Christ claimed that the poor will always be with us, an uncontroversial prediction in the Roman world. As Jeremy Beer details in “The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity,” for the ancient world poverty was a simple fact of life. Philanthropy was performed by the rich as part of public ceremony, in order to accrue a personal or familial reputation for largesse, wealth, and civic virtue.
Christians convicted to perform works of charity were thus a revolutionary force. Charitable acts were affirmations of basic theological claims which remained constant until the 19th century, which marked a profound shift in common understandings of free giving. In his own words, Beer’s is “an episodic, illustrative, and extremely brief account” of the denigration of charity and its replacement by philanthropy, which seeks to remake the world through planning and a utopian vision.
Classically, Christians have taken their lead from Christ regarding continued existence of the poor among us. In 2015, the United Nations lists as a Millennium Development Goal the elimination of poverty. What happened?
Beer provides a lucid account of this transition in three stages, and criticizes contemporary philanthropic foundations and “the notion that poor relief must be judged first and foremost by its consequences,” a dramatic conceptual shift after centuries of the association of voluntary giving and biblical charity.
By the mid-1800s, wealthy critics of charity such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller sided with the ambitions of philanthropy and dreamed of eliminating social ills through the technological exercise of their wealth. Contemporary philanthropists continue this war on the inefficiencies of charity.
Beer argues that for all the achievements this shift has made possible, there are negative consequences which lie beneath the systemic, utopian method.
Ignored by large foundations are the manifold personal goods which classical Christian charity underwrote. The focus of old-fashioned charity was not the increase of any worldly estate, but “storing up treasure in heaven” through acts of love toward neighbor. Voluntary giving which ignores this reality becomes hostile to the Christian society that private charity worked to foster.
Not willing to downplay the successes of this new mode of philanthropy in its sphere, Beer calls for the classical understanding to be reintegrated into voluntary giving, coining the cumbersome but useful term “philanthrolocalism.”
Beer’s book is an excellent primer on the history of a narrow topic, and provides clear-written, well-thought insights into discussions of charity, as virtue and as instrument for social change.