All major religious traditions emphasize the importance of addressing the needs of marginalized individuals and communities.
In Buddhism, karuna (compassion, or love for all beings) stands alongside prajna (wisdom) as a central pillar of the faith. An expression of karuna, and one of the most important works of merit (puya) is dana (charity) – acts of generosity to any living creature, most often towards the community of monks. In turn monks and nuns provide care and support to those experiencing suffering.
In Christianity, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and look to the example of Jesus to live their lives. Care of children was central to the works of Jesus (Luke 18:16) and he taught that those who perform acts of love are recognized as if they had directly served God: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35–40).
In Hinduism, all are encouraged to practice compassion (daya) and generosity (dana) as the highest expressions of dharma (virtuous or righteous duty). The Bhagavadgita (17:20) teaches that we should be generous to the needy, offering our gifts at those times and in those places where support is needed most. We should do so without expectation of receiving anything in return.
In Islam social justice is a sacred value and a central tenet of the faith. Zakat and sadaqa’h are intended to balance social inequality and hence promote a more just society. Indeed the Qur’an considers charity as one of the most virtuous deeds because it challenges social inequalities. Zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is a form of obligatory charity in which Muslims donate a specified portion of their earnings and belongings every year for the poor and needy; sadaqah is a voluntary donation of any amount at any time.
In Judaism the obligation to care for the poorest of the poor is found throughout the Torah, with special reference made to widows and orphans. Tikkun olam, meaning ‘the repair of the world’, has come to refer in modern Reform Judaism to social action work. Tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness) are related concepts in progressive Jewish approaches to social issues.