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Monday, 9 November 2015

Discover & explore - Charity

1 Corinthians 13 states that love or charity is the greatest of virtues, greater that hope or faith and, as you can read in the Philanthropy exhibition, Alexander Pope wrote that, even where we differ in relation to hope and faith, we can all still agree on the necessity and benefit of charity:

‘In faith and hope the world will disagree, 
But all mankind's concern is charity.’

The Bible, as a whole and also in our passage from 2 Corinthians (8. 1 - 15), encourages generosity in our giving - both financially and also in every other way. Three categories of recipients of our giving are particularly highlighted within the pages of scripture: the stranger among you (i.e. foreign migrants), widows and orphans, and fellow believers who are in need. We are encouraged to excel in generosity by following the example set by ‘the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’

Charity, however, is not simply an unalloyed good. There are issues to be recognised and faced and that is part of the reason for including William Blake's two “Holy Thursday” poems in this service.

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) juxtapose the innocent, pastoral world of childhood against an adult world of corruption and repression … the collection as a whole explores the value and limitations of two different perspectives on the world. Many of the poems [as here, with “Holy Thursday”] fall into pairs, so that the same situation or problem is seen through the lens of innocence first and then experience. Blake does not identify himself wholly with either view … [and aims] to recognize and correct the fallacies of both … [so,] while Blake draws touching portraits of the emotional power of rudimentary Christian values, he also exposes—over the heads, as it were, of the innocent—Christianity’s capacity for promoting injustice and cruelty.’

‘In the poem “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence, Blake described the public appearance of charity school children in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ascension Day.’ Moved by the pathos of this vision of the children in church, the speaker of the poem urges us, as readers, to act with pity towards them remembering that such as these ‘are actually angels of God’.

In the version from Songs of Experience, however, the speaker of the poem ‘critiques rather than praises the charity of the institutions responsible for [these] children’ questioning whether they are not actually ‘victims of cruelty and injustice.’ ‘The rhetorical technique of the poem is to pose a number of suspicious questions’: ‘how holy is the sight of children living in misery in a prosperous country? Might the children’s “cry,” as they sit assembled in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Holy Thursday, really be a song? “Can it be a song of joy?” The speaker’s own answer is that the destitute existence of so many children impoverishes the country no matter how prosperous it may be in other ways: for these children the sun does not shine, the fields do not bear, all paths are thorny, and it is always winter.’

Charity essentially involves those with wealth giving some of their wealth to those without. There are issues of paternalism and power which are therefore involved plus the reality that this kind of charity leaves the structures of society which cause disparities of wealth and poverty untouched, as is the case for the children receiving charity in the "Holy Thursday" poems.

While Jesus once noted that the poor will always be with us, he did not mean that statement in terms of active maintenance of the structures that condemn some to poverty and privilege others with wealth. While we celebrate, through our current exhibition, the history and current reality of philanthropy in the City we also question the concentrations of wealth found in the City and the equity of their use and distribution. We need Blake's prophetic rage in the “Holy Thursday” poem from Songs of Experience combined with his embrace of charity in the “Holy Thursday” poem from Songs of Innocence.

It is for these reasons that many charities, as well as providing direct relief to those in need, do so in ways which empower those in poverty and also lobby Governments and multi-nationals over the structures, processes and trade agreements which fail to lift millions out of few whilst benefiting the 1per cent who own about 50 per cent of the world's wealth.

Charity, at is best, is not about trickle-down economics but instead about a real and fair redistribution of wealth. As St Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians:

‘it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”’


William Blake - Holy Thursday.

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