charity + me + richard armitage

I. charity

Richard Armitage at Captain America preview, New York City, July 20, 2011. My favorite recent picture. Source:

There’s still time to leave a birthday message for Mr. Armitage at and I keep — out of sheer forgetfulness, not malice — forgetting to mention that most of the forums and sites also have their own initiatives: for instance, here is the one at C19. Just a reminder to you to leave a message if you wanted to but haven’t had time yet. Here’s the link to the facebook event, which Noelle has informed me is public.

Plans for the Armitage birthday at “me + richard armitage” have changed slightly, due to oddness here on Friday. So many people who come here never comment and I wanted to give them an opportunity to participate anonymously. I had planned to offer a poll with a charitable donation per click, so as to lower the bar for participation, but recent events make that seem foolhardy. I’ll still host a fun poll on the site that can be clicked on anonymously, but donations will be generated by comment, as in the past. The event will open at 0:00 GMT on the 22nd and run until I get to work on Tuesday, towards 15:00 GMT, so for something over 36 hours, so as to allow most readers the whole of their own August 22nd to comment and simultaneously protect my sleep schedule. (If you want to be extra safe, don’t wait until Tuesday to comment!) Donation will be made at a specified rate per unique comment with a unique email address and IP address; as always, commenting here requires the submission of an email address, and first-time commenters are welcome but will have their comments moderated. All comments submitted by 0:00 on the 23rd will be counted, even if they get caught in moderation temporarily. In determining the final tally, I reserve the right to discard comments from email addresses that I cannot verify as genuine and unique. I will display an anonymized receipt to verify the donation once it’s made. Sorry to have to sound so rule-bound, but I was sobered by what happened yesterday. I still hope this will be fun for everyone. I think you’ll like the poll I have in mind. Tell all your friends!

I’ll be donating the money from the event in the name of “a group of Armitage fans” to NSPCC / Childline as it’s my personal favorite of Mr. Armitage’s charities, probably because my own teen years were made bearable by adults who were willing to listen without judging, and because I’ve talked to my share of troubled or struggling late / post-adolescents, but also because it’s the option with the fewest contributions. (Servetus cheers for the underdog.) If you disagree with my priorities, let me encourage you again to donate to any of his approved charities at JustGiving, or to make a charitable contribution in his honor to your favorite recipient. The amount or the recipient is nowhere near as important as the thought and the effect that giving has on you.

II. me

I haven’t always thought the same things about charity that I do now, and I expect that my views will continue to change as I keep thinking over the problems involved. I think too much, but it’s not like I have any more access to ultimate truths or capacity for moral improvement than the next average human. I may be more tortured than the next woman, but I’m certainly not any more virtuous. So what I’m saying here is not intended as a prescription bur rather as describing a transformation that happened to me.

I was always ready to give within my means to “worthy” charities, especially educational and religious ones, something my conservative parents had instilled in me, but I also followed another guideline they had passed on: don’t give to beggars — for all the reasons that you have probably heard and can cite yourself. Doing so encourages begging; they’ll use the money for alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs; charities that help the deserving poor need your support more. “Crunchier” justifications for not giving to beggars are also available: it palliates a social problem that cities and states need to stop ignoring; offer to buy beggars a sandwich — if they don’t want food, they’re not truly in need of money; more than money, beggars need you to acknowledge their presence, so sit down and talk to them but don’t give them cash; giving to beggars attracts people to dangerous locations where they might be injured while soliciting (particularly true in the southern U.S., where panhandling occurs on highway underpasses or the medians of large multilane intersections — and so we see beggars wearing neon protective gear these days); begging in many places is a form of racketeering run by organized bosses (particularly true in Europe), practically a form of human trafficking. Those cute little kids with the sad faces? Probably herded by an evil “gypsy” who takes their earnings, starves them, and beats them all soundly before sending them to bed into the bargain — historic discrimination against Roma means that many see begging as a profession — not a pattern one really wants to support. That mournful, frighteningly maimed man on the rickety skateboard? Potentially harmed on purpose in order to increase his appeal to naive tourists and thus his “income.”

The twelfth-century “Triumph of the Cross” mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome. Source.

No doubt these things are true. There’s plenty of evidence. Plenty of reasons never to give naively. And yet.

The only time I was ever in Rome, I had the fortune to share one day with a colleague of mine who is a historian of early Christian and Byzantine art, specialized in mosaics. He spent a day showing me all the early art treasures we could pack in, not all of which are in the most heavily visited locations. I particularly remember the mosaics and frescoes in San Clemente, which was a temple to the deity Mithras before the Christians eventually took it over.

My favorite detail in the mosaic: the sheep (a symbol of Christ, the Lamb of G-d). Source. The sheep in this mosaic look so darn thoughtful, they’re sort of more interesting than the figure of Jesus at the center of it.

In case you didn’t know, the begging problem in Rome is severe, and all of the problems with giving to beggars noted above apply in that context. The onslaught of requests (and thievery associated with them) comprise the biggest warning tourists get before going to the city, and someone’s written an entire website about it that discusses the problems in incredible detail. We were approached at least three times an hour while we were out walking around the city. I’d learned to put on what my mom calls a “city face” for these encounters. Close your face, deaden your glance, look away. But not Colleague, who, at the first request reached into his trousers and gave the beggar a handful of coins. This pattern didn’t last long; quickly he was out of cash and simply said that.

At lunch, I asked him why he gave to the Roman beggars when practically everyone says you shouldn’t. He told me that angels disguised as beggars are a frequent theme of Byzantine art, and that at some point he’d begun to suspect that maybe some of the people who approached him were angels. (Yes, I know that answer probably seems silly to you, as it did to me, and I pointed out to him that though it has a rough Biblical justification, it’s the kind of story a fanciful medievalist tells in order to cover something deeper that’s inappropriate for casual conversation.) His response then was simple and to the point: Let G-d decide who’s worthy.

We were silent awhile.

And I thought: In a story like that — when a beggar approaches the saint and turns out to be Jesus or an angel, the issue is hardly that the supernatural figure needs human charity. What’s at stake is the extent of the charity of the potential giver. So what is the point of giving when G-d or his representative makes the request? Yes, rationally, I don’t want to throw away money, and I want my giving to help others, but are those things really the only or even the primary goals? Do I really know so much about that beggar on the street based on a brief encounter that I’m willing to judge automatically that he’s not worthy? Isn’t the point of giving in a situation like that the way that it connects me in sympathy to the recipient? And isn’t that goal — the recognition of the love that binds us together as humans on this often wretched planet — achieved no matter the virtue of the recipient or the use of the gift? Isn’t the point the attempt to learn and practice a compassion that’s not bound up in human conditions or criteria? And don’t I want to strive for that?

I had nothing to say to Colleague. And I realized: How many gifts have I gotten that I never deserved, or not any more than other people who didn’t get them? And which is the gift more full of grace? The one made to the person who deserves it? Or the gift to the person who doesn’t?

iii. richard armitage

Richard Armitage (apparently cheerfully, and if not, well hidden) giving something that costs little but means a lot: autographs to fans at the TV BAFTA awards red carpet, June 6, 2010, London, England. Picture by SiouxieSioux; source:

I’ve emphasized before that our essential knowledge of Richard Armitage based on things he says or is reported to say is hermeneutically limited. This is the B or C reading. There’s a very obvious D reading available here that I’m saving for another post during Hanukkah when I’ll go back to talking about charity again. Not enough room here, and I don’t think it really affects the legitimacy of this interpretation.

There’s plenty we don’t know about Richard Armitage and I think both he and we have an essential interest in keeping it that way. No one wants her beautiful image shattered, the man needs some privacy, and the greater the level of mystery, the greater the appeal, one must acknowledge. But it’s fun to think about these things, and one of the intriguing aspects of his image to me is the particular combination of youthfulness and maturity that it offers, an odd mix of vulnerability and experience. On the one hand, he describes himself as a late developer, on the other, he says mature things about the human condition that don’t seem like they came from a frivolous man (one thinks of his quotation of Mary Baker Eddy). Anyone can fish quotes out of the Internet to demonstrate one’s points — so we don’t really know that these statements actually represent spiritual views — but at the same time knowing how to use a quotation to say or illustrate something is also an art that most people never master.

Reading what he says, Mr. Armitage seems to know some things that I realized only at a much later age than he seems to have done, and it’s not just awareness of the poor — probably increased by many years of living in an urban area where the homeless are ubiquitous — it’s an attitude toward the problems that inevitably cloud life. If I had to make a snap guess, I’d conclude that it has something to do with the theme of struggle in his career — that his compassion for the weaknesses of others may have developed early on in the context of having to develop compassion for his own weaknesses so that he could continue improving his work despite an initial lack of success. Reading over the messages he has sent to fans over the course of his career, from the first Christmas he had anything to say, he’s suggesting charities that would be happy to receive gifts, and pointing out that the relative comfort of his own life makes him feel that he needs to give stuff to people who need it more than he does. He seems from the beginning to have been aware of the connections of his own relative prosperity to the lives of people who have little. And yet he knows that charity is not always about money: “I am sure many of you always give help and its not necessarily the financial donations that are best. Time and personal care is often priceless,” he writes. His requests to fans to be charitable to each other have been expressed in similar terms: “I just ask you to look after each other, thats all.”

I think one reason I identify with Mr. Armitage so easily is that he’s always learning. It’s been on display not just on screen, but also in both the development and tone of these messages. His celebrity didn’t emerge fully formed; as of yet he hasn’t been asked to take on spokesman status for a prominent international charity; and so the quality of his appeals to charity are personal as opposed to publicity-related and seem to reflect some deep ethical conviction within him. He doesn’t have to ask us to think about giving; he could simply remain silent and I don’t know that it would ever have made us think badly of him. It’s not that he eschews awareness of social problems — it’s obvious from these messages that he wants, and wants fans to consider, addressing the actual needs of children and the homeless. He cares about the problem, as do many more well-known celebrities who profile charities in order to use their fame on behalf of worthy causes. But, and more significantly to me, he seems to see himself in ethical relationship to the beneficiaries of charity; he sees his comfort intuitively as occurring in relationship to the poverty of others: “when we are tucked up in bed on Christmas Eve with the central heating ready to kick in, we can dream that we might have helped someone find a bed for the night, so they can wake up and feel safe and secure for at least one morning of the year.” There’s a striking amount of empathy there that’s of a slightly different shading from the argument that people should be helped because they’re starving.

All of this makes me tend to extrapolate that Richard Armitage seems to realize that his capacity to give is part of what he has to develop as a human. And he seems to know that in order to do so, even if he’s not employed solving the ills of the world on a day to day basis, he can still do something. And that the first steps might be not to assume that we already know everything when we’re challenged to give, that we should be humble in the face of the problems of other humans with which we’re confronted. He seems to realize that an important first step is not to look away — and he seems to want to remind us not to do so either. Almost as if the decision to embrace maturity involves an intentional espousal of more — rather than less — innocence, in the atmosphere of a world that is always cynically trying to kill it. If we are to experience redemption, we first have to believe that it is possible, and lies within our power. I’m just starting to grasp the ways in which that might be true, and mourning the fact that I didn’t do so a lot earlier.

This reading of Armitage involves heavy idealization. Don’t worry that my bubble needs bursting. I realize that just like me, Richard Armitage is filled with contradictory impulses, and he probably fails to live up to his ideals just as regularly as I do. But given everything we read about celebrities on a daily basis, and all the possible ways in which to admire him, this is a nice basis upon which to be able to idealize him.


Happy Birthday month Richard Armitage! In honor of this event, consider donating your time, energy, and thoughts / prayers to an effort that’s meaningful to you. If you need a suggestion, here’s a link to Mr. Armitage’s recommended charities at JustGiving, as well as a link to means of generating a charity contribution on his behalf at, and a link to Act!onAid, a child sponsorship organization for which he recorded a voiceover in December 2010. Donate to Christchurch Earthquake Appeal here.

~ by Servetus on August 21, 2011.

10 Responses to “charity + me + richard armitage”

  1. I’m a bit embarrassed at being one of the first to comment, but I spotted your tweet and here I am.

    I can’t speak for countries overseas, but I often feel helpless when I see people asking for money in the streets here and particularly in Sydney. Most heartbreaking for me is the realisation that many on the streets have mental health problems and have become outcasts in our society because the care is not there. I have helped out at a lunch for people in our community who are disadvantaged for a number of years. I have heard the same arguments used that the food we give will just enable them to spend more on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. I can’t accept that. So many are lonely, disenfranchised, and incredibly grateful for what we can give .. only a minority are out to get a “free” lunch. As you may be aware I have a daughter who has a severe mental illness – she has moved to another city, is currently unemployed and I live in dread of receiving a phone call to say that she is back in hospital or in trouble. Years ago, before she became so ill, she used to help me at the community lunches and I remember telling her that I would be devastated if she was ever placed in the position where she might need that kind of assistance. Now, I am grateful to those wonderful, kind and understanding people in the community that will make the extra effort to ensure that those in our community, who are mostly, through no fault of their own, living in disadvantage, are cared for. Many do not have loving families to help them when times are hard – to be out on the streets alone and misunderstood in a country like mine where a roof over our heads and material posessions are often taken for granted, is indeed a travesty.

    One of the things that attracted me to RA after first seeing him on TV a number of years ago, was the message he conveyed to fans to donate to charity on his behalf. In the past I sent an Oxfam Unwrapped gift, but I’m now grateful that he has set up his Just Giving pages and nominated the charities he has a particular interest in. I feel that all four of them have a relevance to the particular community he lives in – especially given the recent unrest. Childline is similar to our Helpline I think. My daughter has attempted to take her life twice, and I can’t begin to tell you how important it is to have someone who cares there at the end of a phone line should a person need to ring in a crisis. I’m convinced that your and every other donors’ “hard earned pennies” (to quote RA) will be immensely appreciated by someone in need.


    • You’re the only commentator so far, which is fine. This was kind of a moralizing statement.

      I’ve appreciated his charitable impulses, not only for themselves, because they express a sort of simultaneous realization that we can’t fix everything but that we should try to do what we can.


      • Oh dear, hope my comment didn’t put people off 😦
        A lot of careful thought has gone into this post.


        • No, I meant *mine* was a kind of moralizing statement.

          It’s hard for people to know what to say about a post like this one — are they going to disagree? Will they hurt my feelings if they do? etc., etc.

          Also, with a post that got as much time as this one did (it took me about six hours to write and edit), it’s harder to come up with a quick response.

          No worries, in other words.


  2. @J, courage and strength resonate from you, in facing this long ordeal. And for describing the ordeal of your daughter. Is there a family who has not had a relative, close or not, who has faced mental/emotional illness? All the very best to you, your daughter, and all the family.


  3. You gave me much stuff to think – and your colleague’s words about angels reminded me of something. I grew up in a rigid catholic family and my parents took charity very seriously. For example, I often saw my mother bringing beggars into the house to have lunch with us, what I as a child I thought kind of strange, until she told me: “I look at them and see Jesus.” (I think this is a very radical way of doing good! You can bring a thief or worse inside your home.)
    Well, my education by such family made me I believe that one day we will be judged by what we did or failed to do. I agree with you: we should try to do what we can.
    And RA’s compassive and generous nature is for me an important part of his appeal, too.


  4. […] I’m preaching to the choir here, no doubt, but as I’ve said many times, the first step in trying to bandage the world’s wounds is to act in love toward each other. To love as openly as we can, to love, and give, without conditions. […]


  5. […] listed charities, I don’t want them to neglect the charities they already support. Still, it’s fairly personal for me. In fact, I’ve been a huge beneficiary of charity myself, so I spent all of last August […]


  6. […] Consider, before you do anything else, a small donation left in honor of Richard Armitage’s birthday at his JustGiving pages! Need some encouragement from me? Well, I’ve been the beneficiary of charity. And here’s my opinion about this sort of donation. […]


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