The Christian Church propagates the idea that a person should give a fixed percentage of their income to charitable causes. In Medieval times, this figure was fixed at 10% and was automatically tithed from people as an enforced tax that went directly to the Church. My parents, who are both firmly religious, still abide by this 10% rule and give this percentage of the family’s income divided amongst various charities. They have budgeted their whole lives to include charitable donations but while I find this very admirable, I’m a firm believer that if you have difficulty making ends meet for yourself on a day-to-day basis, donating to charity is not something you should be forced or guilt-tripped into. It’s all very well being told that something is “Only £10 a month”, but for some people £10 isn’t always feasible.
The Bible features a story of an old woman that Jesus and his disciples see in a temple. At the charity box, they watch many people put large donations inside, but the old woman only puts a few small coins in it. Jesus tells his disciples that her donation is far more significant than anyone else’s because for her, those were her very last coins and she chose to give the last of her money to help others over spending it on herself. Now, while the message of this story is clearly one of altruism and loving one’s neighbour, in daily life I think most people would agree that this old woman is reckless and stupid. If you have no money, are struggling to get through until payday and are likely to have difficulty paying your bills let alone feeding yourself, giving that last £10 in your wallet to charity makes you foolish and irresponsible, not admirable and good. And if that old woman had any dependants, that might even make her a negligent and bad person.
When I was about fourteen years old, I woke up on Christmas morning, excited about all the presents I had asked for and eager to open whatever was under the tree. To my surprise though, aside from a couple of token gifts, all that was beneath the tree for me was a little envelope. Thinking it was a ticket to something, or maybe just some money, I opened it up to discover a piece of paper saying that money had been donated on my behalf to a charity called Send A Cow, which gives people in third world countries livestock instead of food, in order to give them something from which to earn a living. “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a liftetime.” The mantra of the company is fantastic, its cause wholly admirable, but fourteen year old Ben didn’t care at all. Fourteen year old Ben wanted to know where-the-goddamn-hell his presents were and didn’t care that he was responsible for a family in Africa receiving a flock of chickens. Of course I recognise that my parents were trying to teach me an important lesson about helping others, but the way that they did it succeeded only in making me resent them and the charity itself. Lesson not learned, mission failed.
My father wanted to know when Sandy would be leaving. Sandy had told them that she was going to live in a commune in the US and just needed to get some money together to be able to go, so time continued to pass and Sandy took up permanent residence in the spare room and the tent outside started to collapse in on itself, unused. My parents then announced that they were moving house; my dad was retiring and they were moving to a whole new area and Sandy would obviously have to move. So she booked her plane ticket just before my parents moved away, packed her few belongings and flew away to her new life in the commune. I joked at the time that it would only be a few weeks until she turned up on the doorstep of their new house with a gypsy caravan and some fighting-dogs, but sure enough, six weeks later, who should turn up? Sandy. “I don’t feel like they got me in the commune,” she said, and she asked my parents if she could stay in their garden once more, “Just until I’m sorted.” Reluctantly, they agreed. She’s still there now.
This being said, I don’t believe Sandy is committing a crime. My parents gave a little, she took what they gave and demanded more. It’s a prime case of someone taking advantage of charity; I have no doubt that she needed assistance and a place to stay, but had she wanted to, she didn’t actually need to be reliant on my parents. The non-materialistic lifestyle that she chose to follow is fundamentally untenable in British society, so my parents supported her until she could take herself to a place where this was tenable. To come back, declare that it wasn’t what she wanted after all and demand the same assistance as before; that’s where the line was crossed. And it’s behaviour like this that makes me question the very basis of “charity” as an ideal.
I understand that Sandy needed assistance once she had decided to “free herself” from all her material constraints, but I believe it wholly irresponsible that she placed herself in a position where she needed such help when she could have prepared for it in the first place. Unfortunately this appears to be the general problem with the UK as a whole at the moment; something happens to someone, they find themselves in a difficult spot, but instead of finding a way out of it themselves they expect immediate relief and assistance. Of course charitable assistance should be there to help if they need it, but permanent and indefinite assistance when they are perfectly capable of helping themselves out of these situations? That’s another question entirely, but it should be entirely the same debate as there is around benefits.
Unfortunately, with poverty, destitution and disease frequently comes questionable morals. Desperation can lead people to do terrible things and, like the campaigns around city centres asking you to donate money to shelter charities instead of giving it directly to the homeless on the street, it is difficult to guarantee that any money you give will be used for the purpose for which it was intended. How do we know that aid going to the third world isn’t being used to fund the arms trade, or that money given to assist the homeless isn’t being spent on drugs? We don’t and we probably never will. However, it’s obvious that even though this is sometimes the case, we shouldn’t let that deter us from giving help and assistance where it is genuinely needed. And when it comes to charities, any of them with a mantra like Send A Cow’s actually makes perfect sense to me; help someone out of their situation and then help them help themselves in the future. Fourteen year old Ben would be fuming at me for saying this, but I hope those chickens in Africa did make a difference that Christmas after all.