The Spirit of Generosity

Christmas has become a complete religious/commercial mashup. From post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” on, it seems we’re in a virtual orgy of materialism.

But the Salvation Army bell ringers I’ve seen in front of Kroger over the last few weeks remind me that Yuletide highlights the spirit of generosity and a specific kind of gift giving that flows from it -- namely, charitable sharing.

The surfeit of stuff that clutters most Americans’ lives today can mask the reality that there are people in need.

Sometimes need results from bad decisions, profligate spending, and excessive debt, to which at least part of that stuff may attest. What gets called poverty often turns out to be mostly wastefulness. In other words, just being broke.

A modicum of self-discipline relieves a surprising amount of financial stress, and sets you on the road to fiscal recovery.

But this isn’t always the situation, not by any means.

People can (and do) hit extremely rough patches through no fault of their own. Or they start out in disadvantaged circumstances from which they’re never able to extricate themselves.

Christmas is generally when human need comes into sharpest focus. Messages of love and fellowship permeate the atmosphere through holiday displays, greeting cards, popular songs, TV specials, church liturgies -- all prompting us to express some sort of benevolence, and reminding us there are folks to whom benevolence is due.

That’s a good thing. We all can use a little reminding. But it does call up several recurring (and slightly unsettling) questions, such as…

How can you tell when need is real?

How do you discern a proper response to the call of conscience?

How can you be reasonably sure that your generosity will have a constructive effect?

There’s no denying both Judaism and Christianity see charity as essential. In Jewish tradition helping the needy is a mitzvah, an act of religious obligation. And Jesus, good Jew that he was, told his followers that kindness toward “the least of these” was equivalent to serving him.

Yet, we’ve all heard stories of those self-identified “homeless” who rake in big bucks with a sob story and a threadbare coat. I recall a TV news report about one woman panhandler who set up on a busy corner every day, her luxury car parked down the block. Likewise, a lot of food given out at the local emergency pantry or served at the parish’s annual community supper finds its way into stomachs that don’t suffer deprivation at all.

We’re often advised that we shouldn’t judge people -- that determining the motives behind the open hand isn’t up to us. But somehow that doesn’t seem quite right. Isn’t moral discernment a moral imperative?

Confronting requests for charity always throws me into a quandary.

Whenever I’m approached for a handout, my first reaction is a certain defensiveness, being all too aware that it’s my resources somebody wants to tap.

But then I catch myself up and try to be a good Christian, reminding myself (as good Christians always advise) to see the face of Jesus.

This makes me feel guilty for my stingy inclinations, so I invariably hand over some cash.

As soon as I cave in to my guilt, however, I feel like I’ve been a soft touch, and should have insisted the recipient show they truly needed my help and will do something worthwhile with what I’ve given them.

“Where’s my moral fortitude?” I ask myself. After all, even if the appeal is genuine, there’s no way of knowing whether my generosity just enables bad habits that may have brought someone to a precarious state in the first place.

And then I feel guilty about that.

There can be opportunities to help in ways that minimize the risk of unintended harm. My mother used to tell about how a scruffy fellow once appeared at her door claiming to be hungry. Her immediate impression was that, hungry or not, any money she might give him would likely be translated into liquid sustenance.

Being possessed of a certain native moral sense (which is to say she was pretty good at sizing people up), Mom told the guy to sit down on the stoop, and then made him a sandwich.

Hers was an appropriate response to a call of conscience, without ignoring the importance of discernment. Charity accomplished, quandary resolved.

Sadly, such alternatives are not always available to us. And anyway, we live in a more paranoid time than when that hungry fellow appeared at my mother’s door. The casual atrocities we hear about in the news these days put us all on our guard, and rightly so.

Or maybe it just comes down to me being more paranoid than Mom was.

Either way, I think her solution points to a moral truth…

Giving is an act of faith.

Even when we aren’t completely certain it’s the right thing to do (and more often than not, we can’t be), it’s usually best to err on the side of generosity. And then we mustn’t second-guess our humane impulses.

The Apostle Paul put it well in his Second Letter to the Corinthians when he observed: “Each must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and media producer. His essays and random rants can be found at his blog, “The Guy in the Next Pew” (billkassel.com). The latest of his novels, MY BROTHER’S KEEPER, is available as an eBook.

Christmas has become a complete religious/commercial mashup. From post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” on, it seems we’re in a virtual orgy of materialism.

But the Salvation Army bell ringers I’ve seen in front of Kroger over the last few weeks remind me that Yuletide highlights the spirit of generosity and a specific kind of gift giving that flows from it -- namely, charitable sharing.

The surfeit of stuff that clutters most Americans’ lives today can mask the reality that there are people in need.

Sometimes need results from bad decisions, profligate spending, and excessive debt, to which at least part of that stuff may attest. What gets called poverty often turns out to be mostly wastefulness. In other words, just being broke.

A modicum of self-discipline relieves a surprising amount of financial stress, and sets you on the road to fiscal recovery.

But this isn’t always the situation, not by any means.

People can (and do) hit extremely rough patches through no fault of their own. Or they start out in disadvantaged circumstances from which they’re never able to extricate themselves.

Christmas is generally when human need comes into sharpest focus. Messages of love and fellowship permeate the atmosphere through holiday displays, greeting cards, popular songs, TV specials, church liturgies -- all prompting us to express some sort of benevolence, and reminding us there are folks to whom benevolence is due.

That’s a good thing. We all can use a little reminding. But it does call up several recurring (and slightly unsettling) questions, such as…

How can you tell when need is real?

How do you discern a proper response to the call of conscience?

How can you be reasonably sure that your generosity will have a constructive effect?

There’s no denying both Judaism and Christianity see charity as essential. In Jewish tradition helping the needy is a mitzvah, an act of religious obligation. And Jesus, good Jew that he was, told his followers that kindness toward “the least of these” was equivalent to serving him.

Yet, we’ve all heard stories of those self-identified “homeless” who rake in big bucks with a sob story and a threadbare coat. I recall a TV news report about one woman panhandler who set up on a busy corner every day, her luxury car parked down the block. Likewise, a lot of food given out at the local emergency pantry or served at the parish’s annual community supper finds its way into stomachs that don’t suffer deprivation at all.

We’re often advised that we shouldn’t judge people -- that determining the motives behind the open hand isn’t up to us. But somehow that doesn’t seem quite right. Isn’t moral discernment a moral imperative?

Confronting requests for charity always throws me into a quandary.

Whenever I’m approached for a handout, my first reaction is a certain defensiveness, being all too aware that it’s my resources somebody wants to tap.

But then I catch myself up and try to be a good Christian, reminding myself (as good Christians always advise) to see the face of Jesus.

This makes me feel guilty for my stingy inclinations, so I invariably hand over some cash.

As soon as I cave in to my guilt, however, I feel like I’ve been a soft touch, and should have insisted the recipient show they truly needed my help and will do something worthwhile with what I’ve given them.

“Where’s my moral fortitude?” I ask myself. After all, even if the appeal is genuine, there’s no way of knowing whether my generosity just enables bad habits that may have brought someone to a precarious state in the first place.

And then I feel guilty about that.

There can be opportunities to help in ways that minimize the risk of unintended harm. My mother used to tell about how a scruffy fellow once appeared at her door claiming to be hungry. Her immediate impression was that, hungry or not, any money she might give him would likely be translated into liquid sustenance.

Being possessed of a certain native moral sense (which is to say she was pretty good at sizing people up), Mom told the guy to sit down on the stoop, and then made him a sandwich.

Hers was an appropriate response to a call of conscience, without ignoring the importance of discernment. Charity accomplished, quandary resolved.

Sadly, such alternatives are not always available to us. And anyway, we live in a more paranoid time than when that hungry fellow appeared at my mother’s door. The casual atrocities we hear about in the news these days put us all on our guard, and rightly so.

Or maybe it just comes down to me being more paranoid than Mom was.

Either way, I think her solution points to a moral truth…

Giving is an act of faith.

Even when we aren’t completely certain it’s the right thing to do (and more often than not, we can’t be), it’s usually best to err on the side of generosity. And then we mustn’t second-guess our humane impulses.

The Apostle Paul put it well in his Second Letter to the Corinthians when he observed: “Each must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and media producer. His essays and random rants can be found at his blog, “The Guy in the Next Pew” (billkassel.com). The latest of his novels, MY BROTHER’S KEEPER, is available as an eBook.