As I get older I become more aware how glibly folks around me forget their history in particular and our shared history in general. The concept that there was a world of wonder and beauty and horror and war and death before they were born seems to be a novel concept to many, so it may be good to review some historical realities sometimes.
There seems to be a general lack of understanding of words and the fact that they mean things as well. Events in the news this last week show that the word “charity” for one seems to be losing its meaning very quickly. Charity comes from the Latin word “charitas” which means love for your fellow man in a Christian context. Some people may not like that but it is the truth. The command of Jesus to love one another as he loved them was taken very seriously indeed. Christ’s sacrificial death was understood by Christians as example but also as the powerhouse that enabled them to care about others as they cared about themselves, sometimes more than they cared about themselves. It has been said that before Christ came into the world it was a world without love – charitas. It was a world without compassion. That word comes from a Greek word meaning “from the bowels”. The Greek word is a translation of the Hebrew word that means – hold on to your hats – the womb of God Almighty. Compassion is not just empathy or sympathy, it is a literal hurting from the inside that has to be acted upon in a charitable, merciful way, and when the action is complete God has given birth to a new person. The father of the prodigal has compassion on his wayward son and when he comes home the father welcomes and forgives and the son who was dead is alive again. Jesus has compassion on a leper and heals him and the man is born again to a new life.
The Roman world had never seen anything like the love that was poured out on it after the Resurrection of Christ. There were no homeless shelters, hospitals, orphanages, places for the blind or handicapped; Christians created them. It was Christians who bankrupted themselves and their churches by ransoming slaves. It was Christians who cared for the dying at the risk of their own lives during plagues when everyone but them deserted entire cities. It was Christians who opened up schools for girls. These places of charitas started out in individual homes but as the churches grew and there needed to be more organization they became institutionalized and were called “eleemosynary” institutions because they relied upon the charitas of donors. Eleeomosyna means “alms” and is an alternate word for compassion. All of these existed because of the motive force of the love of God in Christ and a corresponding love for Christ and others that Christians had.
The reason for the history lesson is that we forget the hospitals in the United States back in the day were all Christian institutions, as were most of the orphanages, nursing homes, and colleges. Bethesda and Good Samaritan should be names that are recognized. It was Christians that cared for the homeless and immigrants and found places for them to eat and live until they found work. So it is surpassing strange to me that Christians should be lectured by temporary functionaries who happen to hold office on the nature, function and reason for charity while they go out of their way to regulate eleemosynary institutions out of business. Charity cannot be mandated. Mandated charity is not charity but legislated theft. Charity not motivated by the Gospel is not charity. You can find a word describing it if you try real hard.