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Charity and Friendship: The Difference Between the Two

Let me be perfectly honest for a moment here. I love writing this little blog on justice. I fantasize about writing books on these subjects later in life. And I really do enjoy spending time with the poor, homeless and downtrodden … in moderation.

I can handle delivering groceries or coming for monthly visits. I can even make phone calls every once in a while to a poor woman with tumors. I am actually pretty good at the whole charity gig. What I struggle to do is to show true friendship—to love someone with an unconditional-ness that is humanly impossible.
charity
Recently, I wrote on the Neue justice blog about how charity ought to be more than a spiritual discipline; it ought to be a way of life. I am now re-thinking what I wrote.

The great (well, I think he’s great) Thomas Aquinas has his own thoughts on the matter: “There is no friendship without return of
love.
But charity extends even to one’s enemies, according to Matthew 5:44: ‘
Love
your enemies.’ Therefore charity is not friendship.” (Summa Theologica). I may be above my pay grade here, but I believe Aquinas is wrong.

I had lunch with a friend on Saturday. This friend has cancer. This friend is dying.

I met her last year, while I was delivering groceries to some people who either couldn’t afford to go to the grocery store or just weren’t physically able to leave the house. She probably fit into both categories. When I met her, she told me that she had breast cancer. I shared her story with a few friends; they all rallied around her, providing money for her to keep her apartment and encouragement to keep her hopes high. After a few months of battling the cancer, it went away.

Shortly after that, the doctors found out that there were several malignant tumors in place of the cancer.I don’t know much about medicine, but I know that’s bad news. So, for the past few months, I’ve been calling this friend, trying to be there for her. But she rarely answers the phone, because she’s either on the other line trying to straighten out something about insurance coverage or she’s just too exhausted to talk. I called her on Saturday, expecting the latter. It was, in fact, the former, but she had just hung up on the doctor’s office and was in a bad mood.

“You can treat me to lunch,” she said. So, we went out for pizza. She complained the whole time. I found myself wanting to be somewhere else. I found myself getting distracted by how sturdy the paper towel napkins were, or how shiny the flatware on the table was. I kept having to refocus, ashamed of my own failure to show true compassion to someone. So, I listened to what she was saying. Someone had wronged her. Maybe they had misunderstood, I suggested. No, it was intentional, she assured. Yeah right, I thought. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more.

“Look,” I said. “There’s nothing you can do about this. They wronged you. You’re angry—I know. But it’s your choice whether or not you hold on to that anger.” I was certain that my calling her out would be well-taken. She just looked at me, bitterness seething from her eyes.

“Jeff,” she said pleadingly, “I’m dying.”

Ugh. I regretted ever opening my mouth. It was true—she was dying, and I had just cheapened that very painful fact with my ungracious response. Let me be perfectly honest for a moment here. I love writing this little blog on justice. I fantasize about writing books on these subjects later in life. And I really do enjoy spending time with the poor, homeless and downtrodden … in moderation. I can handle delivering groceries or coming for monthly visits. I can even make phone calls every once in a while to a poor woman with tumors. I am actually pretty good at the whole charity gig. What I struggle to do is to show true friendship—to love someone with an unconditional-ness that is humanly impossible.

To be fair, Aquinas’ definition of charity isn’t the same way that we think of it, but I do love his distinction between friendship and charity. And maybe there is something to our acts of charity, but these days, I’m challenged with the simple problem of how to be a better friend.

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As I drove home, I remembered a book I had recently read called Same Kind of Different As Me. I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s a quick, nonfiction read about two men and their friendship. One is a black homeless man named Denver, and the other is a white, rich guy named Ron. In the middle of the book, Ron takes Denver out for coffee. Denver asks him why he’s being so nice. Ron, rather unassumingly, says that it’s because he wants to be friends. Denver takes him to town on that. He says that he has heard the white people treat friendship like they do fishing—they often catch something and then release it. He says:

“Mr. Ron, If you is fishin for a friend you just gon’ catch and release, then I ain’t got no desire to be your friend. But if you is lookin for a real friend, then I’ll be one. Forever.”

I guess all I’m saying is that while there’s nothing wrong with being charitable to the poor, I want more. I want a friend. Rather, I want to be a friend to someone … for life.

For my friend with the tumors, that may not be too much longer.

Is there a difference between friendship and charity? I know that I’m no Aquinas, but would it be such a bad thing to befriend the poor? Maybe it’s not an either/or issue. What do you think?

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