(Last revised 8-24-2013)
This a companion article to Poverty: America's Greatest Shame, and if you are wondering why such an article is needed, it is because there are some people who are blatantly unaware of what their religions say about how we should treat the poor. In fact, some of the most unaware are clergy who ignore the clear truth and preach the opposite.
For example, there are right wing preachers who masquerade as Christians but claim that the rich are blessed by God and that the poor deserve their lot, which actually turns Christianity up-side down. Therefore, a reminder is much needed.
First, it should be said that in most ancient tribal cultures it was a custom to ensure that no member of the community suffered needlessly from lack of food or shelter or clothing. It was a universal custom that the elderly along with widows, orphans and the disabled were cared for either by the individual's family, or by extension, by the greater family of the tribe. The idea is as it should be, that "We look after and care for one another."
As civilizations and religions developed, this custom was institutionalized, and that is why in most religious traditions, charitable alms or almsgiving, which is giving materially and/or financially to those in need, is an act of virtue, charity, empathy, compassion, and love. But, it is not merely a custom and tradition. It is a humanitarian obligation.
The problem is that today about half of the people in America, and in some other countries, have been led to believe differently. Why? Because for the last three decades certain people in America have been led to believe in the Reaganite "Gospel of Prosperity" that claims that the rich are blessed and the poor deserve their lot because they are "not self-reliant."
But, in fact, that is a misleading right-wing partisan ideology that not only turns Christianity up-side-down. It blames the victims of poverty, and it even demeans and slanders the poor while totally ignoring the cause and nature of poverty.
Not only does that violate the basic Judeo-Christian ethic and the core teachings and intent of Jesus of Nazareth. It ALSO violates the intent and the words of the Founders of the United States of America who intended for government to "promote the general welfare."
The article on Poverty: America's Greatest Shame reveals that one of the terrible consequences of that right-wing "gospel" is that about 23 percent of American children live in poverty, giving the United States the second highest rate of child poverty out of 35 developed countries. (Only Romania's is higher.)
Another consequence is that about 20 million Americans live on less than half of the outdated federal poverty level. And of all the children in poverty, about 97 percent of them live in households in which at least one adult works full time.
The truth is that the main causes of the problems around poverty, hunger and homelessness is the greed and selfishness of some of the wealthiest few who hold 95 percent of the nation's wealth, and the main related problem is insufficient wages for the working poor.
That is why it is important to understand the real truth, especially about the intent of Jesus of Nazareth, but of all other great spiritual teachers and founders and developers of religion, because they all not only rebuked the greedy and the selfish who lust for unjust financial gain. They called upon all of us to be just and fair, and to help and care for the elderly, the disabled, the disadvantaged, and the needy.
That, by the way, is in fact why the Founders of the U.S.A. intended for government to "promote the general welfare" to ensure domestic tranquility and justice for all.
Now, let us examine what some of the major religions teach us about that, beginning with the largest religion, Christianity.
In Christianity the giving of alms is an act of charity toward the needy and those less fortunate. The early Christians were taught that giving alms was an expression of God’s love. Traditionally, Christians serve the Lord by selflessly distributing alms and offerings and gifts among widows, orphans, and others in need.
In the majority of Christian denominations and their churches, a collection of tithes and offerings is supposed to be given for the support of the church's mission, budget, ministry, but mainly for relief and aid for the poor (even though many churches are not as interested in that as they are in recruiting and fund raising for other reasons).
Moreover, and perhaps most important, all acts of Christian charity are to be considered virtuous only if done humbly and not as a self-congratulatory show for the admiration of others.
“Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
“If a brother or sister is naked and hungry, and one of you who are warmed and filled says to them, ‘Depart’ and do not give them those things which the body needs; what does it profit you? Therefore, faith without works is dead, being alone. Yes, a man may say, you have faith, and I have works, but show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:14-18)
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed proceeds to everyone as they had need.” -- Acts 2:44-45
“None among them lacked, for those that owned lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds from the things that were sold, and distributed them to everyone according to their need.” -- Acts 4:34-35
“Then [Jesus] said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” -- Luke 6:20-21
“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.’" -- Mark 10:21-22:
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors, so they may invite you in return to be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid [by God].’" -- Luke 14:12-14
In Judaism, the foundation of Christianity, charitable giving is supposed to be considered a religious obligation to do what is right and just. It should be regarded as a continuation of tithing for the poor, and as a continuation of the scriptural and traditional practices such as permitting the poor to glean the corners of a field during harvest, and take what was missed by the harvest of the rest of the field. Such charity, along with prayer and repentance, is to be regarded as making amends for bad deeds, behavior and acts.
In fact, in Judaism charity is supposed to be regarded as the greatest deed. The Hebrew Tanakh (Bible) states that Jews must give at least ten percent of their income to the poor. And there are many statements in the Tanakh regarding the treatment of the poor, including the following:
"Is it not [your divine obligation] to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and when you see the naked, to cover them?" -- Isaiah 58:3-24
“Defend the poor and fatherless. Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: take them out of the hands of the wicked.” – Psalm 82:3-4
“He that oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he that honors the Lord has mercy on the poor.” – Proverbs 14:31
“He that has pity on the poor lends to the Lord; and what he has given will be repaid.” --.Proverbs 19:17
“The righteous consider the cause of the poor, but the wicked care not to know it.” – Proverbs 29:7
“Judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” -- Proverbs 31:9
"None among them can be found richer than another. It is their law that all who enter the sect must divide their property among the members of the society, with the result that there is never seen among them either abject poverty nor great wealth, for, since every man's possessions are put into the common treasury, they all have, like brothers, one inheritance.” -- Flavius Josephus
(Josephus was a Jewish historian writing of the Essenes, the Jewish sect to which Mary, Joseph, Jesus and James may have belonged, which is probably why the best disciples of Jesus also shared, held things in common and made sure that everyone in the community was cared for, according to the Christian book of Acts).
In Islam, built upon the foundation of Judaism and Christianity, charitable almsgiving is the third of the five pillars of Islam. It is supposed to be obligatory to give two and a half percent of one's income and ten percent of one's harvest to the poor. That is because an important principles of Islam is that all things are of God and belong to God and, therefore, we should share the wealth and bounty of the earth with those in need.
The literal meaning of the Arab word Zakat is synonymous with charity, and Zakat means to purify, develop, and cause to grow. It is to be considered an act of worship, and a necessity for spiritual growth. Material possessions, goods and produce are to be regarded as purified if a portion is set aside for those in need.
"The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and (for) the wayfarers; a duty imposed by Allah." (The Holy Qur'an 9:60).
Hinduism, the oldest religion, teaches that there is a Creator, called Brahman, which has many aspects. (See the article on The Nature of God.) And while Hinduism is great in most respects and has many good benefits and results, like all religions it was established and developed by people who were only human. Therefore, like all religions, it needs some reforms and updates.
For example, within Hinduism there is a cultural class system called castes. Many Hindus today dispute that, but the caste system is mentioned in the Rig Veda in a discussion about social order and structure. Moreover, like many religious "fundamentalists," many Hindus are still led to believe that each person is born into one of four castes and cannot change it. And each caste has its own set of rules and duties to live by, known as dharma.
The highest caste is that of the Brahmin, which are priests, teachers, and those considered wise. The second caste is the Kshatriya, which are rulers, leaders, warriors and police. The third caste is the Vaishya, which are bankers, merchants, farm owners, business leaders, and other leaders involved in commerce. And the lowest caste is Sudra, which is the working class that does the manual labor and provides all services needed by the higher castes.
Hindus in the higher three castes believe their system is better than that of most societies where the difference between the "high and the low" and the haves and have nots has caused a lot of trouble due to discontentment of the poor and weak. Higher class Hindus believe that problem is avoided by the Indian-Hindu caste system because it promises that those who follow their dharma (and do their duty) may be born or reincarnated into a better life and a higher caste next time.
However, Hinduism also teaches that love is the highest good, and that we should not do unto others anything that, which if it were done to us, would cause us pain or anguish.
In the early 20th Century Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi reminded Hindus of that, and he changed many old Hindu beliefs with his teachings. He taught that it is wrong to think that a poor person gets what they deserve; that everyone was a part of God; that people should care for one another; and that service to others was the best way to find and serve God.
Gandhi had a profound effect regarding the treatment of the poor in India, and in the mid-Twentieth Century many spiritual teachers and gurus in India began to teach people how the true intent of of Hinduism is universal, as is the intent of all divinely inspired religions.
Now charitable giving to the poor is considered good karma for Hindus in India. But, the caste system is still very strong, and even though charity is considered good karma, many Hindus prefer to employ the poor as servants, but at least now it is customary to treat them with respect, take care of them if they become ill, and give them old clothes. And those who are well to do and refuse to employ servants are considered as mean and selfish.
Buddhism was established by the Buddha Gautama Siddhartha, who was raised in Hindu tradition but wound up establishing a new religion with a new point of view.
In Buddhism, alms or almsgiving is traditionally the respect given to a Buddhist monk, nun, or spiritually developed person. However, in Buddhism a belief is that we should treat others as we treat our self, and another belief is that the more we give without seeking something in return, the better off we will be. And total willingness to give is what prevents and wards off selfishness and stinginess, begins one's path to Nirvana, and brings liberation.
The Universal Divine Imperative is this: Treat others as you would want to be treated if you were them.
All great spiritual teachers taught it, in one way or another. Thus Jews are supposed to be taught that we should not do to others what is hurtful to our self. Christians are supposed to be taught to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And Muslims are supposed to be taught that no one is a true believer in Allah until he desires for all others what he desires for himself.
Similarly, Buddhists are taught that we should treat others as we treat our self. Hindus are taught that we should not do unto others anything that, which if it were done to us, would cause us pain. The Taoists are taught that we should regard our neighbor's gain as our own gain, and our neighbor's loss as our own loss. The Bahai Faith teachers taught that we should ascribe not to any soul that which we would not have ascribed to our self. Followers of Confucius are taught that we should never impose on others what we would not choose for our self. Sikhism teaches that you should be a stranger to no one, that no one should be a stranger to you, and you should be a friend to all. Jainism teaches that we should treat all creatures as we want to be treated. Native Americans believe that we are as much alive as we keep the earth alive. Unitarians affirm and promote respect for the independent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The founders of all other religions have taught the same thing in different ways, because the most essential, eternal truth is the same in any language, and at any time. And the founders of all true religions have also said that the search for the Divine and Holy should be not in the world, but within, and when found it brings forth love that is universal and knows no bounds.
These teachings and spiritual values are at the very core of all genuine religions, and they are all about kinship -- about unconditional love, peace, freedom, honesty, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, charity, and pacifism -- which are all covered by the Golden Rule.
Unfortunately, some of the worst atrocities in the world are being committed by people who ignore those values and yet claim they are religious. That is why a reminder is needed.