Christian philanthropy

Gifts of individuals to the public weal were not a Christian innovation. Many nonChristians had been very generous. Indeed, in the Roman Empire benefactions by private individuals and public officials were a commonplace. Through them baths, temples, theatres, roads, bridges, aqueducts, markets, schools, and libraries were constructed and games and other public amusements were provided.

However, in the use of money for the general welfare, Christianity brought five significant innovations. It made giving the obligation of its adherents, poor as well as rich, for it was held that all should contribute, each according to his ability, and this was symbolized by the collection which was early part of the Eucharistic ritual. The motive that was stressed was also new: it was love in grateful response to the love of Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for the sake of those who were to follow him became poor, that they through his poverty might become rich. The objects of beneficence were also changed, at least in part. The Christian community stressed the support of its widows, orphans, sick, and disabled, and of those who because of their faith were thrown out of employment or were imprisoned. It ransomed many who were put to servile labour for their faith. It entertained travellers. One church would send aid to another church whose members were suffering from famine or persecution. In theory and to no small degree in practice, the Christian community was a brotherhood, bound together in love, in which reciprocal material help was the rule. This was more easily carried out in the years when Christians were a minority, but something of the same spirit, even though attenuated and institutionalized, carried over into the days when Christians became a majority.

Christian love and service were not restricted to members of the Church. They were also extended to non-Christians. The command to love one's neighbour was not forgotten, nor the parable by which Jesus had illustrated that command, of care for a nameless stranger upon whom misfortune had fallen. In one of the New Testament writings Christians were enjoined, as they had opportunity, to do good unto all men. We read that later, when pestilence swept great cities such as Carthage and Alexandria, and when the pagans had fled to escape it, Christians remained and cared for the sick and dying. After persecutions ceased, wealthy Christians founded hospitals.

We must note that, as a fifth innovation, Christian giving was personalized. Springing as it did from love, it was not impersonal service to masses of men, although often, as in times of famine, it dealt with large numbers, but it poured itself out to individuals, valuing each as having distinct worth in the sight of God, one "for whom Christ died."

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