and run to the aid of others was considered to be both a betrayal and an infidelity. If you’re going to contend that it means something else you should at least provide some credible references. Otherwise, yes, it probably is just you!

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