Historian Bettany Hughes: Lay off Band Aid! Charity should make us feel good about ourselves

"We should embrace the fact that charity is mutually beneficial"

Collection boxes are rattling, Christmas singles clamour to be downloaded and the beau monde dress up in their eye-popping finest to be snapped at charity balls. The giving season is upon us. But this year charity-anxiety has also hit the headlines – celebrities across the globe appear to have divided into two camps: glowing supporters of Bob Geldof’s Band Aid Thirty release and its growling critics.

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The lyric “Do they know it’s Christmas?” is criticised as patronising and racist, sung by those whom some say are the real beneficiaries – self-serving celebrities in what Lily Allen calls “the success club”. Well, I wonder if the wrong battle is being picked here. “Charity” is a freighted word with a rich and intriguing history; it stems from the Ancient Greek charis – a grace that gives us charisma and charm.

Charis was always believed to work both ways – a quality or deed that benefited both “them” and “us”, the charmer and the charmed. A recipient of charis was under a binding obligation to give something back – fall for Achilles’s monumental charisma and you found you had to follow him into battle.

Arguably, yes, hits like the new Band Aid Thirty record may perpetuate a status quo. Certainly throughout the medieval world, a convenient theology of alms-giving developed – “we pay and you pray”. Charity was a favour given by the rich that had to be returned by the poor. But it is only if we admit that charity is indeed a two way process – that it feels as good to give as to receive– that charitable actions fulfil their fundamental potential.

We should embrace the fact that charity is mutually beneficial. If the givers don’t benefit in some way, that’s when charity becomes remote, highhanded, patronising benevolence. There’s actual anthropological evidence for the feelgood roots of charity.

A few weeks ago I travelled up to the high hills of Dmanisi, close to the Georgian/Armenian border. There, 1.7 million years ago, even before we became fully human, our homo erectus ancestors –who were threatened on all sides by starvation and fear and eventually polished off, it seems by sabre-toothed tigers – were effecting their own acts of charity. One very sick male with no teeth, unable to feed himself, had been kept alive by the group. Good for him, obviously – but this must also have made those 3ft-high almost-humans feel good about themselves, too, otherwise our toothless friend would have been cannibalised or left to rot.

So, charisma and charity are natural bedfellows. Their prehistoric root means “to enjoy”, “to do well”. The ancient Greeks believed that charismatic, charitable things were the gift of that gorgeous goddess of love Aphrodite – graces that ignited desires of all kinds. We might have chosen to pigeon-hole charity as something pious, joyless and worthy that needs to hurt to work, but at its core it is about loving the living of life as you benefit those around you.

So rather than those in glass houses lobbing the odd uncharitable stone, consider this. Charity is something that is meant to be enjoyed and enjoyable; it should make us feel good about ourselves. Don’t moan; charity begins at home. Charis – grace, empathy, joy, love, however you translate it – is what makes us human. 

Charity should play out every day, not just for Christmas.

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Bettany Hughes presents The Ideas That Make Us, from Monday 15th to Friday 19th December, 1.45pm on Radio 4