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Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman
Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman

Faith Exchange

Religion, the original NGO? Add to ...

The Globe and Mail’s Giving Changed series, launched Oct. 29, has been exploring “the promise and the perils of the new philanthropy.” Far from “new” in the ranks of philanthropy is religion, a long-standing vehicle for channelling charity and good works. Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss giving and its relation to spirituality.

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Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of the TV program Context with Lorna Dueck , seen Sundays on Global TV at 9:30 a.m. ET and Vision TV at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multifaith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.

Michael W. Higgins is a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal.

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe’s online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.

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Guy Nicholson: Thanks for taking the time to join us. Panelists, tell readers a little about your faith’s philanthropic tradition. Was religion the original NGO?

Lorna Dueck: Jesus did challenge us to generous living. His teaching broke any legalism on how, where, when to give, and challenged us to a model of “flow through” living. What we have, we give, and the poor and needy are to have a special place in the priority of our kindness. There are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that address care for the poor and oppressed.

Howard Voss-Altman: In Judaism, giving is a commandment from God. The Hebrew word for such giving is tzedakah and the root of the word is tzedek, which means “justice.” God envisions a world where the hungry will be fed and the naked will be clothed, and that the entire community is responsible for ensuring that this happens. Thus, such giving is not an option – it is required in order to fulfill God’s vision for a just world.

Sheema Khan: In the Koran, we are reminded constantly about the importance of giving saddaqa – “charity” – according to one’s means. This includes not just monetary goods but other tangibles, such as feeding the poor or giving assistance with one’s hands. In fact, the Prophet Mohammed said that even a smile is charity.

Charity is also tied to the pillars of the faith. For example, if one is unable to fast during Ramadan (perhaps due to a chronic illness, old age or pregnancy), then the individual should provide for the feeding of one individual for each day of fasting that is missed.

Zakat is also a pillar of the faith. This is 2.5 per cent of one’s net wealth, required to be paid yearly for distribution to the poor. There is a higher rate for crops. It comes from a root word meaning “to purify.” And so, zakat is a means to purify one’s wealth. We are also reminded that wealth is a gift, and that it is meant to be used and shared in an equitable manner.

Guy Nicholson: If a non-believer can claim liberation from religious teachings – as many of our readers do in the comments to this feature, and as I might if I were feeling particularly strident – then surely we can also mourn the loss of a philosophical underpinning for giving. Many of those who reject religion find themselves motivated to give and share, but others do not.

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