Charity is one of those words which, in Christian discourse, is often in danger of meaning everything and nothing. We use it in certain very concrete senses ("giving to charity") and also in very broad senses (Faith, Hope and Charity). At times it is taken to mean simply giving something to someone -- and some even take it in a negative sense in that regard: the rich giving some few spare pennies to the poor. At other times, drawing on the Latin root of caritas, it is taken to be love as a whole in all its senses.
Because as Christians we identify God as being love, love is clearly meant to encompass a wide range of Christian action and experience, and comes in many forms. Right now, I'd like to talk about love of neighbor, and specifically, that love of neighbor which involves providing for the physical needs of others. So for the purposes of this post, I'm going to call the use of "time and treasure" to perform the corporal works of mercy "charity", and let's leave aside the other meanings of that term for now.
Now to me, one of the interesting things about the virtue of charity is that it says a great deal about the sort of relationships we can have as human beings. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, 25-37) we see a scholar of the law (quidam legis peritus) who cheerfully parrots back the great commandments of "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." but then wants to know "Who is my neighbor?"
If one indulged in the darker habits of the Old Testament, this was a pretty key question, since the Israelites had a tendency to address things in rather tribal terms. Thus, perhaps the peritus hoped he could define his neighbor as only members of his extended family within three degrees, or only members of the same town and tribe or some such. I think it's fair to take the But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" as meaning that he was hoping to restrict the definition of "neighbor" to some point where he was arguably already accomplishing this.
Christ's parable, which he tells in answer, strikes me as essentially conveying: Any person you meet who is in need is your neighbor.
I'd like to think about the "meet" aspect of this for a moment. Clearly, the parable is couched in terms of a direct personal experience. A man is left for dead on the side of the road and of the three men who walk by, only one successfully responds to the neighbor he sees in distress.
Now, one could argue that in the first century world which Christ was addressing, there was no way to encounter those in need of help other than through personal experience. You couldn't sit down with the NY Times before heading out to herd your goats for the day and be shocked to discover that nearly ten percent of the population was without healthcare. So Christ's parable was necessarily about providing direct help to someone met in person.
But I think the direct nature of the charity exemplified by the Samaritan may be more than a coincidence of history. Charity isn't simply providing for the needs of others, it's providing for the needs of others out of love. Can you love someone you don't even know exists?
Sin and virtue can often be best viewed in terms of relationships. The Trinity is, of course, the ultimate exemplar of loving relationship. We are called to love God with our whole mind, will and strength, and at root sin can often be seen as a violation of that first half of the two great commandments. When we sin, we refuse to conform out will to God's, we break our relationship with God and insist upon being loyal to ourselves before Him.
So when the priest and the Levite walked by the beaten man, they were failing to perform the obligations which their relationship with him as neighbors required of them. They owed him help because they knew that he needed help, and they were in a position to give it.
It's not necessary, I think, that this knowledge be in person as it was for the priest and the Levite. For instance, I got a mailer yesterday urging me to provide $2,600 or $175/mo for fifteen months to finance the building of a family home in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti or Guyana. Now, I don't know any of the potential beneficiaries of this work, but looking at the blue prints for solidly built 300sq/ft shacks, and comparing those to the pictures of the conditions under which these families are currently living, I'd have a pretty good idea what I was getting involved with if I take this on. (And my inner economist was pleased by the paragraph in the accompanying letter that pointed out that since they employ local labor this helps not merely the family getting the home, but many others throughout the community.)
I'm a marketer, and to an extent, this kind of specificity is good marketing. But I think it's more than that. Marketing, at root, seeks to create or simulate a relationship between the potential buyer and the product or producer. In this case, the description of this particular program at Food For The Poor is intended to create a relationship between the donor and the people the donor is being asked to help. I'd argue that relationship is real, which is why that kind of giving is an act of charity.
This is in part why I'm skeptical as to whether massive government programs aimed at combatting statistical groups can be considered "charity" in any meaningful (as in relationship-based) sense of the term. One cannot have a relationship with "the bottom quintile of lifetime earners" or "those involuntarily without healthcare for more than twelve months". So while it's possible that certain programs may achieve specific advances for a statistical group such as these (though when we get to specifics, I'm also skeptical of the good that is often claimed) it pretty clearly seems to be the case that any good which is achieved is done so without anyone forming a relationship with anyone. Thus, while single-payer healthcare might solve certain problems for certain people, it would do so at the expense of eliminating relationships or potential relationships between people.
I recall when I was young an instance where one of the families among my parents group of friends had had a difficult delivery, with mother and baby both spending time in the hospital at considerable expense. Word went out through the circle, and people started putting money together to help. In the end several thousand dollars were collected, which was a lot more in the early eighties than it is now, covering most of the expenses that the family was responsible for. Similar things happened in response to other financial emergencies. Even on the notoriously impersonal internet, I've several times seen people come together to raise surprising amounts of money to help out a person or family they've never met, but about whose need they've learned via online communities.
In each case, it's the knowledge of the need that triggers the relationship. We hear that a specific person or group need some specific thing, and we work to provide it because we care about that person in need. More impersonal solutions might alleviate the same need, but they would leave both potential giver and potential recipient poorer in terms of community and relationship. If we have no need for each other (other than everyone feeding the tax rolls), we have no opportunity to give and receive active love for each other.