UPDATE : A rewritten version of this essay appears at Catholic Exchange under the title The Temptations of Armcharity. If you are visiting from CE after reading it, welcome! You’ll find this piece a little deja vu so feel free to look around the place for something new
Full disclosure: If I had to declare a side in the Great Refugee Debate it would be pro-refugee. I believe that the demands of charity in this case outweigh the actual potential threat. This is because I feel the refugee system as it relates to North America would do a decent job and is not fraught with the complications of countries living on the physical borders of this crisis. I also think the potential for abused student visas or home grown terrorism far surpasses the refugee risk.
That being said, I’m pretty thoroughly disgusted with much of the language of debate taking place on social media. One group accuses the other of cowardliness and lack of charity because they dare feel a responsibility to the lives God has particularly placed in their care in their children and neighbors. This in an age where our government is wholly untrustworthy. Of course they have legitimate concerns. Meanwhile the other side uses a candy analogy. Would you eat any of these if you knew some had poison. Suffering people are not M&Ms! You’re not talking about enjoying them you’re talking about saving them. Be serious.
In the end though it is all part of the sound and fury, signifying nothing, that has become our culture. Sounding brass and tinkling symbols. Do you know what both of these positions hold in common? Stating them loudly on facebook takes absolutely zero actual charity or sacrifice. Sure it sounds lovely. “Bring over the refugees!” “Oh I only wish I could help them but I have a higher duty!” Words. Just words.
This is the new way of things. We sit in our comfortable homes, connect to our wifi, sip coffee and feel cozily superior while we compete to see who loves more than whom. From ice bucket challenges, to ash tags, to debates on refugees, to awareness months, to tinting your profile picture. Watch me live my faith! Watch me love! Click like or Baby Jesus will cry. (Side note, although Jesus’ example is always important and the Gospels teach, using Jesus as an easy gotcha moment in a debate seems to border on blasphemy to me.) All the effort it takes is the ability to operate a smart phone. Are all these things bad? Of course not. Awareness is good. Inspiration is good. But we are indulging in a kind of wallowing in easy charity, a pornography of self-righteousness, that makes us feel good as the primary motivation instead of helping others.
Matthew 6: 3-4: But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
We must get back to this ideal of charity. Advent is a time of preparation. Let us take this opportunity to cleanse our motivations. Take as a model that titan of the Christmas season, Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas, whose legend tells of anonymous giving and a spirit of generosity to the less fortunate forever associated with the Christmas season. His example of secret charity continues to this day, with parents the world over giving to their children while Santa gets the credit. This year let us give alms, in secret. Let us quietly volunteer without sounding trumpets. Let us bow our heads in prayer for the poor wounded world at least as often as we debate what to do about it.
Does this mean never debating on social media? Not publicly professing your beliefs? No. It does mean making sure you have the right priorities. It means when someone asks for prayers you stop what you are doing and actually pray if you click like under their status. A quick Memorare at the computer screen may do. It means that when you do a challenge or recommend a charity you do some research and donate yourself if you can and should. It means keeping some charity as a secret treasure between you, the person you helped, and God. A quiet experience of love of neighbor in the midst of all the noise. It means, whatever you think about where the poor displaced people of the Middle East should spend the near future you personally invest something in making their existence there more bearable right now.
So that is my Advent challenge: to get off of the internet and do something, anything, without anybody watching.
(Image: The Dowry For The Three Virgins, Gentile da Fabriano)