by Jason E. Marshall
This article was originally published in the Sept 2012 edition of Living Stone Magazine
Charity is the first great lesson taught to newly made E.A.’s, as we awkwardly stand destitute before our brethren. Under the banner of this first great lesson venerable masonic institutions, programs, orphanages, retirement homes, and even hospitals and clinics have been formed and maintained. However, beyond a quick lesson at the alter, which unfortunately can be used as a point of levity for the brethren who have had to “endure” sitting through “another” E.A. degree, and promises to aid and assist in our oaths, there is very little discussion as to what charity is, why it is necessary, and how to properly implement it.
On its surface, charity provides a way for the fraternity to support its membership, and their families, as well as communities, in times of need. This has helped the fraternity to garner a publically favorable image as a charitable institution, which has undoubtedly allowed it to weather numerous anti-masonic storms, as well as attract numerous men to its ranks. However, Freemasonry’s purpose is not to be a charitable institution in the same way that the Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs are, and the fraternity’s public acts of charity, and charitable acts that support its membership and youth groups, aren’t necessarily true masonic charity. While many brethren will undoubtedly become riled at my assertions, it is necessary to first understand what true charity is, before one can develop an accurate picture of what masonic charity is, and how it can be implemented.
First, charity is obviously not a uniquely masonic concept, the concept of charity, and the call to be charitable, is present in every world religion. For example, one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, in the form of the Zakat, is charity. The Zakat is a mandatory charitable contribution, based on excess monetary or property holdings, that all eligible Muslims must give in order to support the poor and needy, as well as Islam itself. In fact, in some Islamic countries the Zakat is collected by the government as a tax. Muslims believe that the Zakat is merely a way to give thanks to Allah, for the many gifts and blessings that he has given them, which allowed them to have the excess money or property that made them eligible for the Zakat to begin with. Muslim’s believe that since everything comes from Allah, the Zakat gives thanks to Allah, and merely redistributes his blessings to others. In the masonic context there are numerous groups and bodies that put a high emphasis on charity, and while giving to the charitable arms of those groups might not be required, it is certainly emphasized and encouraged. While the giving aspect is an obvious and important aspect of charity, because by its very nature charity requires that an individual or group give something to another person or group, the act of simply giving something is not all there is to true charity.
The first aspect of true charity, is that the gift must be voluntary, it shouldn’t be mandatory, coerced, or even expected. True charity should only be done at the impetus of the giver, out of an altruistic desire to alleviate a need or suffering that the receiver is experiencing. If the charity is not voluntary the giver may eventually view the gift, or recurring gifts, as a burden, and even come to resent having to give, which obviously taints the entire charitable process. Also, even if the giver doesn’t resent the charity, unless the gift is of their own free will and accord, they will not be emotionally or spiritually vested in the charitable act, or the intended receiver, so the act of giving merely becomes a mundane transaction.
Another aspect of true charity is that it must be done out of love and compassion. You cannot have true charity unless love and compassion are present, because as soon as other motivation(s) are added or substituted, charity becomes corrupted. For example, if “charity” is given in order to receive public recognition or praise, the gift is no longer about charity, it is about public relations, advancing agendas, or elevating egos. If you are giving “charity” in order to receive a lofty title, or have your name engraved on a plaque, you aren’t performing true charity because your true motivation is personal gain and recognition, so you are merely attempting to buy prestige. Also, charity that is given for public show, or for the elevation of the giver over the receiver, is not charity at all; rather, it is a vile act, because the giver is in essence making a public show of their piety towards a person in need, which demeans the receiver. According to the book of Matthew, Jesus taught,
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:1-4
The final aspect of true charity, is that it must address an actual need. Charity that is given to support individuals or groups that are perfectly capable of supporting themselves, is not true charity. In the masonic context, there are many lodge’s that spend the majority of their charitable budget on the support of youth groups and other appendant bodies, or for charitable public relation efforts. This is not true masonic charity. Supporting a masonic, or quasi-masonic group that is perfectly capable of supporting itself is just that, “support”, not charity. Also, public relations efforts under the guise of charity, aren’t true charity because they aren’t done altruistically, they are being done for public relations and/or advertising purposes, and should be recognized as such. True masonic charity involves helping the poor, sick, and destitute, and upholding our vows to aid and assist our brethren, and their wives, widows, and orphans, in their times of need.
Finally, charity allows the individual brother to put the teachings of the fraternity into practice in a truly altruistic way. The true Mason should focus on not only his own personal and spiritual development, but the wellbeing of others, including his brethren, which is something that Masons have excelled at throughout history. In his book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Freemasonry in the American Civil War, Bro. Michael Halleran, points out that Freemasonry was unique among the many fraternal societies that were active during the American Civil War, because unlike groups like the Odd Fellows, which had systematic ways of getting charitable aid and relief to soldiers, and even across enemy lines, the Freemasons did not have any fraternally sanctioned system of accomplishing charity. However, there are numerous stories of charitable and compassionate acts among and between Freemasons on both sides during the war. Instead of relying on a systematic fraternal aid system, Freemasons came to each other’s aid and relief on a personal level, and through personal acts of charity and compassion, and they did so on an impressive scale. Today, the individual brethren should seek ways to be charitable both within and outside of the fraternity, and with today’s hyper-mobile society, and the plethora of digital payment options, being charitable is easier than ever to accomplish.
Masonic charity as a whole can be a powerful force for good when properly implemented. True masonic charity puts the teachings of the craft into action, and gives individual members the opportunity to put the teachings of the craft to work beyond their own personal paths. Through charity, the masonic fraternity can not only produce philosopher kings, but also better society as a whole, through its individual and collective works.
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