CHARITY WEEK: 'Keep on giving'

Behind the fun and antics of Charity Week lies a serious message. Headmaster JONATHAN WEBB's assembly address reminds students that charity lasts longer than a week and urges us to 'keep on giving'

SO, we are in Charity Week - I wonder what the word charity means to you?

You are probably thinking about a typical non-governmental, non-profit organisation which provides support to those in need - often the poor, the sick and the homeless, either at home or abroad. You might think of specific charities such as Barnardo’s, Save the Children, RSPCA - the list goes on. In the UK at the last count there are about 166,000 charities.

The original meaning of charity comes from the Latin - caritas or carus – dear or beloved. In the short piece of music you have just heard, the French composer Duruflé sets music to the Latin words ‘Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est’ ‘Where charity and love prevail, God is there’

As St Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians in the King James Bible:"Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity thinketh no evil, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."

In a modern translation of the Bible of course the word charity is translated as 'love'. So over the ages charity has come to mean in a Christian sense love for someone else. It's no surprise that St Paul’s letter is a staple of many marriage services.

So charity implies selflessness, a concern for others, sympathy with the plight of others - and therefore we can now see how the word charity has come to mean the act of donating to helping those in most need.

Now as we approach Charity Week I’d like you to consider a particular thought experiment by the philosopher and moralist Peter Singer.

Scenario 1: Imagine you walked past a pond and saw a young child struggling in the water. What would you do - walk on by? No of course you would do what you can to help. You would most probably wade out to the child and rescue him. This is charity in its simplest form - the immediate help for another - a selfless act of love for another human life. Would the fact that you would ruin that new pair of £100 trainers you had just bought influence your thinking - of course not. You’d dive in – you’ve haven’t the time to worry about trainers.

Ok now scenario 2 - you are out walking one day and hear the cries of a child drowning in a pond 100 meters away. What would you do- naturally you would run and investigate, jump into the water and save the child - of course- who wouldn’t?? Again, who cares about that £100 pair of trainers.

So what is the difference between scenario 1 and scenario 2? Nothing other than 100 metres - your actions would be the same.

So let’s take another scenario 3: Suppose if you knew that £5 of your money could be spent on providing clean water to save a child’s life from a life-threatening disease in a country on the other side of the world - what would you do?

Now the case is different. Maybe you would donate, maybe you wouldn’t and in fact a lot of people don’t. Why - because the emotional connection (and let’s face it love must be based on an emotional connection if nothing else!) is harder.

You don’t know the child, you can’t see the child – you struggle to make an emotional connection to someone on the other side of the world. And of course economists would also say there is an opportunity cost too - the cost of giving something else up - for you it might be some sweets, a new phone app, two days 'rental on your iPhone, a bus fare to Harrogate…

But in reality the moral reasons for giving to charity are the same, argues Singer, the same for the child in the pond as the child on the other side of the world drinking unclean water - the only difference is the distance - not ten metres away, not 100 metres away, just the other side of the world - and the cost? The cost would be less - £5 instead of £100.

So consider, if you choose to buy a coffee, a new app for your phone or some downloaded movie and choose not to donate that money to charity - are you acting just as immorally as someone on the edge of that lake who chooses to walk away to keep their pristine trainers dry and lets the child drown? Is it just as wrong to let them die when they are further away - this is the basis of Stringer’s dilemma – and so at the base level do we have a moral obligation to share some of our wealth to help cure world poverty - an act of charity, an act of love for our fellow human beings?

Well I am not here to sermonise or tell you what to do. I for one will be honest and say I don’t donate half my income to charity - unlike Peter Singer. For many people they might argue they have little extra money to feel able to contribute to charity. And some would argue it is for the rich nations of this world - the governments - to ensure aid for poorer countries goes into worthwhile projects.

And yes, distance does make it hard for us to understand somebody else’s suffering even if we see it on TV in a media-driven campaign - love requires empathy, an intimate understanding of somebody else’s pain or anxiety or feelings. We can see the child drown and feel empathy. If we travelled across the globe to see children dying of malaria or malnutrition or AIDS we might indeed do more.

Your chosen Charity this year is WaterAid. Even a little bit of research tells me that nearly 3million people – many of them children - die each year from unclean water; that a well takes about £5-6,000 to dig or about £3-4 per person per year to give clean water to. Clean water - something we do take for granted is a precious commodity and we should not waste it.

And while none of us have the power to save all of those children, almost all of us can have a small part to play in preventing the unnecessary deaths of some of those children. Think about every pound you spend this week and what good it can be put to.

Finally, let’s remember that charity lasts longer than a week - keep on giving, don’t just tick your charitable act off for the year as ‘job done’. Because that’s the equivalent of saying ‘that’s my bit for love’, that’s ‘love ticked off’ for another year. On what basis would that be to have a relationship with someone?