PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Charity: What Helps by peaceprobe
February 2, 2008, 12:38 pm
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Nonviolence, Peacemaker spirit

When I was a high school student in the 1950s I thought I might like to be a social worker because social workers helped people, served and made society better  At that time social work was a new profession.  I actually didn’t know any social workers but it seemed like a good idea.   When I went to college I took a social work class and I noticed that my mind wandered in class and although I always meant to read the text book for some reason I never got it done.  I did pass the class in an undistinguished way as I recall. 


My social work dreams slipped away from me.  Maybe the latent goals festering down there somewhere got consumed in the culture of church that surrounded me and led me to seminary.  Maybe I could do social work by being a minister.  The primary purpose of seminaries is to train ministers, however there is the little matter of studying the Bible in seminary.  I soon discovered that priests and ministers as we know them now were primarily an invention that came later. 

In the Bible there were prophets, an office that struck me as such a high calling that no one with a name like mine could ever aspire to it.  I actually never knew a prophet although a couple professors struck me as prophetic.  So that sent me back again to the original quest for a way to make things better in this world. I wanted to know what really helps?  I also discovered the failed way of asking the same question, does anything help – the door into cynicism.  


This brings me to the concept of charity which until I started reading the Bible more carefully, appeared to have something to do with helping the poor.  That was a good idea as long as my tangled mind didn’t ask why people got poor in the first place.  In its purist form as I learned about it, charity was giving money or bread to beggars.   Now remember that I grew up in a time when there were famines in India and people were dying from hunger by the millions in China.  I knew it because we prayed for those people every day before dinner and in our worship services. 

So it wasn’t so far fetched that I would want to fix some of these things.  One day before a seminary field trip to Chicago I was told that we should not give money to the beggars we met on the streets because they would just take it and buy booze which would destroy their lives.  This simple guideline seemed logical, except that it threw my idea of charity into a tailspin.  About the same time I learned about agape love which according to the Bible was the highest form of selfless love. 

Today we have professional charities which blur into NGOs, non government organizations, that span the globe with missions, development programs, health programs and even visions of a world without poor people.  I just read a book by Bill Clinton, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, which is his take on how the world can be fixed with an outpouring of creative charity devices, investment schemes, and volunteers.  Interesting, but I did wonder why he couldn’t have done a little more when he enjoyed power over the institutions of the world wide body politic.  

This gets me back to one of the lessons I started to learn in seminary, real change usually comes from the bottom.  And, transformation literally relies upon the organizing and collective energy of the people who have little or no power.  Without people pushing for transformation from outside the palaces and mansions we are left with court histories, and presidential dynasties that produce books with titles like The Road to the White House and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

With the organized prophetic energy from the bottom, we start thinking differently and sometimes do something about our thinking.  At one point I got interested in chemistry and learned that when two or more elements are combined with heat you come up with something totally new and previously unknown.  Sometimes what is produced  – like plastic – can be dangerous for the earth.  At least it requires firm controls.  The clash of mixing elements and heat can also produce something very useful and the transformed substance can feed life.  We have known about this for a long time in a personal way.  We called it conversion, a term that has been adapted to various forms of industrial activity for example, obsolete military bases and industrial sites are changed into parks, museums or educational centers.  

In the Bible the Greek word agape was translated into English as charity and later as love.   In the 1960s agape love animated many discussions.  It is out of fashion now, but no less lies at the root of the motivation for genuine nonviolent change.  A word of caution: many of us confuse nonviolent change with non conflictual change.  

Transformation doesn’t come out of good ideas alone although good ideas can help.  Transformation comes out of the mysterious meeting or clash, sometimes heated, between individuals or groups.  For transformation to be the means to new reality only one side of the engagement need be in touch with the infinite power of charity, love or agape which ever word you like.  Usually some of that resource is embedded within both parties because it has been given to all of us, although we find so many ways to forget or avoid it.  

According to the Bible charity is not only about good works, giving to the poor, having prophetic powers or even insight into the mysteries and knowledge (I Cor. 13:1-3) although all these can help too.   Real transformative charity isn’t so much about rules,  “shoulds”, “oughts” and “have tos”.   It comes from a zone within and may break out in a big way when many of us catch it together.  Occasionally it comes out of great tragedy.  But we can cultivate our lives in such a way that we don’t have to await crisis to remember that it is available.   I am still learning to recognize its many faces and names.


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