All religions stress the need to effectively attend to the needs of others.
Giving is not advocated for its own sake but as a way of showing selfless love
and sincere compassion to one's neighbor.
Giving is putting one's time, money, or other assets at the disposal
of someone else while not asking for or expecting anything in return.
It is not like selling or lending, when the buyer or borrower must, in
exchange, give money or a promise for the future.
Gratuitousness is customary within a family or other small
community. The father and mother freely bring in what they have or can
provide. Children and other weaker members freely receive what they
require. In larger groups, however, trading is the normal practice.
Trying to do away with this customary system of economic relations and
abolish the use of money as an instrument of exchange always ends in
disastrous failure. This was the fate, for example, of a utopian
attempt of this sort by the Khmer Rouge in "Democratic Kampuchea"
Religions are not opposed to normal trading relations provided that
the stronger party does not take advantage of the weaker's inferiority
to set an unfair price. But they also greatly value selfless giving. In
Buddhism, dana paramita is the first of the Six Perfections.
Mosaic law demands that Jews give out one-tenth of their resources. In
Islam, almsgiving is one of the five obligations Muslims must fulfill.
Christians see charity as the greatest virtue, meaning by that both
divine love and "works of charity," helping the needy in every possible
way. "For the Church," Pope Benedict XVI says, "charity is not a kind
of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is
a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being."
Religions thus can help steer the world away from the present global
situation in which the right of unlimited profit-taking and maximum
possession seems to be given priority as a matter of course.
Giving in the Modern World
In today's world, where commercialization seems to prevail
everywhere, giving plays a surprisingly large part. That presents be
given to friends and loved ones for their weddings and birthdays, at
Christmastime and on similar festive occasions, is a universal custom.
Many people give money to neighbors or relatives in need or help them
in other ways. Some nuns give up everything to devote their entire
lives to the care of the needy. Large donations by private citizens or
companies often significantly augment the amount of tax money spent by
governments on culture, education, and social services. Foundations
established with grants from rich people or legacies from them after
they die fund medical research, finance the restoration of historic
monuments and works of art, subsidize museums and institutions of
higher learning, set up scholarships, and perform many other useful
tasks. Major fund-raising campaigns appeal to the public's generosity
for similar goals, often with great success.
Private individuals who give money in this way often enjoy tax
benefits. In France, for example, half the amounts contributed to a
large number of organizations with a cultural or social object is
deducted from the giver's income tax. This demonstrates to what extent
governments value such contributions.
Some initiatives of this sort are explicitly motivated by religious
considerations. Others are not. But in all cases, they break with the
current global culture of selfish individualism in a way that reflects
the lasting influence of religion on many people's behavior. Religious
leaders play their role by inciting believers to give generously not
only to charitable institutions established within their denomination
but to secular ones as well.
Religion also emphasizes that giving money is not the only thing
required. Signing a check does not, after all, demand much effort.
Dedicating some of one's free time in support of a worthwhile cause is
perhaps even more meritorious. Wherever mere survival does not absorb
the total time and energy of adult men and women, volunteer workers are
found who help take care of various social needs that public
institutions do not meet. They visit the sick and comfort the dying.
They help the homeless, jobless poor maintain a minimum of human
dignity while searching for better circumstances. They provide free
tutoring to schoolchildren from impoverished backgrounds. They guide
visitors in landmarks and museums. All of this, of course, is done
Some volunteers are moved by feelings of simple humanity, natural
compassion, and a desire to be helpful to others. But religion is a
strong motive. A reporter once followed Mother Teresa near the sick and
the dying in the most destitute slums of Kolkata (Calcutta). At the end
of the day, he told her: "I wouldn't do that for a million dollars."
She is reported to have replied: "Neither would I, but for Jesus
Christ, I do it willingly." The importance of a religious motivation is
confirmed by the fact that in societies where materialism is growing
and the influence of religion seems to be on the wane, volunteers are
more difficult to find among young, able retired men and women who
often seem to prefer more gratifying activities.
Religious Norms for True Selfless Giving
All religions stress the need to effectively attend to the needs of
other human beings. Giving is not advocated for its own sake but as a
way of showing actual selfless love and sincere compassion to one's
neighbor. Giving must be done with kindness and, one might say, an
intelligent perception of what will do the most good for the recipient.
Giving is hardly worth the name when it is, in fact, selfish, if,
for example, givers hope to profit by advertising their generosity.
Jesus warned against that when he said: "Let your left hand be ignorant
of what your right hand is doing."
When asked "to spare a dime" by a beggar on the street, it is not
enough just to fish out a coin and drop it into his extended cap
without a word, without a smile, without even eye contact. True giving
is not merely a way to get rid of an annoying presence while pretending
to comply with the commands of one's religion. In fact, this beggar may
not want money only. He may perhaps be in need even more of respect and
a minimum of sympathy.
Giving a child a piece of candy just to keep the child quiet for a
while and go on with one's business undisturbed has, similarly, little
to do with selfless love. Children need attention, not indulgence.
Besides, refusing to give them something that may be harmful to them
can in no way be considered a violation of religious commands.
The need to respect the person whom one would wish to help may
require a high degree of tactfulness. He or she is, for the moment, in
a position of inferiority. He or she might want to show an ability to
quickly get back to self-sufficiency. A loan rather than a gift may be
what will take into account this important consideration.
For the same reason, there was a time when foreign aid to poorer
countries took the form of loans rather than outright grants. Later
developments showed this to have been a mistake. These loans and the
massive indebtedness they caused made the situation of these countries
worse, not better. Foreign grants, however, raise the problem of
"conditionality." Donor agencies usually insist on deciding what use
will be made of the funds they provide. They often prescribe also what
policies should be followed by the recipient government in other areas.
This is not an outright gift when the beneficiary country cannot do
what it wants with the money received.
This is a difficult issue, even in relations among individuals. I do
well if I give money to an inveterate gambler or drinker who asks me to
help pay for a cure to get rid of addiction. A religious person must, a
priori, be prepared to trust any human being. If, however, I have
strong reasons to fear that the person will use my gift for indulging
his or her vice, I would do better by giving nothing directly and
paying the unpaid rent to the person's landlord, so that the person
concerned and his or her family can avoid the risk of being thrown out
of their home.
Developing countries would often wish to spend the proceeds of
foreign grants for other purposes than those prescribed by the donors.
In some cases, indeed, local authorities know what their people require
better than foreign aid institutions. In other cases, unfortunately,
donors are right to suspect the honesty of their local partners. One
possible solution to this dilemma is an open and public negotiation
between donor agencies and a regional group of developing countries.
Such a discussion may result in a common understanding of what is
really needed and can form the basis of an agreement satisfactory to
Giving aid to poorer developing countries is, in any case, something
that religions must ceaselessly urge, reminding governments in richer
countries of the commitments they announce and too often ignore later.
A recent example is the declaration issued in Sapporo on July 3,
2008, by one hundred high-level religious leaders representing all
major religions and all regions in the world on the eve of the summit
meeting of the eight major economic powers. They said: "We request the
G8 Summit to take leadership to ensure the achievement of the MDGs
[Millennium Development Goals], including delivery on the Gleneagles
aid quantity and quality promises, particularly reaching the goal of
0.7 percent of Gross National Income for Official Development
Opportunity for Multireligious Cooperation
A group of senior religious leaders representing the World
Conference of Religions for Peace delivered this text to the Japanese
prime minister in his capacity as host and chairman of the G8 Summit in
Hokkaido. Many readers of Dharma World know about this important
multireligious organization, of which Rev. Nikkyo Niwano was one of the
founders. Religions for Peace, on this occasion, made a strong appeal
to rich countries for increasing their giving to people in need in
This appeal is based not on political considerations but on a set of
moral values that all religions share and are willing to proclaim
together. This is how the Sapporo declaration puts it: "We are united
in our commitment to peace, which includes our concern for the
inviolable dignity of all people the dire suffering of so many, and the
well-being of our shared Earth. . . . Action by all governments, civil
society, private sector, religious communities, and--in the final
analysis--every member of the human family is required to advance the
common good. . . . 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."
This is clearly an appeal for giving, as described above, in the
broadest sense of the word. Giving is presented as a major contribution
to world peace. It is a way to overcome some of the intolerable
situations that feed rebellion. It helps people to get used to
cooperation rather than resorting to the desperate choice of fighting.
This appeal is remarkable also for describing the duty to give as
universal in two different ways. Everyone is called to give and to give
to everyone. One's generosity must not be reserved to members of one's
particular community. Giving must transcend all borders, national,
cultural, ethnic, or religious. What senior leaders of all major
religions in the world had in mind is the entire human race. They
emphasized its unity and the brotherly love that must prevail over all
divisions by referring to it as "the human family."
Multireligious cooperation is capable also of making giving more
effective. In the Sapporo declaration, representative figures of all
religions noted that "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." Pooling these facilities in mixed towns or villages can be
most useful. It helps reduce the tensions between communities. It is
welcomed by potential donors who would hesitate to subsidize competing
The spirit of giving is needed today more than ever before.
Religions can help to keep it alive and fortify it. Spreading it to the
coming generations should be a major concern of anyone concerned with
From 1984 to 1994, Jacqueline Rougé was an
active president of the International Committee of the World Conference
of Religions for Peace and is now one of its honorary presidents. She
is also now official Religions for Peace representative with UNESCO.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2008 issue of Dharma World.
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