The Greek word agape was used often by the New Testament writers. In the AV (KJV) Bible it is translated 86 times as love and 27 times as charity. In the Louis Segond French translation it is translated 60 times as amour and 55 times as charité.
Agape, as used in the New Testament, is the quality of love that should be the defining characteristic of every genuine Christian. It is a pure, unselfish love that is known by the actions that it prompts. It is used to describe God’s love to mankind, our love to God, our love for our brethren and our love for our neighbour.
Agape is not an impulse prompted by feelings, emotions or natural inclinations; it may in fact be quite the opposite of our natural inclination. It desires the welfare of all and seeks opportunity to do good.
In French, the Petit Robert dictionary defines charité as:
1. the theological virtue in Christianity which consists of the love of God and of our neighbour for God’s sake;
2. love of our fellow man;
3. good works for the poor;
This correlates very well with the Greek word agape and I suspect that 400 years ago charity still meant pretty much the same in English. Over time charity has been debased to to where it is now commonly understood only as giving help to the poor. Unfortunately, this often seems to carry the idea that the one receiving the help is inferior to the one who is giving.
Here is the current English definition of charity from the Canadian Oxford dictionary:
1. a) a voluntary giving to those in need; b) help or money so given;
2. a) an institution or organization for helping those in need; b) non-profit organization;
3. a) kindness, benevolence; b) balance in judging others; c) love of one’s fellow humans.
There is not much evidence of agape in such a definition. Perhaps that is why even our concept of charitable giving seems to have gone askew. 1 Corinthians 13:4 says “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” 1 Corinthians 8:1 says “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth,” and Romans 12:9 says “let charity be without hypocrisy,” (following the wording in the Louis Segond translation). In other words, the goal of charity should be to edify, or build up, the one receiving, not to allow the one giving to puff up with pride.
A few years ago some celebrities got the idea of raising money to eliminate malaria in Africa. The use of their names allowed large sums of money to be raised to buy mosquito nets to be sent to all countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
How has it worked? A few days ago I googled “mosquito nets for Africa” and came up with a long list of sites boasting of how many hundred million nets had been sent to Africa and how malaria would soon be vanquished. At the bottom of the list there was a news article from the Los Angeles Times which noted that many of those nets were not being used for their intended purpose. Some were poorly designed, some had mesh that was too tight for free air movement. Some folks had found that they made good room dividers, but many were simply stuck in a corner somewhere and not used.
I have also heard of instances where farmers have laid these nets out on the ground and spread their crops on them to dry and of local officials who try to supplement their incomes by selling these nets rather than giving them out free of charge.
But that is not the worst part. Dambisa Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, speaks of local African manufacturers of mosquito nets who have been forced out of business by the distribution of free nets, leaving labourers and their extended families without an income. In a few years the free nets will need to be replaced, the celebrities will have turned their attention elsewhere and there will be no locally made nets available.
It begins to look like this whole enterprise has had the effect of making the donors feel good about helping the poor people of Africa, while in fact the poor people of Africa are worse off than they were before the help came.
This is far too often the case. In reality the supposed charity has a decidedly uncharitable effect. It sounds like just one more case of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden gone seriously awry.