Saturday, March 10, 2012

Is there such a thing as "Christian" philanthropy?

This week I read an article in The Guardian newspaper. It was about the "new breed" of philanthropists, very wealthy people who are looking for ways to give away more of their money to those in need. I suppose that people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are largely responsible for this trend, and I certainly won't complain about that. I'm very thankful that there appear to be more rich people currently willing to give away their money to help the impoverished and oppressed peoples of the world.

But what struck me was a comment by one of these philanthropists, who said: "Tax... is compulsory. There's no joy in paying it. Philanthropy is about: This is my money, I can do what I like with it. It's people with surplus money wanting dreams, visions, opportunities. It's an identity question, what you feel your purpose in life is."

Now, of course, I agree that the joy that comes from helping others can be a powerful motivator, and that's fine, as far as it goes. But it occurred to me that this motivation stems from a basic assumption that is, at its core, in direct opposition to what Christianity seems to tell us. It is seen in the statement, "This is my money." Here we find an assumption that is at the core of most western worldviews today: that when I work for something, and achieve something, whatever I get is "mine."

But doesn't the Bible tell us otherwise? Doesn't Christ, especially, remind his followers again and again that all things belong to God, and that we own nothing? Doesn't he say that we shouldn't worry, because God will provide all of our needs? Doesn't he tell us that even our lives don't belong to us? Paul tells us that we ourselves have been "bought" at the price of Christ's death, so we belong to God. That would, implicitly, make everything that is "ours" actually God's.

But if this is the case, then how should Christians view something like philanthropy? How should we view our lives in general? Shouldn't we be giving away as much as possible, even if we aren't Warren Buffett? It seems that we run into a kind of cognitive dissonance here: surely, God doesn't expect us to give everything away. Yes, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had, but that was just rhetorical, right? Obviously, we can't live and feed ourselves if we have nothing at all. And what about our responsibility to our families?

I'm not trying to suggest that there's anything wrong with having things, or with caring for one's family; not at all. But I do think that we begin to get to the core of what Christianity is all about when we start thinking about the fact that, if I am a follower of Christ, what I have is, at the most basic level, NOT mine.

Which means that it is not up to me to do whatever I want with it. We hear this often in Christian circles--"the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it"--but I wonder what would happen if we actually lived as though this were true. What would it mean for philanthropy to be genuinely "Christian" in this sense? What would it be like if wealthy Christians gave away their money, or even their belongings, with the recognition that "this isn't mine, it's God's, so I would like to share it with you, since you need it."

What would it mean if I, as an Oxford doctoral student who has educational debt and a dissertation to write, were to think about everything I have, including my academic pursuits, as belonging to God, not to me? What would it be like if you, with your mortgage, and two cars, and wife, and two kids, and yearly vacation to wherever, were to live in the truth that none of that--house, wife, kids, even your own life--actually belonged to you?

Quite honestly, it scares me. I'm not sure I want to live that way. It means giving up too much control. It means a lack of security. And yet, apparently, that's what I'm called to do as a Christian. What do you think? Is this too much? Is it simply impossible? Are those good enough reasons for me to stop going on about it? Or does our unwillingness to really live that way reveal a deep rift in our Christian faith?

1 comment:

Geoff said...

I don't know what it means exactly, but I don't think it's a coincidence that right after I wrote this blog entry, I read the following post on the blog of my former pastor from Seattle: