Last week, Brittany led our discussion on faith and reason. Today, I’m diving into social justice, specifically as it applies to charity (as in “caritas” or love of neighbor).

atheist and catholic

Sarah on Social Justice and Charity:

There is a strong culture of social justice within Christianity. For me, this translates into putting what we believe into action. The Nicene Creed defines what we believe as Catholics, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are putting those words into action and sharing Jesus with others by the way we love them. It is the most essential way to love your neighbor.

For me, “feeding the hungry” (one of the corporal works of mercy) is often what I do in my own home, hidden from the glamor of the world and the recognition of others. It’s just part of my work as wife and mother. That doesn’t make it less important or less worthy.

However, as my kids get older and I grow in my own faith and maturity, there are ways that I can teach them to love their neighbor, their fellow human beings, by how I teach them to live. The lessons range from what we learn from living in our family—how we treat each other, how we live within the context of the “other” within our immediate and extended family—to what we do and how we act with those in the larger world.

My kids see me give my time and they’re involved when we donate items to pregnancy centers, food pantries, and other drives. My eight-year-old will be joining me when I walk to help support lymphoma and leukemia research for “Light the Night” (which, incidentally, Brittany inspired me to join).

But you know, it’s not easy to put other people above yourself. It’s not easy to truly love and give of yourself to people you like, much less the crusty homeless guy downtown. I have a long way to go with my involvement in charity. And maybe that’s okay; maybe that points to an awareness that can grow within me and be shared with my children and teach them even better.

Brittany, in reply:

I’ve never thought about preparing a meal or nursing my son as “feeding the hungry,” but maybe I’d be less grouchy about it if I thought about it as charity work. A lot of the charity work humans do, like donating food, supplies, and providing shelter, wouldn’t be necessary if people’s families had the resources to do it themselves. We’re temporarily acting as family to people who need help. So in a very real sense, the services we provide for our own family members have a lot of value and maybe deserve a bit more recognition and glamour.

I really like this idea of simple acts of charity in the home. Teaching children to do nice things for their parents, siblings, and relatives is a great way to raise children who see charity as important and focus on others rather than themselves. Not only that, but recognizing the things that our family members do for one another as charity makes it clearer that we need to acknowledge the little acts of charity people in our lives do for us.

That’s something I can work on, because the latest humanitarian crisis, or raising money for cancer, or helping a needy person are all objectively more important than playing with my son, but if I always let charity take precedent over time with my family, then I’ll just be paying lip service to the values I’m trying to instill in him. And even worse, I might cause him to resent working for others.

Research on happiness shows that people who live other-focused lives and volunteer have happier lives and are more likely to receive aid in turn when they need it. Not only that, but trust and friendliness can transform geographic locations into real communities. The giver, the receiver, and the witnesses of a helpful action all get a happiness boost when a good deed is done. Not only that, but being thankful and expressing gratitude when we’ve received help also makes people feel good. Thus, everyone will be happier if we all take a moment every day to help someone else.

I would write more, but I’m going to go “feed the hungry” and “clean up a highway.”* I hope you’ll join Sarah and me in growing charity at home by acknowledging the small and large ways people in your lives help you and helping others in turn.

*By which I mean I need to go make dinner and pick up cars and vacuum the living room.

You can see all the posts in the An Atheist and a Catholic series here.