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A Question of Charity

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

What is the place of charity in Paganism? Are we MIA or running cloaked? Do Christians have a monopoly on helping the poor or do our sacred stories enjoin us to help? But more importantly, what is the right thing for Pagans to do?

Alley Valkyrie reflected on her experience with the homeless of Eugene, Oregon on The Wild Hunt recently, noting the paucity of Pagan involvement and the extensive Christian presence. An important part of her musings were on the impulse to care for the poor associated with Jesus as contrasted with and absence of similar dicta in Pagan Mythology.

A fair number of contradictory opinions were registered, showing that there are in fact many mythological and moral prescriptions in Pagan lore for the care of the poor and indigent. Some also pointed out that Pagans may well be working on economic injustice, which is the cause of poverty. Other decried the lack of infrastructure in the Pagan Community with which to deliver such services, thus when we do so we do it under someone else’s ‘branding’. Paganism, operating in a kind of stealth mode (we are good at this), just doesn’t get the credit.

Serious questions can all be raised about charity in general. Does giving to charities actually solve the problem? There are interesting view points on this matter. One TED talk points to charities crippled by the origins of the American practice rooted in a Puritanical assuaging of the guilt of success. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek further points to the problems in commercialization of charity. Both and others point to the dubious success in charities actually solving the problem but become very good at taking your money.

An alternative to charity is the proper deployment of our government to solve the challenges of society, since it is the collective and accountable instrument we have devised for enacting our will.

But for now, there are the hungry and homeless before us. Their immediate suffering cannot be ignored.

Today, let us ask questions and see where they take us:
What are we to do?
What are the strategic actions and what are the tactical actions we can take,
    or simply want to take, to have an impact on the problem?
What are the problems we see as most important?
How much do we care that anyone notices that Pagans are doing this?
    Christians have built up a brand that includes “caring for the poor”,
    while this may be contrasted with their current legislative agenda. . .
    Pagans have built up a reputation for ecological justice.
        Do we wish to, need to extend this?

Comment, anyone?

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.

Comments

  • Kellia Ramares-Watson
    Kellia Ramares-Watson Wednesday, 11 December 2013

    I wonder if ideas of charity can be placed under the umbrella of hospitality for the Hellenics among us. There is the story of Zeus and Hermes visiting earth disguised as mortal travelers and being treated to a dinner by a poor old couple who did not have much but were willing to share what they had. After dinner, the gods revealed themselves and were willing to grant them any boon except immortality. Their wish was to die together and when their time came, they were turned into trees whose branches touched. Since there were no Motel 6's at the time, travelers were temporarily homeless and dependent on the good will of homeowners along the way. Alsio, cakes of the road left at Herms, fed travelers.

    Pagans may want to give to charities as a group, but fear doing so because certain "Christians" don't want anyone but themselves involved. I have heard of their groups forbidding atheists from serving at soup kitchens on the holidays. And atheists in some places (south) have been blocked from the adopt-a-highway anti-litter program. Such attitudes plus the lack of the infrastructure that churches have, make it easier for Pagans to practice charity privately. When the Bush Administration came up with "faith-based initiatives" and some people squawked on 1st Amendment grounds, I figured the way to end it was to have Covenant of the Goddess seek a grant for a soup kitchen.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Thursday, 12 December 2013

    To address your first point, Ms Ramares-Watson, I wholeheartedly agree that charity is a fundamental part of Hellenismos. Xenia (the word which describes the relationship between host and guest) lays out how one should treat visitors at one's door. Giving money to beggars is often considered an offering to Hermes, and Hekate is commonly honored with a donation to a food bank in place of the ancient practice of leaving edibles at a crossroads. The gods are very curious how we treat each other.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Thursday, 12 December 2013

    I'm hesitant to take anecdotes about Christian attitudes seriously, at least without evidence. In a country where KKK chapters have won the right to adopt portions of highway, I am skeptical that atheists have been denied road-cleanup props. There's lots of stories about the Salvation Army being homophobic, and enough of them are confirmed to give me pause, but there's still quite a bit of exaggeration. Just because a tale fits our preconceived notions doesn't make it the truth.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Thursday, 12 December 2013

    Mr Webster, this is a topic close to my heart, and I am glad to see others talking about it. The question of Pagan charity is complex, both because of the diversity of paths (some of which, for all I know, may specifically proscribe charity) and because of the secrecy common to Pagan religions.

    A couple of years ago I started asking if there were specifically Pagan charities, and in response to that question on a prominent forum, I was told that I wouldn't get an answer because other forum members didn't know me. While suspicion is understandable, it tends to undercut charitable work.

    Our diversity ranges from those who subscribe to the idea that taking credit for charity dilutes the gift, to those who embrace the idea of a public commitment to Pagan giving. I suspect that your questions, excellent as they are, will yield better answers if applied to a specific Pagan faith rather than the amorphous movement that sort of binds us together.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 12 December 2013

    Mr. Webster,

    Thanks for bringing up such an important topic (as did Mr. Ward). Poverty, its root causes, and our charitable impulses as Pagans are all excellent topics of discussion in my opinion.

    I believe that the systemic automation, globalization, and financialization of human economies are leading towards the creation of a massive, permanent, desperate underclass in what we like to think of as, "The First World".

    The best way to break someone's spirit slowly is to deprive her/him of the means to gainful employment. A job provides the individual with dignity, discipline, and a place of respect within the community. The Industrial Age in the USA, once upon a time, provided any man [who was willing to work hard and embrace thrift as a virtue] with the means to attain something like our Western middle-class existence. Those opportunities are largely gone now, as many of our Millenial-generation citizens can attest. This is the root cause, for the reliance of so many people on government aid, merely to subsist.

    What will happen when our ruling class can no longer feed the desperate by borrowing from children yet unborn? A storm is looming. I believe these are necessary things to mention in any discussion of poverty and charity here in the USA. There are no easy answers.

    As a Hellenistic Neoplatonist Pagan, I try [but often spectacularly fail] to use the Delphic Maxims as a guide to life:

    "Share the load of the unfortunate", #135

    "Give back what you have received", #55

    My wife and I give to local charities regularly, as this is something we both strongly believe in.

    Additionally, I'd like to thank Ms. Ramares-Watson and Mr. Ward for reminding us (Hellenics) of Xenia and how Zeus, Father of Gods and men, wishes us to be generous.

    I share Mr. Ward's words of caution about Pan-Pagan (pun intended) charities. Efforts to help the local less fortunate might also be hindered by the duplication of infrastructure, which is typically dominated by an alliance between local Christians and government officials. The worst-case scenario, as has been previously noted, that faith-based opposition will overshadow our good intentions.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 12 December 2013

    Mr. Webster,

    Thanks for bringing up such an important topic (as did Mr. Ward). Poverty, its root causes, and our charitable impulses as Pagans are all excellent topics of discussion in my opinion.

    I believe that the systemic automation, globalization, and financialization of human economies are leading towards the creation of a massive, permanent, desperate underclass in what we like to think of as, "The First World".

    The best way to break someone's spirit slowly is to deprive her/him of the means to gainful employment. A job provides the individual with dignity, discipline, and a place of respect within the community. The Industrial Age in the USA, once upon a time, provided any man [who was willing to work hard and embrace thrift as a virtue] with the means to attain something like our Western middle-class existence. Those opportunities are largely gone now, as many of our Millenial-generation citizens can attest. This is the root cause, for the reliance of so many people on government aid, merely to subsist.

    What will happen when our ruling class can no longer feed the desperate by borrowing from children yet unborn? A storm is looming. I believe these are necessary things to mention in any discussion of poverty and charity here in the USA. There are no easy answers.

    As a Hellenistic Neoplatonist Pagan, I try [but often spectacularly fail] to use the Delphic Maxims as a guide to life:

    "Share the load of the unfortunate", #135

    "Give back what you have received", #55

    My wife and I give to local charities regularly, as this is something we both strongly believe in.

    Additionally, I'd like to thank Ms. Ramares-Watson and Mr. Ward for reminding us (Hellenics) of Xenia and how Zeus, Father of Gods and men, wishes us to be generous.

    I share Mr. Ward's words of caution about Pan-Pagan (pun intended) charities. Efforts to help the local less fortunate might also be hindered by the duplication of infrastructure, which is typically dominated by an alliance between local Christians and government officials. The worst-case scenario, as has been previously noted, that faith-based opposition will overshadow our good intentions.

  • Kellia Ramares-Watson
    Kellia Ramares-Watson Thursday, 12 December 2013

    Dear Jamie,

    While I think work is necessary to deepen our human experience and to provide goods and services to ourselves and our communities, I think very poorly of notions of the dignity of having a job in this money-jobs system. As I see more and more people paid garbage wages for what they do, I think the first thing that must be considered is whether a job pays well enough to support oneself. Jobs, which are all too often cases of prostitution or slavery do that less and less these days.

    I am a demonetarist, pro-gift economy. I ask "why must we pay to live on the planet we're born on?" If we can ditch the idea of making money in favor of making things and producing services when they are needed, and doing something else with our time when they are not, we can eliminate poverty.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Saturday, 14 December 2013

    I feel the idea of a gift economy is on the cusp of something very important, but something still completely thwarted by centuries of "we've always done it that way."

    The reason money is important is that it allows us to more easily exchange our energy for things we want or need. A thousand years ago, the only way we could advance knowledge would be to allow people to specialize in doing one or two things extremely well, and then trade the results (often using money) to get the stuff of survival, be it clothing, food, or shelter.

    Those specializations have led to a vast array of labor-saving devices, and now when we speak of "productivity," what we mean is the advances beyond a single person's physical or mental labor that are now possible. One person can harvest a field of cotton that once required hundreds, for example. But what of those hundreds of people? What do they do for work?

    That's the question which plagues every technological advancement. It's why railroad unions demanded the trains staff coal-shovelers after they were unnecessary. It's why margarine was required by law to be dyed pink. It inspired the Luddites, this fear that there would be people who would be thrown into poverty and suffering because they no longer had work.

    We have struggled with it, but the gap between rich and poor is widening, suggesting that the problem is only growing more severe. Labor-saving technology, combined with a society in which labor is the primary way to obtain the stuff of survival, means that as we advance the proportion of people barely scraping by is bound to increase.

    The basic assumption -- that we will die if we don't produce what we need for our personal survival -- has been left in place throughout these advancements. From what I understand, gift economy seeks to change that, and let our entire species benefit from the abundance we have created (often at the cost of other parts of our planet, but that's another problem entirely).

    I see only two ways forward, and each one requires a fundamental alteration of the human condition. Gift economy requires the elimination of the basic instinct to take care of one's self and family first, since that drive is distorted and leads to an insane amount of hoarding compared to actual need. Population control, the alternative, asks us to overcome the equally-powerful instinct to reproduce, which is supported by the simple fact that trying to reproduce feels awfully good.

    Both drives are supported by millenia of culture and philosophical echo chambers, convincing us that this is the way things ought to be. I don't know which one is easier to alter, but unless someone comes up with an alternative, we're going to have to overcome one of those instincts or it's going to get much, much worse.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Saturday, 14 December 2013

    Mr. Ward,

    These are the unappealing long-term options that I struggle to accept. I agree, there are difficult choices ahead in this automated, globalized world of industrial overcapacity.

    On the one hand, when people say, "Don't breed more than you can afford to feed", self-proclaimed progressives often 'call out' their perceived social darwinism, classism, racism, or all of the above. There are younger folks in this world who feel entitled to having multiple children at your and my expense. Is criticizing such unsustainable behavior really an awful 'ism', or merely what we 20th century throwbacks call common sense? Good luck preaching the benefits of birth control to this crowd, even though their offspring will inherit the serfdom that results.

    On the other hand, evolution has hard-wired species homo to eat, screw, and hoard like there's no tomorrow. Everybody wants what they want, and it's always more than they have. In a world without money as a reward for producing goods, why should anyone work hard to produce what you want? Asian factory workers literally slave away in dirty, dangerous factories to the point of suicide...all so we can have the newest iPhones and Xboxes. We truly live in a second Gilded Age.

    Were human beings willing to subsist on, "actual need", as you say, poverty would have ceased to exist long ago. But who defines, "actual need"? How much state-sanctioned violence will be necessary to force people to go without bling in a true gift economy? What will be the acceptable number of dead? Tens of millions, or just a few million?

    It would be naive to think that in a world where children are murdered for the latest basketball shoes, that people will readily accept a subsistence-level gift economy. It's equally naive to think that others will risk and work hard to produce expensive goods and services for you, and receive no more in return than those who shun work.

    No easy answers, unfortunately. Thanks for your post.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Friday, 13 December 2013

    Ms. Ramares-Watson,

    Well, best of luck with that.

    Sorry for the accidental double post, by the way.

  • Kellia Ramares-Watson
    Kellia Ramares-Watson Friday, 13 December 2013

    Mr Ward.

    I stand corrected. Atheists have become a prominent presence in the adopt a highway program nationwide, but not always without opposition. In one case in South Carolina recently, an atheist group adopted a section of road that passes by a church whose pastor suggested his members might offer the atheists Krispy Kreme Donuts in the hopoe of striking up a discussion about the bible.

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