It’s one of the most commonly recurring biblical images—the widow in need. The Psalms promise that, “The Lord watches over the strangers; He upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked He brings to ruin” (146:9). In Deuteronomy, Moses curses “anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (27:19). The Book of James declares that the “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). And Christ raises from the dead a widow’s dead son who had just died (Lk 7:11ff).

Charity for the widow embodies a basic premise of civil society: That fate can be cruel and a community must take care to look after those of its members who have been cut off from their usual means of subsistence.

In Mediaeval times charity afforded the widow one of her few platforms of social and political participation. By endowing and establishing various institutions (especially women’s institutions and especially convents and religious houses), widows were granted a “respectable route to escape family pressure to remarry and to escape the ambiguities created by their unbound marital status.”[1]

So as civil society attended to the widow, the widow in turn helped to build up civil society. It’s a longstanding relationship, carried out today by groups like International Widows and Orphans and individual philanthropists like Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, who has already given away millions of the Apple co-founder’s fortune since his death in 2011. But these groups and those like them tend to focus (more and more) on large-scale, systemic changes.

Such ‘big picture’ thinking is needed, of course, but it fails to really provide comfort to those like Christina Carroll, the Brooklyn woman whose husband George, a playwright and actor, was stabbed to death in front of her last month as they were walking on the street. In an instant Christina’s life was turned upside down: “I can’t believe we are talking about him in the past,” Christina said. “It’s still not registering.”

Since the incident, Christina has set up a GoFundMe page asking for funds to cover a wake and burial for her husband. Friends, sympathizers, and strangers almost tripled her requested ‘goal’ in less than a week. But responding to Christina’s loss is more than a matter of measuring ‘impact’ or hitting some metrics. It’s about ‘upholding the widow’ in her hour of need. To do this requires an account of civil society in which sympathy covers for weakness—and charity responds to need.

Isaiah’s words ring true: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

[1] See Sandra Cavallo and Lyndan Warner “Defining Widowhood” in Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, idem eds. (London: Routledge, 2014): 1-54, 21