In this paper, I am proposing the “Hesuminchu” concept as a hermeneutical tool for rethinking Christian charity in a world in desperate need of it. This concept is born out of the daily experience of overwhelming poverty, misery, and desperation compared to a quantitively insignificant response of charity. Its starting point is the real world of experience along the streets. It is a concept which gets defined and articulate as it forges itself out of numerous such experiences. It owes its roots to the “typical” African socio-cultural worldview of communion and “corporate-mindedness” whereby each and every member of the society shares a sense of responsibility towards one and all; such that each and every member matters, regardless of socio-economic or political status.
Operating within this worldview, I had a defining experience that would result both in the term “Hesuminchu” and its theological content. It was a scourging hot summer afternoon as I walked along the very dry and dusty streets of my home city when a six-year-old boy approached me with a look of desperation.
His eyes were sunken with pain, hunger, and misery; he looked pale and dull, with a body roughed with unattended wounds. Barely able to speak due to hunger coupled with the uneasiness as his sore and cracked bare feet pressed against scourged earth, he mustered the last energy he had left in him to pronounce those words which have remained ever engraved in my heart: “Uncle! Please! Please! Help me with food. My name is Hesuminchu; I have a younger brother’s home, and we haven’t eaten for three days.
Our grandfather left for hunting three days ago and he hasn’t returned since then.
There is no one else we know.” All I had was the equivalent of one dollar. With eyes streaming with tears, I offered that to him. What became of that young boy thereafter is a question I cannot answer. But he had given me a concrete an invaluable gift which was to help me re-think the Christian virtue of charity. That experience brought me to terms with the existential reality of poverty, suffering, loneliness, pain, misery, and sometimes real agony, suffered sometimes even by the persons closest to us, or rather near us but from whom we are separated by a psychological distance of “facelessness”. It is easy to be indifferent to the horrific data of human misery and desperation so long as these humans do not have a “face” present to our consciousness. For instance… (stats). These can remain mere figures, even though some of these may actually be the beggars along our streets; the homeless at our market squares or bus stop, or they could even be right inside our family circles. Another difficulty here is that in the face of such disturbing human conditions – some humanly inflicted – even the most generous and most extensive humanitarian outreach and charitable endeavors fade in comparison, as they are quantitatively always limited in space and time to this particular individual or at the best group of individuals. It could be such a frustrating feeling which makes one feel like giving-up the entire process altogether. The questions become inevitable: What really is Charity? Is there any point to Charity at all, if an overwhelming majority of those in dire need all around us and the world at large still go unreached? What difference does this one dollar make?
Evidently, the emphasis here is not on the metaphysical and speculative description of the virtue of Charity, though not undermining this, but “Charity” as understood more specifically under cognates like love, compassion, generosity, magnanimity, and most practically, kindness; that is, “giving to the needy,” whatever form this “giving” takes. Far from being reductionist, “Kindness” takes on a functional role as the practical reflection of charity. This approach at the same time presupposes the metaphysical foundations of “charity” and its rootedness in God, and at the same realizes that urgency with which these metaphysical ideal needs to be translated to the concrete existential reality of daily life in a way that radically engages all to action. The Hesuminchu concept provides a credible paradigm for “enfleshing” this metaphysical concept of charity. Hesuminchu is a dynamic concept which, in praxis, re-interprets the notion of Charity in a fourfold manner:
1. The needy or beneficiary of charity is always a “significant other”. They have a “face”. And when the needy is to us only a distant, unknown, unnamed other, hesuminchu prescribes that we “give them a face,” in a way that creates a psychological bond with them. It regards them as persons with rights, dignity, and worthy of respect. They are not mere figures that can be ignored and forgotten. In fact, the concept does not lack a referent in the Christian tradition within which the poor are accorded pride of place as God’s favorites. This Christian belief is likewise found in the African culture, wherein the poor and needy take on a particularly significant role as channels of divine blessing upon those who help them.
2. Charity is determined by whatever is beneficial for the “significant other” and not by the feeling/wish/desire or convenience of the benefactor. The element of sacrifice is central here. As such, the “significant other” – the needy – exercises some degree of right over the benefactor, thereby imposing on him an abiding responsibility which is not dependent of mere “fellow-feeling” or “my good graces” as is the case in otherwise “social works”. Thus understood, charity likewise incorporates the idea of justice, which is at times the greatest form of charity needed. Justice that directly addresses the reason and causes which affect the condition of the poor and needy is a profound example of charity according to the hesuminchu concept since charity is first and foremost about what the “significant other” needs most and not primarily about what the benefactor wants.
3. The worldview of the concept of hesuminchu is that humanity forms a “corporate personality”. An affective and empathetic involvement in the world of the other is a necessary condition for hesuminchu as a way of doing charity. The key factor here is inter-dependence. Factually, without such a mindset, it is easy to watch others suffer and die in their needs and desperation from an unconcerned pedestal. But at the level of affectivity (and not simply logicality) charity is becomes most practicable. The ability to “wear the shoes of the other” lights up the route to authentic charity towards the other, then a logical metaphysical discourse on the virtue of charity.
4. Hesuminchu emphasizes the qualitative transcendental dimension of Charity over the quantitative. It operates within the framework that: “Our act of kindness that comforts one person, far from being insignificant as we may sometimes imagine or fell, in a mysterious way, brings comfort to many whom we do not even know.” This seeks to answer the question of the limited and quantitatively insignificant nature of isolated acts of charity compared against the overwhelming reality of poverty and misery in the world.
This paper unfolds as a theological “re-thinking” of Charity as proposed by these fourfold interpretative keys/principles. We shall examine how Christ, and most specifically, the Cross becomes the theological locus par excellence, for this existential hesuminchu reality. In the cross we see the greatest example of valuing of the “needy” as a “significant other”, and the cross actually is the greatest act in human history which not only recognizes the dignity inherent in “the other”, but radically restores to fallen humanity the dignity of integrity they had lost due to sin. In the cross is found the greatest exemplar of sacrificial love that doesn’t count the cost, on the part of Christ (the benefactor) but focuses on the need for the salvation of the miserable human race. It is a love that gives a face to each and every human individual and adopts it into its most empathetic and compassionate heart – so true to the words of the Scripture – “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” (Is 43:1). In his treatise on the atonement – Cur Deus Homo – St. Anselm describes this sort of charity in rhetorical fashion: “For what compassion can excel these words of the Father, addressed to the sinner doomed to eternal torments and having no way of escape: ‘Take my only begotten Son and make him an offering for yourself;’ or these words of the Son: ‘Take me, and ransom your souls.’” Suffered, died, buried and risen, Christ constitutes men from every tribe and tongue and nation into a “corporate personality” – the Church, his body. As members of Christ’s body, all men and women share or ought to share a sense of common responsibility towards each and all.
At last, it is in Christ’s cross that we can make sense of the overwhelming discrepancy between our quantitative achievements in the domain of Christian charity and the inexhaustible breadth of the need of charity within every community, and the world at large. In the cross is found the most radical transposition from the merely quantitative to the qualitative. The former deals with “extent” (number, that is, how many?) while the latter is of an altogether different category and does not lend itself to measurement. That which distinguishes Christian charity from every other form of giving, social work or humanitarian outreach is its qualitative dimension and its transcendental value. This qualitative dimension gives the charity a purpose beyond numbers and headcount, beyond temporality and particularity. The quality of charity derives its meaning from Christ himself, and this meaning is deeply rooted in the very mystery of Christ’s sublime act of charity, that is, “his self-offering upon the Cross,” which, though quantitatively “bankrupt” – only a single sacrifice, offered only once and for all – transcends every limitation of space and time, and is efficacious for the “help” (that is, salvation) of every human person, in every place, in every generation.
With the hesuminchu re-thinking of charity in terms of “self-sacrifice”, the point we are making is that if we are able to love so selflessly as Christ did, offering up our lives for others – in which consists genuine Christian charity, even as Christ himself taught – then, not because we are divine, but because we participate in the “divine”, since “charity – to love” is divine and man’s charity is a participation in divine charity, as Aquinas would describe it, then our acts of charity, in an analogous way, can also “transcend the bounds of space and time, and of particularity”; and be efficacious to “many” whom we do not even know. The Ratzingerian concept of pro-existence (vicarious representation) likewise serves a functional hermeneutic role here. And from an exegetical perspective – for example, Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” – there emerges a biblical confirmation of the “qualitative” dimension of charity we are pushing for, rooted in our “connectedness” in Christ, such that whatever is done to one is done to all through Christ, who, having taken on a “corporate personality”, has become the point of unity and the mysterious communication that takes place in “his body” – one to the other. This is particularly evident in the Pauline Letters as we shall see.