Cores of Christian Mission: Against Charity

(Art by Pete Illesley)

‘Mission’ has made quite a comeback over the last few decades. Although its colonial implications still lurk in the background, and it can lead to a few raised eyebrows from non-Christians, the word is once again used by Anglicans worldwide to designate the Church’s work in the wider world.1 The Five Marks of Mission have attained a certain degree of ubiquity since they were developed in the late 1980s, and ‘missioner’ has become the title of choice for those engaged in the outward-facing work of parishes and dioceses. The language of participation in God’s mission meanwhile, perhaps informed by Aquinas’ account of the persons of the Trinity, is starting to become an integral aspect of Episcopalian self-understanding.

Ubiquitous terms have a habit of becoming empty, though, no matter how clearly they are defined. We might hear the word ‘mission’ from the pulpit, raise it at a parish meeting, see it marked as a line-item in the budget, and not really have any clear concept of what it is that we’re talking about. We can have this idea of manifesting God’s love to the world, and a great desire to do so, but no clear sense of how to do this, as the Church.

The Five Marks aren’t especially helpful in this regard, either. As an example, let’s take the Fourth Mark, ‘to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation’—this phrase will mean something different in the suburbs of Connecticut compared to an oft-invoked ‘inner city,’ something different in a Colorado trailer-park to a small town in Idaho, something different on a reservation to a Manhattan high-rise, and so on. These meanings won’t only be different, moreover, but potentially contradictory to the point where communication becomes virtually impossible. To see this, find and talk to someone for whom the affirmation of an LGBTQ community is itself a manifestation of violence against creation emerging from an unjust structure. An appeal to the Fourth Mark can’t really help us here: after all, it’s not exactly clear what reconciliation is supposed to look like when the people involved understand the concept in fundamentally conflicting ways.

This is not necessarily something which can or should be fixed—indeed, one of the advantages of this kind of language is that it can mean different things in different places, and so speak to different situations with equal validity.  All the same, if we want ‘mission’ to be more than a temporary piece of religious jargon, then we will need to consider practise as well as words. The meaning of ‘mission’ must be derived from concrete practise in concrete situations if it is to be rooted in reality, instead of vague idealism. As such, I am going to try and put together four posts critically exploring four possible ways of approaching the practise of mission—charity, legislation, advocacy, and community—in the hope of fleshing the term out through an analysis of these practises. I’m hardly in a position to be writing on this subject, of course. All the same, the last four years have been an education in this respect, and it seems worth at least attempting such an exploration.

So, to get things started, here’s an attempt to critically analyse the practise of charitable giving. Most of the claims here have been better stated elsewhere, but I hope that they are worth working through again in any case.


Charity is often our first instinct when we think of doing good, in my experience, not least within our churches. Broadly speaking, charity involves the giving of material goods to those who lack them. It can take the form of food drives, clothing drives, giving trees. At a slightly more immediate level, it can manifest itself as the direct provision of services—soup kitchens, shelters, clothes banks, meal programmes, and food pantries etc.

The practise of this sort of charity makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it is a relatively easy thing to organise and participate in. We can advertise a food drive in our churches for several weeks, co-ordinate with local organisations through a few emails, and designate a particular service for congregants to bring their offerings in. It also has the advantage that those who might not be physically able to do more active work, whether through age or some other reason, can participate just the same as anyone.

It is also uncontroversially better for people to have those things necessary for survival than not—it is better for homeless men to have clean socks than not, better for hungry children to eat than not, better for families on the street to have a place to sleep than not. (Socks, by the way, are often both the most needed and least donated item of clothing for many day shelters; if you happen to live near one, do investigate whether this is the case there as well!) If the choice is between charitable giving and another’s material deprivation, then, it is usually better to give than not. Insofar as the recipient has a voice in this matter, moreover, we may have plenty of reason to affirm the practise of charitable giving.

This charity, however, cannot constitute the practical core of Christian mission. The call of Jesus Christ is not for the materially rich to dispense goods to the materially poor. It is not to ‘share out of our abundance,’ as I’ve so often heard, in abstraction from actual relationship. To try and argue why this might be the case, I’m going to describe two of the negative aspects of charitable giving—division and disenfranchisement.


To see how charitable giving might ground social division, we can look to Economy of Grace by Kathryn Tanner (a book which is well worth reading). In a section in Chapter 2 entitled Grace, Gift Exchange, and the Freely Given Gift, she discusses whether or not an economy premised upon charitable giving could constitute an economy of grace, and she answers ‘no.’ Her reasoning is that charity not only fails to ground relationship between the giver and the recipient—it can actually serve to diminish the possibility of such a relationship ever being built:

At least in the philanthropic or charitable giving we are familiar with in the United States, donor and recipient are commonly strangers, and giving does not establish ongoinging relations between them. The point of the giving is not to keep the relationship up. To the contrary, charitable giving often justifies the donor’s not having anything further to do with the recipient.2

Within our current economic system, moreover, the fact of charitable giving (whether individual or institutional) can serve to justify a further exclusion of the recipient from participation in the social world of the giver. The result of charity is not inclusion, but sustainable exclusion:

The giving of gifts now means that the recipient can be excluded in good conscience from all the usual social or exchange relations that make up the donor’s life. The fact of charitable giving might help to legitimate, for example, the fact that one is not empowering the recipient for the sort of participation in capitalist exchange that might make him or her less needy… The important thing about charitable giving is the gift and the benefits it brings to others, not the act of giving and receiving or the sort of relationship it sets up.3

This analysis hits home. I’ve heard it said, in churches and elsewhere, implicitly and explicitly, that the fact of giving abrogates the necessity of inclusion and community. I’ve heard it said that the fact of an institutional relationship to a charitable organisation, or of an individual’s financial support, justifies isolating both individuals and the institutions from the realities faced by the recipients of this charitable giving, and indeed from welcoming these recipients at all.

As it is, this is the furthest thing from the principle of Christian mission. We are certainly called to give in Scripture; but this giving is not the giving of charitable donation as it is so often understood today. A careful reading of Isaiah 58:6-74 and Matthew 25:34-365, for example, shows that we are not called to dispense goods to others outside of relationship. We are rather called to share, not give, our bread with the hungry, to leave ourselves open to our kin (even and especially those from whom we are isolated by societal factors). We are called to welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner, not pray for them in the abstract. And if the fact of charity becomes an excuse, implicit or explicit, to sever personal connections with our neighbour, then it cannot be considered love—meaning that it cannot be considered the practical form of Christian mission.


We often think of disenfranchisement in terms of voting rights. Beyond this specific political context, however, it also covers a person or a group’s exclusion from actively participating in a shared mode of life. Children are disenfranchised if their education is neglected, for example—without the skills which are taught through both theoretical and practical training, a child may well be deprived of the ability to participate in actively determining the shape of their society.

If we conceive of charity as the core of Christian mission, then we disenfranchise the materially poor from active participation in the life of the Church. As above, charity is primarily the free and voluntary transfer of material goods from those who have to those who do not. And no matter how we try and clothe the call to charity, no matter how we try to open up the possibility of participation, we cannot escape the fact that those who do not have material goods to transfer are less able to engage in this form of ministry than those who are materially wealthy. As such we can disenfranchise those churches which do not have the resources, personal or institutional, to pursue charitable giving by implicitly rendering participation in God’s mission as contingent upon wealth. But beyond this, the only role which the materially poor can play in this process is that of the recipient—a role which ultimately becomes little more than a means of self-aggrandisement on the part of the giver.

In order to appreciate how this distorts the call of Jesus Christ in Scripture, we can turn to two passages of Scripture: Mark 12:41-446 and Mark 10:21-257. Now, Mark 12:41-44 could in fact be taken as a counter-argument to this claim—after all, it appears to show a widow in poverty participating in a form of charitable giving, putting all she has to live on into the treasury of the temple. The message we typically hear preached from this passage is that it does not matter how much we give, just that we give what we can. As such, it can be read as opening up the possibility of equal participation in charitable giving to those who we might not think possessed of things to give.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this reading. To take one example, I can remember being very struck by seeing a homeless gentleman, upon learning that a woman in his group hadn’t eaten for quite some time, immediately reach into his backpack and give her the sandwich he had bought for his own lunch.

The significance of this, however, was made clear in a conversation I had with this gentleman a few days after. When I raised that moment after we’d been speaking for a while, his response was quite simple—that he was only alive through the grace of God, so he might as well try and live out that grace (this was followed by possible the most profound meditation on the Book of Job I’ve ever heard). And this, I believe, points to the proper message of Mark 12:41-44. It is not just that everyone can participate equally in charitable giving, although this is a part of it; the point of the passage is rather that the bare fact of giving is not the point. Our attention is instead focused on the source of the giving. In the case of the rich, they give out of their abundance; and it is out of this abundance that they live. In the case of the widow, however, she gives all that she has to live on—suggesting that what she in fact lives on is the grace of God. It is because she gives out of this grace, then, that she gives more in her small act of giving. The rich, meanwhile, give less because they give out of the abundance by which they live.

The point is hammered home in the earlier passage of Mark 10:21-25; the rich young man. For it is here that we are shown that the wealth according to which we render ourselves capable of charitable giving in fact keeps us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus does not tell the young rich man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor as an end in itself—this apparent command to charity is actually more or less incidental. Rather, Jesus tells the man to do this so as to divest himself of the ‘abundance’ which is preventing him from living by grace alone, and so following Jesus into the kingdom.

This is one aspect of a far broader theme which runs throughout the gospel—that participation in the mission of God does not depend upon already occupying a privileged state, whether in spiritual or material terms, but instead consists in living out of the grace which is given to all in Jesus Christ (a grace which, moreover cannot be transmuted into a necessary command to charity8). If we cast the core of Christian mission in terms of charitable giving, and so disenfranchise the recipients of charity from participation in this mission, then we not only distort the openness of the gospel: we make the mistake of those rich citizens who give to the temple and the rich young man who obeys the Law, of living out of our abundance rather than the true source of created life. Indeed, the tragic irony is that in doing this we may also be disenfranchising ourselves in terms of the grace at the same time as disenfranchising others in terms of participation in our church’s work.

There is an element of giving to grace, then—but it is not giving as charity.  Rather, it is giving as an outpouring of grace, and so it must be intertwined with the command of grace as a whole.  Looking back, the homeless gentleman’s act of generosity was not an act of charity, but an act of friendship.  This friendship was itself grounded in the total claim of grace which he felt he had received, and so his giving too could be an act of grace.  Giving which is abstracted from friendship, meanwhile, can all too easily become a form of disenfranchisement—something which happens almost necessarily when giving takes the form of detched charitable donations.


There are many obvious reasons for engaging in charitable giving, then.  Given the way things are, these are often good and persuasive reasons—all other things being equal, it is often better to have a food drive than not, better to run a soup kitchen than not, and better to give money to charitable institutions than not. There is a certain openness in charitable giving, insofar as participation need not be dependent on physical capability. Charity is also very often appreciated and desired by those who suffer from material deprivation, moreover, and these voices must be listened to, heard, and respected. In the absence of any other option, then, churches should certainly engage in charity—though we should also search for other options at the same time, refusing to accept an absolute dichotomy between charity and inactivity.

This does not, however, mean that charitable giving should be or can be treated as a core of Christian mission. Even as we engage in charity, we must remember that we are engaging in an activity which can exclude the recipients of our giving from membership of our community, whilst at the same time appearing to exclude them from participation in the life of the Gospel. We can exclude the materially poor by treating charity as if it abrogates the need for loving community across socio-economic divides. And we can appear to exclude the materially poor from the life of the gospel by casting that life in such a way that participation in it depends upon the pre-existence of material wealth.

At its absolute worst, then, charitable giving is little more than the pretence that love can exist in the absence of relationship. It can deny dignity to the materially poor by treating them as recipients, at the cost of recognising dispossessed individuals as neighbours. And insofar as we treat it as the first imperative of the gospel, we can distort that gospel, disenfranchise the materially poor, and enmesh the materially wealthy in the illusion that human beings live out of material abundance. This is not, of course, to say that it can never be anything else. Nor is it to say that all charitable giving can or should be described this way. But it does mean that we cannot think of it as the practical form of Christian mission, or the core of a life which is lived according to grace. We shall have to seek the practise of this life elsewhere.

  1. This might be different in areas where Catholic mission churches loom large in their taught history—positively or negatively, the colonial implications of ‘mission’ may well stand much further in the foreground. ↩︎
  2. Kathryn Tanner, Economy of Grace (Kindle Edition), loc.766 ↩︎
  3. Ibid, loc.768 ↩︎
  4. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?’ ↩︎
  5. ‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’’ ↩︎
  6. ‘He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”’ ↩︎
  7. ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”’
  8. A fact we can see plainly enough in John 12:4-5; ‘But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”’ ↩︎



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s