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Philanthropy is the act of donating money, goods, time, or effort to support a charitable cause, usually over an extended period of time and in regard to a defined objective. In a more fundamental sense, philanthropy may encompass any altruistic activity which is intended to promote good or improve human quality of life.

In the classical world, including the Christian Byzantine Empire, philanthropy (individual citizens donating their money to the poor) was considered to be a civic virtue. Benevolence and giving increased also as worship and service to God. Monasteries, orphanages, and refuges for the poor were founded. Hospitality was put into action.

Several principles of compassion must be considered for a social welfare program to be successfully implemented:

  • poverty results when family and social affiliations are severed with financial difficulties being manifest soon after;
  • bureaucracy impedes charity, and care must be taken to ensure help for people in need;
  • and God is essential: spiritual aid must be forthcoming for charity to be effective.

In American history the hardships of early settlers forced people to join together and undertake community activities. A tradition of individual initiative was created to promote public welfare. Later, immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans had deeply rooted giving practices. One of the early proponents of modern philanthropy was Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant. He viewed the person who gained wealth as a person who should become an agent of civilization. Philanthropy was a tool for improving civilization. His philanthropy included starting public libraries in America, particularly during Great Depression, which also prompted tax breaks. Since that time, giving has increased steadily, possibly out of a sense of gratitude, and is deeply rooted in the American national psyche.

Philanthropy of the Past

In the Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century Christian apocalypse, the author, Hermas, encourages the wealthy to help the poor in any way they can. He says, “Instead of fields, then, purchase souls that have been afflicted, in so far as you can, and take care of widows and orphans and do not neglect them; spend your wealth and all your furnishings for such fields and horses as you have received from God. For this is why the master made you rich, that you may carry out these ministries.” (Shepherd of Hermas 50:8-9). In addition Hermas reminds us that helping the poor is a great joy and that as Christians we have a duty to God to carry out his work. In one of his parables, that of the elm tree and the vine, an important lesson is learned: the vine and elm tree are mutually beneficial. Hermas explained this by saying that these two trees symbolize the slaves of God. The vine is a tree that produces fruit, while the elm tree does not. The vine that bears fruit grows on the elm tree because if it did not, it would grow on the ground and thus bear rotten fruit. It is only when the vine grows on the elm tree that it bears fruit because of elm tree's support. In this best case scenario, both the elm and the vine bear fruit because of their cooperation with each other. This parable applies to the “slaves of God, the poor and the rich.” The parable is explained further: the rich have money, but are poor towards the Lord because they are distracted by their wealth and their prayer before the Lord is weak. It is when the rich depend on the poor that the rich find favor with God. The poor who find their needs supplied for by the rich then thank God for providing them with the one who supported them in their time of need. Ultimately, God gives both the rich and the poor benefits, for everything that we are given on earth is given to us from above. This is but one illustration of Christian philanthropy that was taught in the early Church.

Saint Basil is a classic example of a saint who cared about philanthropy and paid particular attention to the Gospel’s message as recorded in Romans 13:9-10, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does your neighbor no harm, so love is the fulfillment of the law.”2 This quote from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans is the true definition of what philanthropy is; this is also the second commandment of God, which is “love your neighbor as yourself.” In the West, confusion between Saint Basil and Saint Nicholas has occurred in that the two accounts of their lives have intermingled. Attributes of Saint Basil in providing to the poor and giving gifts to children have instead been attributed to Saint Nicholas. Saint Basil lived in the fourth century a.d. and was the Bishop of Caesarea, a city in Asia Minor. One of his many well-known virtues was his broad charitable activities and educating children. In his city he founded care facilities for the elderly and visited the sick and poor regularly.

One important Orthodox tradition that honors Saint Basil and his philanthropy is also supposed to encourage the faithful to give to the poor. In this tradition, which occurs yearly on New Year's Day, vasilopita bread is made by selected people in the parish. (Vasilopita simply means the bread of Basil.) The bread is baked with a coin inside and taken to the church for a blessing; there it is auctioned off to the highest donation for the bread. The donation of the vasilopita is then put into a fund that goes to the poor. However, some people focus too much on the cutting of the bread in order to find the coin that is contained in the bread. The person who finds the coin is said to be lucky and will be blessed with good fortune for the upcoming new year. This emphasis of the finding of the coin undervalues the importance of the act of almsgiving and the real honor of Saint Basil's philanthropy. The emphasis should be placed on philanthropy, on making the poor first and foremost, not on being the first one to find the coin.

Throughout the Old and New Testament scripture, there are many instances in which the rich are encouraged to help the poor. One such example is found in the Book of Psalms 112:91: “He hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor; his righteousness endureth forever; his horn shall be exalted with honour.” Another instance occurs in the Book of Proverbs 19: 17, “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and that which he hath given will he pay him again.”1 These are but only two quotes that encourage philanthropy; there are too many to list all here. One quote in the New Testament speaks about Jesus Christ and his sacrifice by becoming poor that we may become rich by his philanthropy: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).2

Philanthropy Today

What happens when there is a breakdown of philanthropy? In the present there are wealthy patrons who give to the poor out of a sense of gratitude for their own successes, such as Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. They, properly, see these successes not as their own, but as a gift of God. People today do not understand this; they see all success as theirs, reaping its benefit without giving back to society. In reality, what does it profit the wealthy if they have all the money in the world while the rest of humanity is unable to produce goods and services? It is to the affluent person's benefit that they give to those who are less fortunate. Otherwise, what is the profit? Everyone today can gain much insight from the Great Depression. In this era people learned through economic breakdown to care about their communities and each other for the mutual benefit for all. No society can endure without regaining the gratitude that people had after the depression. If we do not again revitalize the philanthropic spirit that America is well known for, then we could be doomed to repeat it. How does this breakdown occur? It happens with the breakdown of true philanthropy minus the bureaucracy; so that people who really need help and are not getting the help, because of the many laws, people do not meet certain criteria and our prevented from getting the aid that they need. Some contributing factors are the loss of spirituality, gratitude, and family values.

Movies and companies such as Coca-Cola are beginning to see some of the signs of the breakdown of society. They are showing this evil breakdown of the family values and the results of evil actions in movies such as The Butterfly Effect This movie shows that the smallest of events in a person's life can result in a downward spiral effect that then can destroy many people's lives. This movie is based on the popular theory that even one butterfly beating his wings can create a vibration in the atmosphere that could later create a hurricane across the world. The opposite, then, must be true as well: if good deeds are done, then the world can also be affected in positive ways. One such example of this is the recent Coca-Cola commercial which shows a man who looks like a criminal. The man enters a store, making a purchase rather than the robbery anticipated by the cashier. Instead, he changes the attitudes of those who see him as a criminal by his appearance alone. That simple act is contagious and brings about joy in the city. Everyone sings, “you give a little love and it comes back to you.” This illustrates how good virtues can benefit everyone in society.