ONE OF the few things on which all of the world's major religions agree is that true charity is not only good in itself, it is good for you. The wisdom that has come down to us is that the practical expression of compassion can ennoble both the giver and the given- to. Magnanimity enlarges the spirit.
Yet something appears to have gone wrong. The simple dynamics of the Good Samaritan don't seem to work any more. For one thing, the alms-giver today rarely has any direct encounter with the person he is helping.
The parable of Dives and Lazarus has the poor man sitting at the rich man's gate; but nowadays most of the soliciting is handled by middlemen. Our response to their fund-raising techniques is necessarily a kind of virtual compassion. Victims of hunger or cruelty or disease are presented to us not in person but in carefully chosen images and nicely calculated turns of phrase. We cannot hear them or touch them or speak to them. We will never know them. Indeed, it is not their comfort or healing that our money will pay for, but that of "others like them", who are even less real to us. Of course, there are beggars on our streets we can meet face to face, but here we are confused. The media tell us they may be bogus - and anyway we know that even the poorest of them is only comparatively so. The absolutely destitute live overseas. Real charity begins abroad. Clare Short has questioned the way that the media, prompted and assisted by the aid agencies, continue to confront us with pictures of stick-thin children. If their purpose is to provoke us to give more help to the poor, she maintains, they are in the long run defeating themselves: these images only encourage the belief that the people of the Third World are perennial failures and victims, which is not only untrue but damaging to their cause. She could have said more. The harrowing scenes we are shown both exploit and obstruct our natural emotional reflexes. It is like hearing terrible screams from the house next door and being asked, "Would you like to help prevent domestic violence?" Of course we say yes, but there is no catharsis in it. Some might say that charitable ends justify such means. So what if it hurts the rich when you pull at their heart-strings? They will survive; the poor may not. But - if the practical outcome is all that matters - compassion that finds no satisfaction in giving is likely to become bitter and mean. Frustration is not good for the heart. There is a second problem. The contraction of the world to a global village is overwhelming us with its suffering. When Jesus said that everyone is my neighbour, was he thinking of 5.5 billion people? Once, it was not impossible for a rich man to attend to the worst distress of the poor he encountered. …