The powers-that-be in Washington have been preaching rather effectively the importance of private charity. The President never misses an opportunity to remind us that the government's role in a wide range of social and charitable activities should be taken up by individuals. The Federal establishment will grow smaller, he says in effect, as the hearts of men and women grow larger.
This is sound doctrine, but within limits; for a long line of American statemen have set up a general rule that government has a duty to help those who , for various reasons over which they have no control, are not able to help themselves. It would require a revolution, indeed, to eliminate the idea that government must be just, must even be merciful, toward its citizens. Lincoln's compassion, written into the weary eyes and deep lines of a face worn by agony, left a symbolic heritage which statesmen of the modern era have carried forward. All of them, however, have insisted that under a generous and caring government private charity must still bear a significant part of the load.
It is this private charity, and the sometimes strange forms it takes, which prompts a philosophically-minded observer to some uncomfortable speculations. We have come a long way from the early religious conviction that a man has a duty toward his neighbor in need, a duty which he must act upon even to his own damage. The Puritans really believed that one must give until it hurts; and sometimes they left the impression that the hurt was the chief element in the transaction. They appeared to be saying that the man who gave was more blessed than he that received. Shakespeare was probably closer to the true Christian tradition when he saw both sides as being equally benefitted.
One receives nowadays an enormous number of appeals for donations to charities of one kind or another. Rarely is it suggested that the cause at issue should appeal so strongly as to make one give up something - a new car, a cruise to the Carribbean - upon which the worldly part of the heart is set. The essence of effective fund-raising today is to indicate that it doesn't really cost the donor very much. Uncle Sam will take care of seeing that the giver, if not blessed, is at least given, through tax deductions, a sizeable reward. I must admit that when I have undertaken the chore of raising money I have drawn courage for the task by imagining that the prospective donor has before him a pile of tax-exempt money, to be divided among various supplicants according to the strength of their appeal. In such a situation I am ready to ask for my share and more. But I would feel a certain nice diffidence, I would hesitate in embarrassment, to ask him to put himself to any real inconveniences or any personal sacrifice.
Most frequently in fund-raising today we go even further, trying to make sure that the benefactor will not only not be hurt, but that he (or she!) will have a wonderfully good time in the process. We tell such a one that he can go to the best play on Broadway, or on a fashionable cruise ship, dine elegantly and listen to witty speakers. I recall years ago, in a small city in upstate New York, going with my wife to our first ''charity ball.'' We got all dressed up for the occasion and were prepared for a brilliant evening. Unfortunately it was the local custom to seat husbands and wives next to each other. This dashed my bride's romantic expectations. She still claims I was a ''boring'' dinner companion - perhaps not fully aware that I had my own slight sense of disappointment at being seated next to her!
In the great city they arrange these things better. Nothing is neglected which can add brilliance and glamor, and the chief ladies of the town appear in their most dazzling costumes. It may all be very gay and gaudy, with the game played according to the rule that ''I will come to your charity event if you will come to mine.'' I would be the last to want to cast aspersion upon such proceedings. But where, in the midst of them, is the old idea of charity and the positive sense of helping one's neighbor?
I like the old Puritan divine who countenanced the world's wealth, but said that such as had it must wear it like ''a light cloak.'' To be able to have without affectation and to give without gloom - to be ready to put off one's own cloak and accept the fact that in some change of fortune another may wear it: that seems like the essence of charity toward one's fellow men. The end of charity should be to make us all more nearly akin. It should be to create a community more deeply united by common ties. The danger in the bright foolishness of society giving is that it draws the lines even more sharply between rich and poor, rather than drawing over all the mantle of a benignant spirit.