Gary A. ANDERSON, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. 232. ISBN 978-0-300-18133-3. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727.
Anderson follows up his remarkable 2009 study of the evolution of the notion of sin in the biblical tradition (Sin: A History) with a similarly detailed treatment of the biblical practice of almsgiving. Like the earlier volume, this study marries remarkably detailed knowledge of important and obscure texts and scholarship with a very accessible style. And like the earlier volume, Anderson’s study is meant to contribute to contemporary theological thought and practice – specifically, by recovering and reconceiving the notion of a “treasury in heaven” to which one is contributing when one performs acts of charity. Under deep suspicion since the Reformation, Anderson’s study helps us understand how this persistent biblical image can be rescued from worries about self-justification and selfishness.
Anderson proceeds in two parts, the first part displaying how charity is “an expression of faith in God,” and the second about how the “storeability” of charitable deeds can make sense of the transference of merit central to the doctrine of purgatory. Fundamental to both sections is Anderson’s conviction that, biblically, “charity is a sacramental act” in which “one could meet God in the face of the poor” (7). This is “not just a metaphor”; it is a reality which we have failed to appreciate because of “the ramifications of these Reformation debates” (11). To say the poor are a sacrament is not to say that they are a way of selfishly getting gain, but that by participating, the act says something “about the character of the world God has created” (6). Thus, almsgiving is “not just a good deed but a declaration of belief about the world and the God who created it” (4).
What is being declared? Through a particularly careful study of Tobit, Sirach, and Proverbs, as well as the rabbinical tradition of commentary, Anderson displays how the act of almsgiving is consistently presented in counterpoint to the temptation to future security presented by hoarding wealth. “The real sin of the rich person is to fail in trust” (59). The notions of belief (credere!) are rooted in the notion of credit, and Anderson effectively explains how almsgiving is sacramental because it uses money in an “inherently risky endeavor” (105); hence, he notes that in Proverbs, there is an interchangeability of giving and loaning, since (in the ancient world) loans were ordinarily sought not a stable financial propositions but to cover precarious personal situations (51). To give alms to those most in need is to risk one’s resources on God’s promise. To give alms is, at base, a loan to God; to give freely is to trust that God will repay. By placing almsgiving firmly within an economy of credit, we see that almsgiving should not be seen as a selfish purchase of heavenly gain but a confession of faith in God as guarantor of one’s future.
Such an act turns out to be effective not only for the giver, but for those connected to the giver. Hence, it is relevant for the doctrine of purgatory, a doctrine, Anderson argues, which is clearly foreshadowed in Jewish writings. Two points are key. First, Anderson highlights what he calls the “deed-consequence connection” in the biblical worldview; deeds themselves generate consequences, rather than consequences being imposed arbitrarily by God (130-131). For example, sins are visited upon many subsequent generations (119); such a claim is not a mere matter of wrath, but (again) a truth about the world. (No American today holds slaves, but we still deal with the racist consequences of slavery, and shouldn’t pretend to avoid that.) Thus, there is a solidarity in the consequences of actions that help make sense of the actual claims about purgatory, which is after all not about sins but about the consequences of sins. The second point is the importance of the New Testament trio of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Anderson explains that this trio were meant to function in petitionary ways; that is, fasting served “to call attention to one’s plight,” somewhat like a hunger strike today. Thus, almsgiving is “simply a prayer manifested in human action” (176), and the proper understanding of what is going on is not that of adjudicator, but as supplicant. Thus, Anderson presents such supplications as a witness to the fundamental freedom of God. Thus, combining his themes of trusting in God and petitioning, his concluding meditation on Augustine on Monica's comments that the imagery of “a treasury in heaven” maintains a “subtle dialectic between reward and mercy” which requires “a robust theology of the relationship between human merit and divine grace” (189) – a theology which in fact is central to the whole sacramental tradition.
As is evident, Anderson’s book is a very important, broad theological statement masquerading as a specialized monograph. Any reader will see how easily we fall into individualistic quandaries and confusions about giving alms, gaining merit, and dealing with purgatory if we fail to understand how acts of charity are meant to witness to and embody a divine-human cosmic economy. While Anderson does a stellar job engaging the deep Reformation-inspired theological concerns, he is less attentive to potential practical problems with this exercise in theological imagination. For example, as I was reading the discussion about supplication, I realized the entire exercise involves a kind of feudal or monarchical imagination that is not only foreign to many of us, but is also seen as problematic in itself. Similarly, while Anderson is eloquent in maintaining the sacramental importance of the poor, he neglects the modern concern that such a stance lost favor in part out of humanistic concerns to effectively overcome the plight of the poor, whether those of Left (concerns about social injustices) or Right (concerns about the importance of investing excess wealth, not for personal security, but for enterprise). In both cases, Andeerson is totally right about ontology, but neglects the political presumptions of the ontological imagery to which he appeals. In a way, the book opens a door without fully developing what we are to do once we go through it. That is, Anderson has succeeded brilliantly in reimagining this central biblical imagery in ways that overcome centuries of suspicion. Now the question is how to relate this biblical imagination to our contemporary social imagination.