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Comment: Charity - the key to a sustainable future

Comment: Charity - the key to a sustainable future

Two thousand years ago, a new, literally ground breaking concept came into our world: charity, the love of neighbour and fellowmen. With it began the shift from confrontation to cooperation.

Even before that, philosophers and teachers had exerted a moderating influence on people. For example Zenon with his Stoa, which taught self-control and wisdom, Buddha, whose teachings elevated the renunciation of immediate need satisfaction and thus the ruthless assertion of self-interest to virtue, and Judaism, whose Mosaic law also prescribed consideration for the stranger.

The idea of charity, however, revolutionised human cooperation: whereas the individual had previously been inextricably linked to his or her clan - outside of which he or she was doomed. The idea of universal love of neighbour also made cooperation possible beyond the boundaries of one's own family group and the immediate relationship to one's clan: for it elevated even those outside the clan to fundamentally trustworthy cooperation partners endowed with a dignity of their own. Previously, expulsion from the family or banishment from the clan inevitably meant misery, either a life as a hired slave of foreign masters or as an outlaw, but usually a lonely death from starvation. Also, large projects, for example the construction of the pyramids, large dams or water pipes, which required the temporary unification of the different clans. This could only be realised through the use of coercion, force and payment.

In a society where only the immediate relatives, regardless of their actual talent or lack of talent, are considered confidant. There is little possibility for a complex economy and innovations whose benefits extend beyond this circle. Duties to the family, the necessary nepotism, and the exclusion of gifted strangers from working in a central position will always prevent the success of the great venture.

War also brings innovation and welds a community together. But this innovation is geared towards destruction and the creation of suffering. The societies affected fall far behind in their development or are wiped out. It is the opposite of charity and leads the idea of cooperation ad absurdum.

A second effect of charity: it gives meaning to altruistic behaviour. As long as in a society only the survival and cohesion of one's own clan have a higher meaning, altruistic deeds are not only senseless, but downright foolish and to be condemned. However, at the same moment that altruistic deeds that benefit a random fellow human being, the neighbour, are seen as honourable and socially desirable, the social judgement of such behaviour changes. In countless cultures today, for example, giving alms or volunteering is considered a duty. In this way, charity changes a society, brings about a culture of solidarity and mutual support. Working for the community suddenly becomes a desirable activity - even without a bribe - with strong, positive effects on the economy, innovation and unity.

Innovation and solidarity - two fruits of charity without which a modern global society and the ideas of sustainable development are doomed to fail.


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