Mere Charity

Most of the Inauguration I did not watch, but I wanted to hear the speech.  (These things can be important, as anyone who’s just seen Lincoln or done an American literature survey course will tell you!)  I must confess, it was rhetorically quite good.  They (the speechwriters) struck an impressive balance between using conservative and libertarian language at the beginning and undermining that language, explicitly, a few minutes later.  I hope the good guys were taking notes.

There was a good deal in the speech to grate on the soul; but a good deal of the grating I’d expected.  The pro-women’s lib, pro-gay marriage, pro-environmental protection stance of the administration is well known; and a second term president has notoriously less to worry about in expressing his well-known stance publicly, in so many words.  None of the generalities in the speech were much better, or worse, or scarier than should have been expected.

None of that struck me.  What struck me was a line no doubt intended splendidly, and possibly even meant to appeal to both sides of the American public—it came towards the end, when everyone ought to have been getting more excited.

“Not out of mere charity.”

That was how he defined the importance of welfare.  We must look after those less fortunate than ourselves “not out of mere charity,” but because peace itself depends upon social justice.

There is no denying that peace does depend upon justice, even as there can be much debate about how justice can and should and is best reached; with that part of his statement people of prudent good will are not likely to quarrel.  At the same time, even people of prudent good will will admit that what most Americans mean by “charity” is probably not the supernatural virtue that ye olde Catholicks have in mind when we utter the word.  Catholic charity is not a warm and fuzzy feeling but a rather tough and substantial supernatural habit, represented artistically by such spiky and uncomfortable things as pelicans stabbing their own breasts.

Picture shamelessly “borrowed” from WDTPRS.

Perhaps it is understandable, given the post-Victorian, poor-boxy images that the word “charity” conjures up for most people, that the President should snub the term in his inauguration address.  But the snub still troubled—still troubles—me.  For the traditional version of charity is something by which we love God’s creatures, and God Himself, the thing that is the most terrible and the things that are the most helpless; both—a fact that was symbolized by His coming as a child.  The sentimental kind of charity loses the strength of the virtue, but keeps its gentleness: at least we are giving to those in need.

But it was that sort of charity that the President snubbed.  Admittedly, it’s not my favorite kind; but it is … well, well, well, as King Lear would have it.

And what did he propose instead?  Justice.  We must help our neighbors out of justice.  The implication was heavy that if we did not, we would all regret not having done so—not in the next world only, but even in this one.

Again, it is a claim that people of prudent good will would never deny, but hardly a happy one.  And I couldn’t help thinking, as I listened to him say it …

Well, yes, “we’ll be sorry” if we don’t deal with the sufferings of immigrants and single parent families and inner city children.   We’ll be sorry, and we should be—we would be served right (in both senses of the phrase) for ignoring those things, if we chose to ignore them.  But not every injustice is repaid in that obvious manner.

He couldn’t rise up against us.  The social injustice of which he might have been a victim won’t lead to riots or civil wars.  But does that mean that we should not be sorry?

Even a warm and fuzzy kind of charity is better than none at all.


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  1. I didn’t listen to the speech, Sophia, but I get the drift of your complaint and agree with you.

    What comes to mind with this “you’ll be sorry” bit is that, not only is he not talking about charity, he’s not talking about justice either. That’s not it. He’s talking about power. And it’s not a “reason.” No–it’s a *threat*. That’s the way tyrants talk.

  2. I think it just goes to show the term “charity” can hold different weight from person to person. In regards to the speech, Dena I have to agree with you whole heartily.