Thursday, 2 April 2015

Alms Race

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day when the Queen offers Maundy money - alms - to a carefully selected group of "deserving poor" - a slightly odd twist of a phrase which might be taken to mean people who deserve to be poor.

This is the oldest form of philanthropy - royalty making gifts to the poor. Like all philanthropy its motivations and its impact are multiple, from reminding the monarch that she or he is human to reminding everyone else that there is a social order - in this case, with a Queen at the top, and religion at its heart. As Eliana Magnani showed [1], from the 4th-6th century AD "...almsgiving developed as the result of the creation of the social category of the poor." In other words, we needed people whom we called "poor" in order to have a philanthropy that gave to them.

Philanthropy is a constant across religions and time - it seems to be built in to people wherever they are [2]. Is poverty a constant too? Yes, as it is currently defined in Europe as living on less than 60% of the median income. As a society gets wealthier the threshold for poverty, in cash terms, rises. So there is no point in any politician claiming that he or she wants to eliminate poverty. Unless there is a titanic shift in the way that society is organised (for example, a move to Anarchy, or theoretical Marxism) we will always have poverty.

If we must always have poverty and thus always have wealth, let us propose that Maundy Thursday be the day on which those of wealth step into the shoes of those without. Let us propose that David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch and the Windsors spend Maundy Thursday living in poverty. David, you are invited to spend the day in a Job Centre, being sanctioned for not spending 35 hours last week looking for a job. Rupert, you will spend the day on a zero hours contract cleaning plates in your local McDonalds. Elizabeth, you can spend the day just down the road from Buckingham Palace with the cardboard community that lives in the underpasses at Waterloo.

That would be a Maundy Thursday true to the spirit of alms.

1.Magnani, Eliana. “Almsgiving, Donatio Pro Anima and Eucharistic Offering in the Early Middle Ages of Western Europe (4th-9th Century).” In Charity and Giving in Monotheistic Religions. Walter de Gruyter, 2009.
2 see for example Jordan, W. K. Philanthropy in England, 1480 - 1660: A Study of the Changing Patterns of English Social Aspirations. Routledge, 2013.

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