Giving can serve merely to pacify one's conscience when actually it is necessary to do more.
Over the last few years donor conferences have become quite common
in international politics, whether for rebuilding Afghanistan, disaster
relief following the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, or aid for the
stabilization of Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia. During such
gatherings of politicians and diplomats, countries and governments
commit to allocate certain amounts as relief aid. In spite of all the
pragmatic and strategic interests involved, donor conferences can also
express the solidarity of the international community with some of its
individual members that, for example, have been affected by a natural
catastrophe or the consequences of war: "We will not leave you alone.
We share a common responsibility for the weakest among us. We are
donating some of our wealth to those that need it most to help them
Giving: A Basic Human Activity
Here we can basically feel a certain solidarity on a global scale,
even if the actual success of such conferences differs from case to
case. Especially surprising is the enormous amount of money that the
populations of different countries contribute to relief organizations
(religious as well as secular) so that they can--even in faraway
countries--alleviate the suffering that follows major catastrophes.
Even people of modest financial means participate in such charitable
campaigns, as was seen to the surprise of many, for example, in China
after the calamitous earthquake in the spring of 2008.
A worldwide global solidarity is indeed a development of recent
times, since it has now become possible to learn instantaneously about
the situation of people even in distant lands by means of the Internet
and the mass media. In recent times people have also been able to visit
such countries themselves and get to know the people there. However, a
commitment to assist the poor and the weak, which finds its practical
expression in charitable donations, can be found quite early in human
history. At first such support was limited to one's family and clan, or
to one's own ethnic group. Later this expanded beyond geographic
boundaries to one's own religious denomination or to the social class
with which one was associated by common problems, as in the labor
movement, for example. Today we speak of the international community as
a global family or the human family.
Of course, the act of giving does not necessarily have anything to
do with helping the poor and the weak. A birthday present is simply an
expression of affection or friendship for another human being. Giving
can also honor a person's achievements, as in the presentation of
awards. Moreover, giving can play a basic role in the economy, not only
in the old system of barter. Giving can also represent sacrifice, in a
religious as well as a secular context: to give something of yourself
for a higher purpose or a greater goal. However, I will limit my
considerations here to giving as an expression of compassion and
support for the weak and disadvantaged.
One can be ambivalent about the reasons for giving to the poor,
however. It can serve merely to pacify one's conscience, when actually
it should be necessary to do more. It can cement the balance between
power and dependence; the donor can feel superior to the receiver and
may take advantage of this presumed superiority. Thus, particularly in
the area of aid to developing countries, a change has occurred during
the last decades, from a neocolonial attitude of purely charitable
donations, which did not really improve the situation of the developing
countries, to helping people to help themselves. Often this proverb is
quoted: "It is more important to teach a hungry person how to fish than
to give him or her a fish." Aid to developing countries has turned into
cooperation, ideally into a form of partnership. People in the "rich"
countries have thus learned that even a "poor" partner in the South has
a lot to give in return, especially in a social or spiritual sense.
Therefore the attitude and the motivation behind the act of giving
matter as well. An attitude of sympathy, empathy, or compassion is
necessary so that the act of giving can become an expression of true
solidarity with others. These are basic human sentiments and thus
elements of a fundamental ethics of humanity as well. These attitudes
do not necessarily have to be based on spirituality or religion. But
giving, to give something of one's own to the less fortunate, is indeed
a central aspect of the ethics of all religions. In the history of
religion this activity is referred to as almsgiving and charity. All
religions have created institutions to help the needy. A few brief
examples from the various world religions help to illustrate this.
Giving: A Common Ethical Concern
In the Hebrew Bible, practical support for the poor, widows,
orphans, and strangers is virtually considered the criterion for a
person's relationship with God. Prophets such as Amos and Isaiah
demonstrate this pointedly as service to God in the truest sense. Thus
they consider this form of giving, of social activity, as superior to
making an offering in the temple or other religious practices. One who
gives to the needy is blessed by God. In the Middle Ages the great
scholar Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) emphasized that better than
almsgiving was helping the poor get back on their feet by lending them
money or giving them work. Thus the self-esteem of the poor would not
In the Christian New Testament, Jesus is depicted as the one who
preaches "the Gospel to the poor," who turns toward the outcasts of
society and restores their human dignity. The equality of love of God
and love of one's fellow human being, based on the Jewish Bible, which
should express itself in practical deeds, is a central element of the
message of the New Testament. However, Jesus warns against making a
show of almsgiving. The donor should demonstrate an attitude of
humility: "But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand
know what your right hand is doing" (Matt. 6:3). In the sermon about
the final judgment in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25), the service
to one of "the least brothers" is identified with service to Christ
himself. In the early Christian church, mutual solidarity and support
of the needy play an important role. In this context the apostle Paul
recalls the words of Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to
receive" (Acts 20:35). The Christian churches have established a tight
network of relief organizations, and collections for social purposes
are being held regularly, even in church services. Some Christians
during the forty days of fasting before Easter renounce a certain kind
of comfort and donate the corresponding amount to an aid project--a
practice that is very similar to the Donate-a-Meal Movement of Rissho
In Islam, the obligatory social contribution (zakat) is one
of the five pillars of religion and thus is equal to the creed, the
daily prayer, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage
to Mecca. This lends extraordinary importance to giving to the poor. At
countless places in the Qur'an and in the traditional records of the
prophet Muhammad (Hadith), one is called upon to help the needy,
orphans, and travelers. In one Hadith collection it is emphasized that
the practice of zakat causes givers to be less attached to
their possessions and thus to develop in themselves an attitude of
sympathy for their needy fellow human beings.
In Buddhism, especially in Theravada Buddhism, it is considered a
meritorious deed for lay followers to give monks their daily meals. But
beyond this traditional activity there are also more recent forms of
social commitment. Some groups, which call themselves "engaged
Buddhists," understand the Buddhist truth of liberation from suffering
explicitly as beyond the individual level and as a call for a change in
the social and economic structures that cause such suffering. This
leads to direct support for the poor and disadvantaged. Especially in
more recent movements in Mahayana Buddhism, such as Rissho Kosei-kai,
social activities and the attitude of giving play a particularly
In the Sikh religion, social responsibility finds its most evident expression in a unique institution: the free kitchen (langar). In the gurdwaras
(temples), a meal in which everyone can partake for free is regularly
prepared. This is an act of generous giving, expressing an ethos of
equality and sharing. At the Parliament of the World's Religions in
Barcelona in 2004, the Sikhs organized a langar at every lunch period for hundreds of guests from all religions.
These are just a few examples of the role that the practice of
giving plays in certain religions. I apologize for all the reductions
and oversimplifications, which unfortunately I could not avoid in this
rather short account. However, the decisive result of this reflection
is: Giving is considered a central ethical activity in all religions.
This has two consequences.
First, giving as an expression of solidarity and as a step toward
greater social justice is an element of a common ethic of humanity, of
a global ethic.
Second, because in all religions an ethical consensus regarding the
importance of giving exists, all religions could and should
increasingly stand up for the disadvantaged and work at eliminating
poverty and injustice. Interreligious organizations such as Religions
for Peace realized this long ago and practice such cooperation on
social projects, for example, in Africa. The participants in the World
Religious Leaders Summit for Peace: On the Occasion of the G8 Hokkaido
Toyako Summit rightly emphasized in their "Call from Sapporo" (July 3,
"Collectively, our religious communities are the world's largest
social networks, which reach into the farthest corners of the earth and
include countless institutions dedicated to caring for people.
Religions share many moral traditions that can provide basic principles
essential for just and harmonious relations among persons and
communities. Moreover, religious traditions--each in its own
way--cultivate the spiritualities of compassion and love essential for
genuine reconciliation and peace. Mobilizing these great social, moral,
and spiritual dimensions of the world's religions in service of the
common good is essential for the well-being of the human family. We are
united in the conviction that all religions obligate their followers to
work for justice among all peoples and to care for one another and our
common home, the earth. We commit to doing so."
A Global Ethic Based on Giving
The conviction expressed in this "Call from Sapporo" especially
conveys the idea of a global ethic. It takes as a starting point that
the necessary global ethical values and standards are found in the
ancient religious and philosophical traditions of humanity. In the
Declaration toward a Global Ethic at the Parliament of the World's
Religions in Chicago in 1993, more than two hundred representatives of
the world's religions expressed a consensus regarding such common
ethical values, standards, and attitudes (the declaration can be
accessed at www.global-ethic.org/dat-english/index.htm). On the basis
of the principle of humanity, "Every human being must be treated
humanely," and the Golden Rule of reciprocity, "What you do not wish
done to yourself, do not do to others," concrete directives for four
central areas of living are developed in the form of self-commitment:
Commitment to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life.
Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.
Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness.
Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.
The ethical call for building a culture of solidarity and a just
economic order in the declaration of Chicago starts from a clear
description of the present situation, in which the individual as well
as structural dimensions are addressed. The declaration then recalls
the ancient commandment, found in all religions and civilizations, "You
shall not steal," and addresses some concrete areas of action:
"If the plight of the poorest billions of humans on this planet,
particularly women and children, is to be improved, the world economy
must be structured more justly. Individual good deeds, and assistance
projects, indispensable though they be, are insufficient. The
participation of all states and the authority of international
organizations are needed to build just economic institutions.
"A solution which can be supported by all sides must be sought for
the debt crisis and the poverty of the dissolving second world, and
even more the third world. . . . In the developed countries, a
distinction must be made between necessary and limitless consumption,
between socially beneficial and non-beneficial uses of property,
between justified and unjustified uses of natural resources, and
between a profit-only and a socially beneficial and ecologically
oriented market economy. Even the developing nations must search their
national consciences. . . .
"To be authentically human in the spirit of our great religious and ethical traditions means the following:
? We must utilize economic and political power for service to humanity
instead of misusing it in ruthless battles for domination. We must
develop a spirit of compassion with those who suffer, with special care
for the children, the aged, the poor, the disabled, the refugees, and
? We must cultivate mutual respect and
consideration, so as to reach a reasonable balance of interests,
instead of thinking only of unlimited power and unavoidable competitive
? We must value a sense of moderation and modesty
instead of an unquenchable greed for money, prestige, and consumption.
In greed humans lose their 'souls,' their freedom, their composure,
their inner peace, and thus that which makes them human."
A global ethic is not meant as a sort of "hyperreligion" or as a
substitute for various individual traditions, whether based on religion
or not. The declaration of Chicago is no substitute for the Sermon on
the Mount, the Torah, the Qur'an, or the Buddhist didactic scriptures.
It concerns the question of a basic ethic. The declaration of Chicago
and the texts regarding the project of a global ethic thus do not
contain concrete instructions for individual complex questions of
business ethics or social policy. This is a matter for economists and
special ethicists. However, justice in the distribution of goods,
solidarity with the weak and the poor, and the demand to improve their
material condition--these are, as we have seen, ethical directives in
all religions. Thus, people from various religious and philosophical
traditions can each with their individual ethics contribute to a global
ethic that aims at the development of a culture of solidarity and the
promotion of a just economic system. Here the attitude of giving plays
an important role.
Günther Gebhardt, a Christian theologian, was
secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace Europe
in Geneva from 1984 to 1997. Since 1998 Dr. Gebhardt has been the
senior advisor at the Global Ethic Foundation in Tubingen, Germany.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2008 issue of Dharma World.
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