Friday, May 20, 2011

True Charity

I have been reading Les Miserables, and there is a passage toward the beginning, when Jean Valjean, a recently-released convict, is given shelter at a local bishop's home, after he has been turned away from all the inns in town. The Bishop gives him food, a bed, and company. He does not, however, attempt to give the man advice or "convert" him. Instead, he talks of everyday things with him. The bishop's sister recalls:

"On reflection, I think I understand what was going on in my brother's mind. He undoubtedly thought that this man, who was called Jean Valjean, had his misery all to constantly in his mind, that it was better to make him think of other things, and have him believe, if only for a moment, that he was a person like anyone else, by treating him in this normal way. Isn't this a true understanding of charity? Isn't there something truly evangelical in this tact, which refrains from sermonizing, moralizing, and making allusions? Isn't it most sympathetic, when a man has a bruise, not to touch it at all? It seems to me that this was my brother's guiding principle here."

I think that, when you help someone out (giving to charity, helping the homeless, etc), especially if you are a religious person, there is the temptation to use the person's misfortune as a chance to "teach" them about your particular beliefs. To me, this seems pretty condescending. It is better, I think, merely to help them.

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