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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.