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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.

Lorna Dueck: I think we will always have good Canadians who don’t need God to be philanthropic. But I’m in the group that tends to be naturally fearful, tight and selfish with my personal resources. Since “MINE” is my first instinct, Christian teaching helps me think through my reluctance to give. When you process God’s invitation to a “just world,” as Howard so rightly mentions, and realize how humanity’s response is indispensable, that becomes a motivational source for generosity. From religious teachings, you can derive truths to deal with the selfish fears that keep you tight-fisted. If you rule out faith interactions that challenge us to sacrifice and love, I think it will be more difficult to keep growing generosity.

Guy Nicholson: Religious households have been found in the United States to give a substantially larger percentage of household income to charity. And a 2007 survey found that at least 40 per cent of Canada’s charitable dollar was collected in places of worship. Do you believe religious people are generally more generous, and if so, why?

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I am not certain that religious people are more generous than others, but our religions certainly emphasize the importance of giving. Hinduism is also known as Sanatana Dharma (Righteous Conduct) and emphasizes dana (giving) as an important responsibility of every person. Also, giving should be without any ulterior motive. So it is ingrained in the teachings of Hindu religious leaders. I can quote one verse from the famous Tamil classic Thirukural: “Thou shall not take even the life-saving medicine if there is a visitor at home.” It means that a person is enjoined to give and receive pleasure from it.

Lorna Dueck: It’s probably a combination of guilt and goodwill – or, putting it more positively, duty and delight – that prompts giving among religious people. On the negative side, there’s confusion over the concept of tithing – the Old Testament law that 10 per cent of everything we receive should be given away to take care of the needy. It’s a standard that can be misused to be legalistic and cheap. That limitation changed with the teaching of Jesus and the interpretations of the early church that “Each should give what he has decided in their heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” ( II Corinthians 9:7) Any church worth its salt speaks about money with those who regularly attend, and helps them gain perspective on how it fits into a healthy life. Money, the Gospel teaches, is to be moved out of worry and into simplicity, joy and generosity.

Sheema Khan: I don’t know if religious people are more charitable. However, from a spiritual perspective, wealth is a gift from God. And we are reminded that we will not take our wealth with us when we die. In fact, spending in the way of God is encouraged as a way of attaining closeness to God. There is a beautiful narration from the Prophet, who said God says, “Spend, O child of Adam, and I will spend on you.”

So, those who are observant, and seek the pleasure of God, often give. Of course, one’s intentions should also be pure – that is, one should not give for the sake of showing off, or to have others admire their own generosity. There is another narration from the Prophet about an individual who gives, supposedly for the sake of God. However, as God knows one’s intentions, it is revealed that the person’s true intentions were for admiration. As such, his charity was rejected.

Howard Voss-Altman: It’s difficult to say whether religious people are more generous than non-religious people. However, our faith traditions emphasize charitable giving as an essential component of advancing the cause of justice.

I would like to address Lorna’s comment about Jesus’s teachings breaking through the “legalisms” of giving. The Torah is quite emphatic about the obligations we have to ensure justice for every member of the community. God’s concept of justice was not about so-called “legalisms,” but rather a heightened concern for the stranger and the poor.

Michael Higgins: I think the more challenging question is not why people of faith give proportionately higher but why those without any professed religious commitment or allegiance give less. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” and former U.S. president George W. Bush’s brazen cultivation of faith communities as a way of ameliorating social inequities are desperate admissions, as I see it, that secular society needs religion to do the work of the government in building up the commonweal.

Guy Nicholson: A few possible answers to that question: Loss of a philosophical rationale for giving? Loss of the community associated with faith? Greater faith in other institutions, such as government, which has its own redistributive methods?

Howard Voss-Altman: I think there is a loss of the philosophical rationale for giving. As a society, we seem to prefer to blame the poor instead of helping them. We do not seem to realize that our society is fraying at the edges because so many people feel they no longer have a stake in the society they live in. Why are we unable to have a philosophical discussion about inequality without attacking those who bring up the subject, e.g. Occupy Wall Street? Why are these people demonized? What has happened – not only to our compassion, but to our basic sense of decency?

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: You raise an interesting point here, Guy. In a multireligious society like Canada, sharing of wealth or redistribution of income becomes the responsibility of the government, too. It is because of the failure of our governments to reduce inequality in the distribution of income that we now see the occupy movements spreading across countries. Philanthropy is good and the rich are to be commended for it, but we also need a more progressive tax system and other means of redistributing incomes.

Michael Higgins: I think that a philosophical rationale has to be built on an anthropology that understands “giving” is constituitive of human meaning. In other words, to give is to be.

Howard Voss-Altman: We seem to be falling back on religious groups or secular charities – the United Way, etc. – to do the work that a progressive tax system used to do. Sadly, at least in the United States, an income tax system that was designed to create a social safety net has now been retrenched nearly out of existence. So-called religious people object to progressive taxation and then wonder why the social safety net is so strained. Our world is much too big for religions to play a major role in redistribution. For that, we should be depending on a government that is increasingly abdicating from that role.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: Howard, I am glad that we both have the same point of view.

Michael Higgins: The issue of philanthropy does raise the larger issue of social justice, social critique and the role of religion in the making of a rightly ordered commonwealth. To that end, the recent publication of a document on global economic responsibility by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice is a significant event and reflects the important voice of faith in the shaping of humane economic policies. But the Vatican’s considerable public-relations challenges have muted, I wager, the impact of a worthy and reflective document.

Guy Nicholson: I could make reference here to a column by Tony Blair, published as part of the Giving Changed series. Among other things, the former British prime minister wrote about the limits of government and the power of directing help “to a cause [supporters]are passionate about.” A take in seeming opposition to what Howard and Nallai are talking about.

Howard Voss-Altman: I’m afraid the former PM may not be the most objective source regarding the power of government to redistribute wealth. He might be better served examining his own role in helping to create a society in the U.K. characterized by extreme inequality and, more important, a society that has failed to assimilate hundreds of thousands of new immigrants who do not feel they belong to mainstream British society. Why do you suppose the riots in England this past summer were so horrifying? Because not enough citizens believed they were part of the larger civil society.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I myself read the column and was surprised by it. If we go back to the 1970s and 1980s, we will observe that Western governments played an important role in creating egalitarian societies through appropriate redistributive policies. It was with the ascendency of the right-wing philosophy in the 1990s that governments gave up this important social justice objective.

Michael Higgins: An excellent point. And a reason for our mounting disarray.

Lorna Dueck: The government-faith connection Mr. Blair commends us to for social good reminds me of the controversy Canada faced last year when Kairos, the church-backed aid agency, ran afoul for having a philosophy on justice and development that was viewed as out of step with the Conservative government. That takes us into another whole area – it’s not just about blindly handing over money, but about being in relationship with an ethic on justice that will always be driven by the philosophy of either religion or humanism. That’s one reason you see so many faith-based charities – they want that flavour brought to their work.

Guy Nicholson: I’d like to change tack here a bit. I have read that new Canadians send $9-billion a year to families and friends, mostly in the global south. Although this is clearly very generous, I’m not sure these remittances should count as philanthropy in the usual sense. (Any thoughts on that, panelists?) In any case, are places of worship engaged in this practice? Are these new Canadians taking motivation from their faith, or from a traditional sense of family duty, with their church or mosque serving as a conduit?

Howard Voss-Altman: The latter seems more likely, Guy. New Canadians are engaging in a centuries-old tradition of sending money back to the old country – first, to ensure a better life for family back home and, second, so they may save up their dollars to come to the new world. The Jewish immigration story contains thousands of instances of new arrivals in New York or Montreal sending hard-earned wages back to Budapest or Belgrade in order to bring over wives, uncles or cousins. This is not philanthropy, per se, but the desire for a better life in the West.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I can only speak from my own perspective. I know that many new Canadians remit money back to family members who are dependent on these remittances for their livelihood. I do not consider this philanthropy because the motivation is the welfare of the kith and kin. To me, philanthropy is when one gives without any personal interest or motive. There are also remittances to temples, religious and charitable organizations, which I will consider as philanthropy, as long as there is no ulterior motive. I am not personally aware of any Hindu temple being a conduit for money transfer to the home country.

Sheema Khan: Interesting question. In Islam, charity begins at home, in the sense that one should first give charity to those family members in need, then expand outside that circle. The sense of familial duty also finds origins in religious teachings. My father, who came from India, would always send remittance to his family there, and we three kids were encouraged to do the same. We were reminded of all the bounties here and how, as an expression of greatfulness, it would be good to help pay for the education of a cousin or the building of a village school.

Such practices are not confined to Muslims. My father’s many friends from India (Hindu, Sikh, Parsi) did the same. Similarly, when a child is born, it is a recommended practice to sacrifice an animal and offer a portion to the needy. So, for all three of my children, we have had the slaughter performed overseas, and the meat distributed there.

I also forgot to mention that, as we speak, millions are performing hajj, which will culminate Sunday with Eid ul-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. At Mecca and throughout the world, Muslims will commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismail by offering their own sacrifice of an animal. The meat is distributed to the poor.

Lorna Dueck: Certainly, many of those new Canadians are inspired by their Christian teachings to care for the poor, in this case, their own families abroad. They are responding out of their faith, calling to a higher sacrifice than Western mindsets are used to. I’m stunned by the research at Globalphilanthropy.ca that shows that the most generous Canadians are those who give with no tax credit. The nannies, cleaners and others who are often on the bottom end of earning send billions home in remittances, outgiving us all in sending “foreign aid” to their families. We really need to hit pause and sit for a while on that truth. The place of worship is an inspiration for them, but they still have to go through Western Union or some banking tool that penalizes them for generosity and skims off a percentage of what should be going back to care for the elderly, to send relatives to school, or simply to provide food. The Somalian Canadian Congress recently told our program that Somalia received $1.5-billion in remittances from Canada last year, and that it otherwise would not have survived – now that is true philanthropy.

Sheema Khan: I think there is an additional caveat to charitable giving that has affected Muslims, in particular, since 2001. It has to do with charities being charged with affiliation to terrorism. A number of charities were shut down in the United States after 9/11 for questionable money transfer practices. This put a chill on many Muslims giving to established charities, for fear of what may transpire. Many Muslims also sponsor orphans overseas, as is highly recommended in the faith, and some legitimate charities with clean records saw their input fall due to donor fear. Those who suffered were the orphans. But things are back to normal now, or pretty much so.

Guy Nicholson: Are people more likely to give to a charity that assists people of their own faith? If so, is this a bad thing?

Lorna Dueck: That’s not a bad thing – that’s a relationship. You should always know and understood who is using your money, and how.

Sheema Khan: I think so, and, no, it is not a bad thing, so long as the charity is not viewed through an exclusively chauvinistic lens. All major world religions call on universal principles and recognition of our common humanity. Therefore, faith groups, while looking toward their own at first, should always be reminded of the wider humanity, and encouraged to go beyond their own circle – based on the very principles of their faith. Think of it as concentric circles of giving.

Michael Higgins: I am not sure that is the case, Guy, although it would be logical to conclude that they would. The work of Caritas, Misercordiae, CAFOD, and CCODP – international, German, British and Catholic aid agencies – is by no means limited to serving those of similar faith, or even principally so.

Howard Voss-Altman: The answer to your first question is yes. People care more about the welfare of their own people than they care for others. Is this a bad thing? It depends if you are a universalist or a particularist. As a universalist, I would say that such giving is not a positive trend. Yes, we should give to our own, but not at the expense of the other. In the Torah, we are commanded to welcome the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and we must not repeat what happened to us. Indeed, the Torah commands us to welcome the stranger 33 times, more times than any other commandment. My guess is that the Torah understood that this commandment would be the hardest to fulfill, so we had to be reminded to do it more often. So far, our philanthropic experience is probably below average. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of – at least not here in North America.

Guy Nicholson: Final question. I lived for a time in a Third World country where the NGO roster included organizations operating under the banner of seemingly every faith and denomination. I met people who were uncomfortable with this brand marriage of aid and religion – does anyone here share those qualms?

(And while I’m on this topic, why are there so many faith-oriented charities? Why don’t faith communities just roll into bigger machines such as Oxfam and United Way?)

Lorna Dueck: This takes us back to the philosophy of giving. I do not agree with food-for-faith exchanged giving, which is rare and abusive. I remember General Roméo Dallaire, recently returned from Rwanda, chastising me that evangelicals had harmed in feeding the hungry because of our brand of aid and religion. But I have travelled enough to watch these faith-based aid programs to see how deeply the poor value the community that church brings when it brings aid. And that is why faith communities don’t always roll into bigger machines like the mega-charities. Sometimes they do, but generally they want to be in a relationship with the people to build an ongoing permanent road to a more just life for those needing aid, and that takes understanding. There’s a role for both, the large and small charity, those who put faith practice out front, and those who don’t mention it. It’s all needed.

Howard Voss-Altman: I think we have reason to be uncomfortable with the alliance between aid and religion because of the unfortunate relationship between Christian missionary work and aid to developing countries. When aid has been conditioned or associated with bringing the “good news,” we all have reason to be skeptical. After all, how many indigenous religions and belief systems were wiped out in the zeal to bring the “word” to poor, unfortunate souls? While such religious abuses have largely been eradicated today, the legacy of centuries of religious hegemony still remains with us.

Regarding your second question, I think faith communities have a much better chance of raising money through their own charitable organizations than through larger machines like Oxfam. A religious community trusts its own charitable mechanism and is therefore more likely to give than to a generic one.

Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us today, panelists. Looking forward to talking again next month.

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