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True charity

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What George Kaiser has done is hard to fathom. The $1 billion he has spent in Tulsa, Okla., has given poor children cutting-edge education. It has provided residents struggling with addiction the opportunity to reform their lives instead of going to jail. It has brought culture and green spaces, recast lives, and changed the trajectory of a town.

In this week’s cover story, staff writer Simon Montlake considers what this all means: Can charity do what government can’t? But he also looks at something more subtle. Simon examines the motives of a man, and in doing so, offers a glimpse of what charity truly is. 

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Faith traditions have recognized that charity is more than simply the act of giving. It involves a deeper realization of the connections that bind us all. In giving, we receive. In loving without expectation of return, we learn what love is. 

The concept of tzedakah – the obligation to do what is just – is one of the core principles of the Jewish faith. In elevating steps, it exhorts Jews to unself themselves in giving to others. And the highest form of charity is enabling one to do without charity – to change someone’s life so completely that you flip the script of poverty and want. 

In Islam, charity is one of the five pillars of faith. No charity is too small. One saying of the prophet Muhammad is that even “removing a harmful thing from the road is a charity.” But Muslims strive for sadaqah jariyah – the charity that blesses perpetually, that outlives a mortal life. “Prayer is light; charity is a proof; patience is illumination,” according to another of Muhammad’s sayings. 

To the apostle Paul, charity was the greatest of virtues – the understanding that material giving meant little without utter immersion in love: “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”

Experience shows the practicality of these ideas. The destruction from hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico brought an outpouring of charity. But for it to be effective, it has to help Puerto Ricans help themselves, the online magazine Salon concludes. “The guiding principle of any effort to rebuild Puerto Rico must acknowledge that even in a disaster, communities know what’s best for them.”

In Kentucky, when a local man was convicted of murdering a Muslim earlier this month, the murdered man’s father embraced his son’s killer at a hearing. “Forgiveness is the greatest gift of charity in Islam,” he said.

“Out of something that is so tragic, there is really something beautiful here that is beyond really all of us,” the public defender told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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And in Tulsa is a businessman who, despite his billions, has not put his name on even one of his projects; who works 95-hour weeks, spending some of that poring over data to make sure his charity is making a difference; whose kindness brought the mother of an autistic child he helped to tears. 

Charity is of the pocketbook, yes. But even more, it is in the radical grace of humble hearts.