Saturday, August 19 is World Humanitarian Day – a time to remember the tremendous humanitarian need around the world.
The stark reality is that the world is facing the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945: Mass starvations are threatening millions of people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, while an unmatched refugee crisis continues in Syria.
World Humanitarian Day is also a time to remember the sacrifice of those who risk their lives to serve. What often gets ignored, however, is the role that faith plays in people’s desire to give and serve. This is where I focus my research.
Philanthropy and religion
Let’s first look at available data to understand how much giving is tied to one’s faith.
According to Giving USA, the leading annual report of philanthropy in America, religious contributions (narrowly defined as giving to houses of worship, denominations, missionary societies and religious media) made up 32 percent of all giving in America in 2016.
Another study found that 73 percent of all American giving went to a house of worship or a religiously identified organization.
Many of these organizations make up the world’s largest NGOs. For example, three of the top 10 biggest charities by total revenue last year (Catholic Charities, Salvation Army and National Christian Foundation) are explicitly religious. Religious agencies make up 13 of the top 50 charities in the U.S.
It is true that factors such as wealth, income, education and marital status are all predictors of giving. But religious belief and practice are one of the best predictors.
Overall, religious Americans volunteer more, give more, and give more often not only to religious but secular causes as well. Among Americans who give to any cause, 55 percent claim religious values as an important motivator for giving.
What religions tell us
These values of giving are deeply rooted in the texts, traditions and practices of many faiths. Take, for example, the messages within the three Abrahamic faiths.
In Judaism, the Hebrew Scriptures refer to “tzedakah,” literally meaning justice. Tzedakah is considered a commandment and a moral obligation that all Jews should follow. The commitment to justice places a priority on their giving to help the poor. Beyond giving just time and money, rabbis even spoke of “gemilut chasadim,” literally meaning loving-kindness, or focusing on right relationship with one another as the prerogative of religious giving.
Even more broadly, an ancient Jewish phrase, “tikkun olam,” meaning to repair or heal the world, has been adopted by many religious and secular causes. Barack Obama, when he was president, would often refer to the phrase. So did past President Bill Clinton and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. President George W. Bush hinted at a vision of tikkun olam in his second inaugural address.
Similarly, the Christian tradition has considered giving a key religious practice. Many Christians still look to the Hebrew Bible and the tithe (giving one-tenth of an individual’s income) as God’s commandment.
In the New Testament, Jesus spoke of giving not only a tithe but challenged followers to give far beyond it. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions. Pursuing those values, a long monastic tradition has seen men and women taking vows of poverty to give themselves to the work of their faith. Today, while the tithe might not be practiced by a majority of Christians, most understand the practice of giving as a central part of their faith.
For Muslims, giving is one of the five pillars of Islam. “Zakat” (meaning to grow in purity) is an annual payment of 2.5 percent of one’s assets, considered by many as the minimum obligation of their religious giving. A majority of Muslims worldwide make their annual zakat payments as a central faith practice.
Above and beyond the required zakat, many Muslims make additional gifts (referred to broadly as “sadaqa”). Interestingly, the word shares the same root as the Jewish “tzedakah,” meaning justice. Muslim giving also focuses primarily on the poor.
Of course, charitable giving is not just for the rich. For those with no money to give, the Prophet Muhammad considered even the simple act of smiling to be charity, a gift to another.
Building a community
Religious traditions are clear that the value of giving does not simply rest with those receiving the gift. Givers themselves benefit. As sociologist Christian Smith makes clear, there is a paradox to generosity – in giving we receive and in grasping we lose.
At the same time, the goal of religious giving is not just about what it brings to individuals. Rather, it is more a focus on human interaction and a vision of community.
Perhaps most famously, the 12th-century Rabbi Maimonides outlined eight levels of giving – the lowest being giving grudgingly and the highest to sustain, but also to empower a person to no longer need charity.
Maimonides made clear it is not so much the amount of giving but how one gives that is important in establishing a relationship between the giver and the recipient. Giving should avoid humiliation, superiority and dependence.
With the majority of global citizens belonging to a religious tradition, it should be no surprise that religion often becomes the greatest asset in humanitarian work. Whether fighting AIDS, malaria or poverty, the development community has realized that the success of local programs so often turns on the support of the local faith community. The engagement of the local imam or priest is essential.
Just a few years ago, the humanitarian industry was convinced of the truth of this view when they found that a majority of the health care workers left on the ground in the midst of the Ebola crises were missionaries. Faith was the chief motivator for those both funding and serving in some of the most difficult parts of the world.
The positive side to faith
It is true that too often, faith also appears to serve as the motivation for exclusion, bigotry and hate: Brutal terrorism by the Islamic State, attacks on religious minorities in Myanmar, the defacing of mosques, synagogues and churches across the United States and even the recent clashes in Charlottesville, illustrate how religions can also be used to promote violence.
When it comes to humanitarian aid, there are certainly criticisms of religious aid agencies whose work does not follow minimum humanitarian standards – for example, the prohibition against discriminating or proselytizing before giving aid.
But returning to the centrality of religious giving, evil in the name of religion does not have the last word.
Take the case of the United Nations staffer Michael Sharp, who gave his life working for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo this past March. Sharp had worked earlier with the Mennonite Central Committee, a humanitarian organization set up for alternative military service by the Mennonites, a historic peace church. Sharp’s faith guided his call to peacemaking.
There are many such examples around the world where people of faith were moved to shared solidarity. It was their faith work that inspired Jordanian Muslim youth to protect local Coptic Christians at this year’s Easter services after repeated attacks on the Christian minority by Islamic terrorists. It was the same with Muslims in the Philippines this past June who hid fellow Christians in their homes to protect them from Islamic State fighters.
In working through the mandate of our various religious traditions towards the healing of the world, we often come to understand that we have more in common than we had initially realized. And perhaps, we might want to remember this, as we commemorate World Humanitarian Day.