There is a memorable character in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House named Mrs. Jellyby. She is a very energetic, very charitable, and very dedicated woman who devotes every moment of her time to working on behalf of a community in Africa. Her house is in shambles, her children are neglected, her adult daughter has no opportunity either to have a social life or to develop any useful skills, and they’re on the verge of financial ruin, but at least Mrs. Jellyby is ensuring the poor children in Africa are taken care of—though she has never been there and the entire community may or may not even exist.
Mrs. Jellyby is, in Dickens’s words, a “telescope philanthropist.” She spends all her time and energy in service to people on the other side of the world whom she has never met and never will meet and considers this to excuse her from basic responsibilities such as taking care of her own family. Meanwhile, those whom she actually does come into contact with have all the benefits of her self-righteousness, bad temper, and neglect. She is being ‘charitable’ and that, to her mind, excuses her from all other concerns.
21st Century Charity
In our day, of course, telescopic charity has never been easier. We have television and the internet to bring us tales of want and injustices from all corners of the world to stir our heartstrings. Of course, sometimes this brings real help and attention to people who genuinely need it and who would never have received it otherwise. But there is another side to it, and it’s one that I think is too little addressed.
The fact is that modern media creates an illusion of immediacy where none in fact exists. It has a tendency to fixate our attention, whether in sympathy or anger, on people thousands of miles away whom we have never met and whom we in fact have no contact with whatsoever. But, because we so often hear about them and hear them debated endlessly on the news, we can come to feel like we are involved, and that we must show ‘charity’ to one side or another.
But such ‘charity’ typically doesn’t result in any concrete action for good or evil. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in one of The Screwtape Letters, love and hatred for distant public figures or the people we see on the news is largely imaginary; we do not know these people, they are “lay figures out of newspapers.” As private citizens, our scope for doing either good or ill to them is effectively non-existent. Outside those immediately present, not one person out of a thousand is actually going to have any effect on, say, missionary work in Africa or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor does voting or campaigning change this; it may or may not be a good thing to do, but again any one person’s scope of action and consequent responsibility in these matters is so narrow as to not exist.
How Charity Abroad Devolves Into Opinions on Policy
That isn’t to say these aren’t important matters, or that those who have the opportunity shouldn’t do something about them. It is to say that, when it comes to issues affecting thousands or millions of people, the vast majority of us are not going to have the opportunity to do more than throw a donation to one side or the other. Thus, for most of us, our concern for them amounts to ‘telescope charity:’ charity directed at people we don’t know, only encounter when we wish to, and have very little scope to help in any case.
Yet, telescopic charity is extremely pleasant, and partly for that very reason. There is more grandeur to conceiving of ourselves as champions of the poor in Africa or oppressed minorities in general than in reminding ourselves yet again to be patient with our nagging mother or rude co-worker, and it rarely if ever gets checked by reality if we don’t want it to. In fact, it provides an easy route to one of the greatest satisfactions known to man: the satisfaction of thinking well of ourselves.
Again, this is not to say anything against anyone who actually does volunteer his time and effort in a far-off country, say with the Missionaries of Charity. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about when we are sitting at home and arguing about what is the best policy, say, for dealing with illegal immigration (to take a topical example). My point is that we are too apt to think that our position on such an issue is itself an exercise in charity. It isn’t. Our opinion of what someone else should do regarding a third party a thousand miles away is not charity. Nor are our efforts to promote what we consider to be proper policy changes to that effect. It may or may not be correct, but it isn’t charity, or at most is a very minor form indeed.
Making the Most Difference by Helping Those Nearby
Charity is how we treat the people we actually meet and actually come into contact with. To continue with the same example, what we think ought to be done about the migrant mother we saw on the six o’clock news is ultimately far less important than how we treat the person in the ‘Make America Great Again’ hat who is sitting there disagreeing with us. The MAGA person may seem much less in need than the person on the news, but he’s the one God has actually put before us. He is the one whose life we have power to make easier or more difficult by how we respond, the one we have an opportunity to practice forbearance and patience and kindness towards. The person on the news is not.
That we probably think one much more deserving than the other is irrelevant, since at present the good we can do is to be patient, polite, and charitable towards someone we disagree with. That, as a matter of simple fact, is our appointed cross and the duty assigned to us by Our Lord.
Christ commanded us to love our neighbor, which means first and foremost the people we meet and live and work with every day. In the end, that will matter much more before God than what we think about questions being decided a thousand miles away by someone else.