[box]RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life. [/box]
The meaning of the word charity has changed over time. It is true that this happens with most words, but it can lead to confusion when reading older uses of it or dealing with embedded religious implications. For instance, in the King James version of the Bible, the most common Greek word for love was translated to the Latin word meaning charity (carus/caritas), when the more distinct words for love in Latin are amor and diligo. (I also read about it in our Cassell’s Standard Latin Dictionary since I have it on hand from when I studied Latin with my kids for a couple of years.)
While one can understand why the more passionate amor might not be the best fit, the word diligo seems like it would be better than carus. The more litereal definitions of carus/caritas are “high-priced, dear, and scarce.” The Latin dictionary does show love as a figurative meaning of caritas, but it is not as direct as diligo, which has “prize, love, esteem highly” right up front. While translation between any two languages has it’s challenges, it is even more challenging when the translating efforts are being influenced by other tradition, deadlines, and lack of original manuscripts. It can end up being like the rumor game. Here is one more article, by the same author, that succinctly outlines 15 myths about Bible translation. There is some good discussion in the comments, as well.
The use of the English word charity in referring to a business organization that purportedly helps the poor began in the 13th century, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. This use of the word actually seems more consistent with it’s connotations of money. More recent translations of the Bible, such as the New American Standard Bible (You can see examples of that here on the blueletterbible.org search.), only use the word charity in instances dealing with helping the truly needy poor.
There still could be discussion of whether or not a lot of giving that is done through such “charities” or by individuals is truly charitable, if it perpetuates the poor condition of those given to, or inadvertently reinforces corrupt institutional powers that are oppressing those very poor people. One could even argue that purchasing items in the name of charity offers false hope to the producers by pretending there is a market for something, which there will not be in the long run. This has the effect of causing them to waste their efforts that could be otherwise employed to produce something or learn skills that might have much more long term application to a real job opportunity. All of this is expounded on in this article about so-called charity to Africa, well worth the read.
It seems that charity, in its true form is an act of love, but does not completely embody all of what the word(s) for love mean. But also, just as someone cannot convince you they love you just by saying so, one cannot engage in an “act of charity” simply by labeling it such.