Perhaps that sounds harsh in a Christian context when evidence suggests that we are better at giving to charity than the average Brit. But why do we do it, and can we do better?
It could be said that our giving to charity at Christmas loses some significance when it’s just part of the consumption binge that happens during the festive period. Do we throw money at charities in the same way that we feel we have to spend on stocking fillers, crackers and mince pies? I wonder whether the spiritual value of charitable giving has been diluted, and as a result whether we’re missing the chance both to help others and to grow in our relationship with God.
At its most basic, charity is about demonstrating love to our neighbour. Has the giant, corporate-style charity eroded the connection between giving money and showing love? Charities have become pressed by financial constraints, just like their supporters. Big charities are marketing machines, with market acumen to rival the best.They have to be. And Christmas is big business in the charity sector.
Charitable giving in Britain increases by about 5% at Christmas-time, according to a report by Cass Business School (2012). This figure doesn’t indicate a rise in the amount people are giving, but that more people give ? probably because of the opportunities at this time of year.
Christian giving organisation Stewardship saw a 37% increase in the number of donations during December 2012, suggesting that the difference in financial giving is even more marked in Christian circles than among the rest of the population. OnChristmas Day itself, they see a 25% increase on average of the value of financial gifts.
But it’s not only financial giving that increases at Christmas. Soup kitchens are inundated with support ? the kind they might long for come February. National volunteering charity TimeBank says that since September more than 300 people a day have visited its website looking for Christmas volunteering opportunities. They have received so much interest this year (a 40% increase from last year) that they have begun a new initiative ? Christmas Party Volunteering ? in response to the many companies who want to make volunteering part of their work Christmas celebrations.
The evident increase in generosity is accompanied by myriad charity advertising campaigns. Homelessness charity Crisis is well known for its annual Crisis at Christmas campaign. ‘Crisis benefits from incredible generosity ? in terms of time, skills and donations ? from our supporters throughout the year, but it is during Christmas that we receive the most,’ says chief executive Leslie Morphy. ‘This is in part because Crisis at Christmas is so visible, having grown from humble beginnings in a small London church more than 40 years ago, to an event where 8,000 volunteers provide thousands of homeless guests [with] warmth,comfort and vital services over the festive period.’
Guilt and giving
So the statistics show an increase in our generosity at this time of year, at the same time as other demands on our money. But why? Are we, at root, motivated to give by a deep sense of guilt?
You see a beggar and don’t know quite how to respond. You know that when you get that new coat, others are left out in the cold. And so you give a little bit extra to charity. Is this the right reason for giving? Does it even matter at all ? should we just get on with giving without thinking about it?
‘Do poor people care what your motivation is?’ asks Wendy Beech- Ward, events and ambassadors director for Christian child development charity, Compassion. ‘If you’re poor and someone’s giving you a tenner, I’m not really sure you’d care why they’re doing that. I think generally we opt out and we create frameworks for us not to give ? “I’m not going to give to Comic Reliefbecause not all the money gets there.” If someone said to me, “I’m giving you £20 for the Compassion appeal because I’m spending £200 on my own kids”, I’d take the money off them happily.
‘[When] I first went to Haiti, the first woman I met was 22 years old, raising two kids in a tent smaller than my garden shed. I was 44, raising two kids in a four-bed detached house with a garden. And yes I felt guilt, and it caused me to respond. Maybe we need guilt to propel us to action.’
‘In one sense heart attitude always matters, but sometimes we can get so caught up in that that it can immobilise us,’ says Ruth Valerio, churches and theology director for Christian environmental charity A Rocha. ‘Christmas is a great time to be generous ? and charities have come to depend on our generosity at this time of year. Our motivation is never going to be 100% pure.’ We’re far more likely to sit and pontificate about the reasons not to give or whether it’s right, than to be too generous in our charitable giving.
But Virginia Luckett, head of UK Church relationships at Tearfund, feels that considering guilt as a strong motivation in Christian giving undermines the power of the gospel: ‘I think there are much stronger drivers in the Christian Church than guilt; and the message of Christmas ? that God was so generous himself that he decided to be born in impoverished circumstances ? is a very powerful motivator.’ It’s obviously not only at Christmas when this message is seen, but throughout the Church calendar. ‘At Easter we have the message of the cross, and the ultimate self-giving. Then at harvest we remember God’s provision. I think God’s generosity calls out a deep response. I would expect that somebody who is really wrestling with their faith would be motivated on many levels ? not least financially.’
The message we need to communicate to encourage joyful giving is fundamentally not one of guilt. ‘The message should be oneof privilege, and joy to think about the enormous resources that we’ve been given,’ says Mike O’Neill, chief executive of Stewardship. ‘It’s important to instil the reasons for giving ? the Bible is clear that everything we have belongs to God. I’ve heard people say that Christians will not normally question the fact that everything belongs to God, but they will question whether they should be giving 10%. We really are just stewards ? it’s not just about how much you keep.’
The received wisdom is that people give more at this time of year not just because we’re feeling guilty about pigging out at Christmas lunch, but because we’re more aware of the needs of those who might find themselves struggling or lonely in contrast with our own crowded celebrations. But while our perception of need may be one motivator, there is also a spike in the needs of the vulnerable at Christmas.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable in the winter months. More than 500,000 older people spend Christmas Day alone (Age UK). And with rising energy prices, there are serious concerns about ensuring the elderly are able to heat their homes and stay as well as possible during this period. Age UK is drawing attention to the risk that 24,000 older people may not survive the cold weather as part of their current Spread the Warmth campaign.
Children are struggling under the financial and emotional burdens of their families, according to a new report published by Action for Children in November (The Red Book 2013: Children under pressure). The study looked at the effects of the 2010 spending review on families and on children’s services. Staff at children’s services across the country have seen a substantial increase in cases of children self-poisoning and self-harming.
‘The problems that already exist in families ? issues around money coming into the house, tensions between family members ? are exacerbated if there’s pressure to have fun, to be together and enjoy each other’s company at Christmas,’ says Action for Children policy manager, Emma Scowcroft. ‘If lots of things are going wrong all year round, it’s really difficult to believe that for just one or two days, things can feel perfect. There’s no magic wand that you can wave over these issues.’
For some families, it’s not just a question of whether they’ll be able to afford presents. In October, the Trussell Trust, an organisation facilitating food banks around the UK, reported that some people were returning items to food banks that required cooking, as they couldn’t afford the gas or electricity. The idea of cooking a turkey in an oven for six hours is beyond feasible, even if they were given the bird.
So if we recognise need, what is spiritual effect of giving well? The benefit of giving away isn’t unidirectional. In sharing ourmoney, possessions or time, we are reminded that all we have is not ‘ours’, but we are stewards of all what God has given us. This is where Christian giving differs slightly from a compassionate non-Christian seeing a need and responding by giving generously. We have the opportunity to develop our awareness of God’s love and compassion for all people. But this is perhaps an undervalued spiritual discipline
In The Four Loves, CS Lewis describes charity as ‘Gift-love’, which we demonstrate to both God and each other. Natural Gift-love includes extending love to the loveable, whereas ‘Divine Gift-love in the man enables him to love what is not naturally loveable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering.’ So much for giving to others. But God also enables us to give back to himself ? both as we offer him our hearts and lives (rather than withholding them), and in our charity ? in the sense that ‘every stranger whom we feed or clothe is Christ’
It is worth questioning whether our giving has become too much about us ? the money we’ve earned, the presents we’ve been given ? and not enough about the heartfelt response to what God has done for us.
In describing the life of simplicity in The Celebration of Discipline (Hodder & Stoughton), Richard Foster comments that we can neither ignore the Christian imperative to share our material goods, nor become excessively legalistic and forget that we should be responding to the love of God in our lives. ‘The central point for the Discipline of simplicity’, writes Foster, ‘is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper order.’
The benefits of giving shouldn’t be limited to the satisfaction of doing a good deed for the day. Jamie Treadwell, an urban monk, sees three possible spiritual benefits from charitable giving. ‘One is that it’s an expression of simplicity. If I’m giving away money I’m more aware of the money I have myself ? especially if I’m saving money in order to give it away. A second part is community ? my desire is to help those that I can that are in need and if I contribute to them, I’m participating in something bigger than myself. Third, it’s an expression of love; an action that benefits somebody else. Love is tangible ? it’s an expression of Christ’s love in me. As I express love, I grow in love ? I want to see that grow so I want to find a way to express that each day in some way.’
We have a tendency to think of giving, and of charity too, merely in financial terms. ‘Sometimes in our Western, materialistic society, we have a false dichotomy between money and faith,’ says Luckett. ‘When you are working to a vision, you want to give through all routes, and that includes finance.’
It is worth questioning whether our giving has become too much about us
We can easily focus on giving money, which is clearly important, but in doing so forget to see charity as an essential Christian virtue. Valerio says: ‘The Christian virtue of charity is the Christian virtue of love, caritas. It comes from that heart of wanting to help others ? both human and non-human. I’m often struck that the opposite of love isn’t always hate; sometimes it’s apathy ? apathia, which is literally “without feeling”. Love comes from knowing situations, knowing people; where we know, we care and then act, because love is an active thing. The idea [is] that charity is love, and that love comes from what we see in the Trinity ? in God giving the gift of his son, and we model that by wanting to give ourselves as gifts.’
‘I’m glad that people told me when I became a Christian that it would cost me everything,’ says Beech-Ward, ‘because at times it’s felt like it has. My view is that it’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. We are meant to embrace what Jesus tells us to do ? and that means loving our neighbour as ourselves. I heard a wonderful story of a 17-year-old girl still in high school, with three jobs because she sponsors 13 Compassion children. I think she knows who Jesus is.’
Funds may already be stretched at Christmas, but there is also a special opportunity at this time of year to reflect on our salvation in Christ as the greatest act of generosity, and to demonstrate that to others. ‘The Church should grab hold of the opportunity at Christmas to show people in society that we are a generous and loving group of people,’ says Beech-Ward. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone using a food bank had a basket overflowing at Christmas?
‘I live in Eastbourne, where it’s said that 3,500 people go hungry every day. That’s in a place with a population of about 120,000 and lots of churches. It’s not that it’s unfixable. The Church can end poverty globally and in our hometowns; it’s just whether we’re open-hearted enough to do that.’
Of course, for us to have any chance of doing that it’s about long-term commitment, not just a Christmas splurge in charitable giving, as O’Neill says: ‘Giving something is better than giving nothing, but the one-off gift is the start and not the end point.’ But this is a time of year that allows us to demonstrate extravagant giving ? not just to those who are sitting around the fire with us. Sometimes this may mean being reminded of the need, even in our local communities.
At Christmas we give to those we love. Whether it’s a scrawled drawing or a saved-for gift, these are tokens of our affection. The time or money that we offer as charitable gifts to those beyond our nearest and dearest should come from this same love. Charity is a form of love, not an excuse for not feeling at all.