This episode continues our series examining the impact Christianity had on history & culture. Today we consider how the Faith impacted the world’s view of Charity & Compassion.
Early Christians quickly gained a reputation for their concern for the poor & disenfranchised. Unlike paganism with its acceptance of fate & the Greco-Roman enforcement of social classes, the Gospel viewed all human beings as created in God’s image & of equal value. Having its roots firmly in Judaism, Christianity considered justice to include a healthy dose of mercy & compassion. The Law of Moses regulated the treatment of slaves so they retained their dignity. It required the corners of fields be left unharvested so the poor could glean. And it required an annual tithe to be set aside specially for the poor & needy. All of this was unheard of in the pagan world.
Building on this base of Jewish charity was the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 who said that taking care of the hungry, the sick & prisoners was a kindness shown to none other than Himself.
The parable of the Good Samaritan was one of the favorites of the Faith & shaped the Church’s mindset toward the needy.
In the mid 3rd C, Tertullian in North Africa records that Christians had a common fund to which they voluntarily contributed. No strong-arm fundraising was needed; believers were glad to add coins to the box whenever they could. This fund supported widows, the disabled, orphans, the sick & prisoners jailed for their faith. It was also on occasion used to bury the poor & to purchase a slave’s freedom.
All of this stands in marked contrast with the Greco-Roman attitude toward the poor. They practiced what was known as liberalitas. This was assistance a wealthy benefactor showed to a someone in need, with an eye to their repaying the favor someday, somehow. In Roman society, the upper classes rose in status by having lots & lots of clients who supported you. They shouted your name when cued to do so at some public event. The louder your name was shouted, the more supporters you had & so the more prestige you garnered. So a wealthy Roman would help someone who was needy only if that person could go on to add his voice to his support base. It wasn’t genuine charity; it was buying support. I’ll help you today, if you shout my name tomorrow real loud and get all your family & friends to do the same. The motive was selfish.
Charity just for the sake of helping someone in need was officially considered by both the Greeks & Romans as being weak & counter-productive. Someone who’d fallen onto hard times & couldn’t rescue himself was pathetic, not worthy of concern. And who knows; their poverty or illness might be the work of the gods, punishment for some foul sin. So don’t alleviate their suffering or you might incur the wrath of the fickle deities who controlled the fate of mere mortals.
I just said that charity wasn’t officially allowed in pagan society for these reasons. But history tells us while Paganism didn’t practice it, some pagans occasionally did. Almost all cases we know of where people reached out to help others in need was when some catastrophe like an earthquake struck of fire swept a city. Then the suffering was so widespread & in everyone’s face people couldn’t avoid helping in some way. But generally, in day to day life, all giving to the needy had a self-serving end.
Christians didn’t practice the selfish liberalitas of the Romans. They practiced caritas – compassionate caring. There was no thought of what one was going to get out of such care. It was done simply because the person receiving the help needed it. The motive was to glorify God.
Believers were moved by the words of 1 John 4:10–11 – “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
They remembered what Paul had written in Philippians 2:4 – “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
In the 5th C, Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, sold the treasures & ornaments of the church to provide relief for starving people and in the 10th C, the bishop of Winchester sold all the gold & silver vessels of the cathedral to relieve the poor during a harsh famine. He justified his actions saying, “There is no reason the temple of God should abound in riches when the living temples of the Holy Spirit starve.” Historian Christopher Dawson recorded that nearly every local church had an official list of widows & the needy they supported and the sums given by those with means was substantial.
Christians didn’t just keep their charity to themselves; they met the needs of those outside the church as well. Both the Didache & the 2nd C letter called the Shepherd of Hermas called believers to meet the needs of all those who had genuine need. Providing such charity turned into risky business. By the 3rd C Christians had gained a reputation for their selfless love and this attracted even more to them. So 2 Emperors forbade prisoners from receiving outside help – which was a death sentence since their food came from what family & friends provided. Though it was against the law, Christians continued taking care of prisoners. Thankfully, few jailors enforced the Emperors’ edicts since they didn’t want their prisoners dying.
The charity of the early Christians flowed from the wider sense of compassion Jesus had consistently demonstrated throughout His life. The Gospels regularly comment on how Jesus was moved with compassion and reached out to take care of poor & needy souls. Since being a disciple meant being just like their Rabbi, the Christians sought to install compassion as one of their key virtues.
Yet as with charity, in paganism, compassion was not esteemed. The formative Greek thinker Plato said that a poor man, & especially a slave, who was no longer able to work because of sickness or age ought to be left to die. The famous Greek physician Aesculapius refused treatment to patients he deemed not worthy of surviving. The Roman philosopher Plautus said, “You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for more misery.”
In the 5th C BC, the Greek historian Thucydides [thoo-sid-a-dees] reported when a massive plague struck Athens during the Peloponnesian War, unaffected Athenians fled, leaving the sick behind to tend themselves. In the mid-4th C AD, the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who, as his name implies, hated Christians, couldn’t help but give them grudging respect that they alone stayed to tend the sick when a plague struck the Empire. He wrote, “The impious Galileans (his word for Christians, whom he called impious because they refused to worship the pagan gods) These impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours. It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance.”
Of course, we need only look back a few episodes to be reminded of the shocking lack of compassion Roman society had when we consider the popularity of the gladiatorial games. Compassion runs thin when life is cheap.
The compassion & charity of Christians stood out all the more when it was seen against the backdrop of a brutal Roman culture. Jesus had said, “Greater love has no one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” Christians sought to demonstrate that love in the streets & byways of the Empire. And it had a profound effect in drawing people to faith in Christ.
The story of Pachomius is just one of many examples. Pachomius was a pagan soldier in Emperor Constantine’s army. He watched while Christians brought food to his fellow soldiers afflicted with famine & disease & was profoundly moved. When he learned they were motivated by a religion called Christianity he became curious to understand a doctrine that inspired them to such love & generosity. So he began to study the faith and was soon a convert. Something similar to that was duplicated tens of thousands of times all across the Empire.
Pachomius and others were moved by the compassionate acts of the Christians because Greco-Roman culture just didn’t see the hungry, sick, and dying as worthy of assistance. The worth of a human being was determined by external & accidental circumstances in proportion to the position one held in the community or state. A human being only had value as a citizen, but very few people qualified as citizens. So the sick, poor, & lower classes like slaves, artisans, & other manual workers for whom the Christians had compassion, weren’t citizens in the eyes of freemen. Non-citizens were defined as having no purpose and so not worthy to be helped when their lives were in jeopardy. In their dire condition they received no food or physical protection.
So it’s understandable why Christianity spread most rapidly in the early centuries among, can you guess who? Yeah – the poor & needy, among slaves & the disenfranchised. That’s why it came under the scrutiny of officials & scorn of the elite. Now, to be sure, there were both highly placed believers as well as some of the ancient world’s most intelligent & erudite. But generally, officials feared that Christianity would rally the lower classes to rebel while the unbelieving elite shunned it as a religion for the pathetic.
They were wrong then. They’re wrong still. In truth, today’s liberalism is but a secularized version of Christian charity & compassion. But without the God who declares life sacred, liberalism’s commitment to compassion will be traded in for paganism’s utilitarianism. A process already well under way.