In my previous posts I’ve been talking about Jesus’ “love commandment,” arguing that it revolutionized ancient thinking about how people are to behave toward one another. (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”).  Now I ask whether that revolution actually involved changing people’s behavior in radical ways.  Or not.

Obviously, on the practical level, Jesus’ insistence on complete self-sacrifice did not come to dominate the world of late antiquity.  People continued to live much as they had before.  Conquerors still conquered.  The first Christian emperor, Constantine, was one of the most bloodthirsty of them all; many of his ardent Christian successors (including his sons) were at least as bad.  Slavery continued and was never questioned.  The rich dominated the poor.  Men dominated women.  The rich kept getting richer.  Most notably, Christian churches themselves began getting very much richer.  Eventually the church was by far the wealthiest institution in the west, and stayed that way for well over a millennium.

Christian Ethics in the Roman Empire

Even so, the ethical discourse of society did change with the Christianization of the empire.  And that discourse played a significant role in the social practices of late antiquity, the middle ages, and down to today.  From the earliest of times, from the pulpit and on the page, Christian ethicists preached love over hate, service over domination, caring over ignoring, giving over spending.  The very sense of what it meant to be ethical changed drastically.  It was no longer a matter of…

…“finding happiness” or having the “right character” in the Roman sense of manifesting self-control, restraint, devotion toward family, friends, and others in one’s own social circles.  It was a matter of giving away, resources to the poor, principally money, but also time and attention, providing economic and practical assistance to those who in need.

That is how I am defining “charity.”  But the term in English obviously has a much broader meaning, involving not just giving things away but, at a deeper level, actually standing in a good and loving relationship with others.  That understanding figures prominently in early English Bible translations:  “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13, in the King James Bible).  Clearly, in this context, “charity” is not simply a matter of providing money to the poor, given what Paul says earlier in the passage:  “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor… and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing (1 Cor. 13:3).  Even so, the ideas of being in a good standing with others and giving to those in need are and always have been closely connected.  Both are based on a divine exemplar, God’s own relationship with humans.  Charity toward humans is manifest in God’s loving actions toward them, providing them with what they need in their lives and for their salvation, and forgiving them when they transgress the boundaries of love.  Humans are to act that way to others.  Not just to those they love as spouses, children, or other family members; good friends or close neighbors; or just people they like–but everyone.

Imitating Christ

Even more than Christ’s teachings on love, his own life was to serve as the model for Christian behavior.  Or rather his death.  Christ was believed to have made the ultimate sacrifice, suffering and dying for the sake of others.  His followers were to…

…do the same, to give everything, their entire life, for those in need.  Jesus’ followers were to be his imitators.

For this reason, “charity” in the sense of giving resources to those in need is one of the clearest crystallizations of the distinctively Christian moral imperative of self-giving love.  The church fathers that I discuss in my original prospectus recognized and stressed the point.  It was impossible for someone who had an abundance of food, clothing, and other necessities of life to “love their neighbor as themselves” when the “neighbor” (meaning, anyone they knew about) was insufficiently supplied.  No matter how generous they were, if they had more than they needed and someone else did not have enough, then following Jesus’ teachings of love meant divesting the surplus and giving to the poor. This is what the church fathers meant by “Christian charity.”

Very few Christians took this demand literally, and generally either softened the injunction or understood it metaphorically.  But even so, the basic principle behind it came to be the dominant Christian ideology which, because of the Christian triumph, became a dominant ideology in the West.  Those with resources were to help those in need.  They often did so.  That changed everything.

Christian Charity Changes the Empire

It is not that the post-Constantinian empire became a welfare-state; or that multitudes of affluent Christians divested for the sake of the poor; or even that the Christian church as an institution gave away all its wealth for those in need.  Quite obviously not.  But some governmental assistance became available; some rich people sold all they had for the poor; and the church did begin to sponsor programs that provided material assistance for those in need.  As I indicate in the larger prospectus, that ethical impulse led to the invention of the hospital and the orphanage, (limited) governmental interventions, and, especially, direct poverty relief from those with resources to those without through the church, its leaders, and its members.  Beneficences were no longer directed only to one’s family or to fund municipal building projects or public entertainments.  Giving to those in need came to be a moral imperative. “Right living” no longer meant exercising domination but living in service; it shifted from a concern for personal character to making personal sacrifices; it now entailed giving at least some of one’s own resources for strangers in need.

This is the radical transformation of society I will be addressing in my book, on both the ideological and practical (i.e., material) levels.  It is a transformation with us still today, in governmental welfare systems, in charities of all kinds at all levels (from small local groups to major international billion-dollar enterprises), and in the moral consciousness of entire populations, who think that at the end of the day it is good, right, and desirable for those with resources to help those without.  As a result, Jesus’ teachings on the practice of love, as adopted by his followers, and seen most clearly and concretely in individual and collective acts of charity, has in important ways revolutionized our world and helped make western culture what it is today.

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2022-09-12T10:45:11-04:00September 17th, 2022|Historical Jesus, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

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