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Sweet charity

Artist Alphonse Legros
Yale Center for British Art

Charity shows the best side of human nature, and it’s as much a part of the holiday season as decorations or carols. Indeed some carols, like “Good King Wenceslas,” are simply stories about acts of charity. Victorian Christmas cards often showed scenes of wealthy people helping the poor. Nowadays, it’s all penguins and red-nosed reindeer, creatures that do not appear in the original Christmas story, and don’t convey quite the same message.

Charity is good, no question about it. The Bible, the Torah and the Koran all recommend it highly. In fact, religion and charity are intimately connected, perhaps because we need religion to remind us of the needs of others, especially the poor, and not just in December but all year round.

The motives behind charity are not always entirely pure. “Every charitable act is a steppingstone towards heaven,” declared Henry Ward Beecher, giving the game away a bit. “Charity covers a multitude of sins,” promised St. Peter, also suggesting a kind of credit system. But total unselfishness is more than we can expect from human nature.

Charity has changed a lot in modern times. It was once a very personal thing – like the acts of Good King Wenceslas or Ebenezer Scrooge. When Scrooge had his change of heart, he didn’t set up a union to improve wages and conditions for clerical workers, he just adopted Bob Cratchit and his family as his personal charity, which was the old-fashioned way. It still is in some third world countries where families may, in a sense, ‘adopt’ their local beggar and give only to him.

Now we see personal charity as rather patronizing, and even embarrassing. We can simply contribute to our preferred organizations, so we don’t have to confront sick children or starving cats directly, and the good feeling is our reward.

There’s an old Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese, dressed as a businessman, is approached by a beggar on the street who asks for money. Cleese demands to know what he will get in return.

“I’m supposed to give you money, and you won’t give me anything back” he said. “It’s not very logical, is it?”

Well, no, it’s not very logical, and that’s the point. When you get something back in return for your gift, it’s not charity but an exchange. That’s why, when the giving season comes around again, we want to be absolutely clear that, unlike the beggar in the story, we’re not asking something for nothing, far from it. We’re proposing a fair exchange. Your contribution comes right back to you in the form of the best radio programs throughout the year. You can think of it as a gift to yourself, and to thousands of other listeners in the region. If that’s not a good bargain, I don’t know what is.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.