Charity and greed are opposites. Given today’s global economic picture, it is easy to recognize in these opposites the widening gap between rich and poor that causes much of the world’s preventable suffering. Commuting to and from work in New York City, I see homeless men and women asleep in doorways and on subway platforms just steps from the homes of some of the richest people in the nation.
For me, the word charity assumes meaning not only in what I daily observe but also in Scripture and in the lives of the saints—unofficial and official. At the very least, charity assumes a sharing of resources. One powerful scriptural example of such sharing occurs in Luke’s description of an early Christian community: “The company of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.... There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-34). How wonderful to think of the human family without a needy person among us! But the gulf between charity and greed extends beyond the distribution of human resources, because the seeds of both charity and greed reside in the human heart. It is the difference between a “this is mine” viewpoint and a “whatever is mine is to be shared” approach to life. The first letter of John provides an illustration: “The one who has the goods of the world and sees a brother [or sister] in need and closes his heart, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 Jn 3:17).
Our transformation into a people guided by true charity is arduous. Even Dorothy Day, co-founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker, felt the burden of attitudes that held her back from true charity. In her diary, published under the title The Duty of Delight, she speaks of her own struggle with ongoing resentments “that muddy the heart.” “I’ll need a long time in purgatory,” she adds. Even in the matter of welcoming the poor to the Catholic Worker, Day saw herself as falling short. “To see Jesus in the poor, and to welcome, to be hospitable, to love. This is my need. I fail every day.” She also writes there of “Peter Maurin’s saying: ‘to give and not to take—that is what makes man human.’” Through her adherence to Gospel nonviolence, Day saw clearly how the gap between rich and poor is related to the vast sums spent worldwide on armaments.
Another saint of charity dedicated to Gospel nonviolence was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Shot dead at the altar as he celebrated Mass, Romero defended the poor of his country and in doing so showed the deepest form of charity, not least because he put his life at risk before a military establishment and an oligarchy bent on silencing him. He distinguished between the goal of amassing personal wealth and the goal of providing for the common good. In a homily, Romero said, “the absolute desire of having more encourages the selfishness that destroys a communal bond among the children of God.”
Initially a shy person who felt at ease only with upper-middle class and wealthy people on first becoming a bishop, Romero exemplifies the remarkable transformation that can take place in those who witness closeup the suffering of poor and defenseless populations. For him, the transformation began when as a new archbishop he visited rural communities besieged by an increasingly violent military and the oligarchy that would rejoice in his death.
Recognizing ourselves not just as individuals but as instruments in God’s hands could help us to grow in charity in its widest sense. This image of being an instrument of God appears in St. Ignatius’ Constitutions of the Society of Jesus (No. 813). Both Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero let themselves be shaped by God’s loving hands into instruments that showed the way toward a new world ruled by sharing and peace, instead of a world ruled by greed and violence.