Posts tagged with: charity

The Acton Commentary this week from my friend John Teevan compares church budgets to government budgets, and what “government thinking” might look like if it were reflected in charitable and ecclesiastical budgeting. He writes, “If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people.”

On that point, over at Evangelical Perspective Collin Brendemuehl asks some salient questions in comparing government welfare to private charity.

Is the government 50% efficient? 75% efficient? I can’t venture a guess. But apparently neither can the bureaucrats. But even so, is it a stretch to say that the government is more than likely much less efficient than these charities? Not a tough one, really. Though government has the advantage of being in tough with society on a broader scale, it is also much less capable at targeting specific needs in a short amount of time. Anyone remember how fast Feed the Children and others got into New Orleans ahead of government? They were there faster, with just as much material, and actually met needs. (They did not randomly hand out $2,000 debit cards without accounting.)

Now that’s not to say that efficiency is the only valid factor to consider when evaluating charities or government programs. But it is an important factor and has to do with meeting one’s obligations as a steward of other people’s money or property. It’s in this sense that, as Collin writes, “Government is a servant. At least it ought to be.”

On the question of giving to charities and churches, D. G. Hart has raised this question of extra-ecclesiastical giving in a couple of posts over at Old Life. My final commentary of 2010 made the point that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.” But as I said in a follow-up post over at Mere Comments, I don’t think Christian giving ends there. I wonder why Hart has focused so much on The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and Redeemer City to City in particular. It seems his critique would apply equally as well to other organizations like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Ligonier Ministries.

Merry Christmas. And God bless us, everyone. Here’s hoping that all readers have enough to keep them warm and safe this holiday season and throughout the coming year. By all means, if you have more than enough, it might warm your soul to share with those less fortunate. My new Acton commentary:

Scrooge and the Ghosts of Charity

By Bruce Edward Walker

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. O God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Thus spoke the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, coincidentally the genesis of the greeting: “Merry Christmas.”

The novella has been in print since its publication nearly 170 years ago, and has inspired countless stage, television and cinematic adaptations. Its cultural significance often is cast reductively as “those who have should share with those who don’t.” While nearly all holiday broadcasts seem to support this assessment, a closer reading of Dickens’ actual text reveals something a bit more complex, including the negative impact government-allocated charity has on personal giving.

That Ebenezer Scrooge was a successful businessman in the story is indisputable. He and his partner, Jacob Marley, filled the respective voids in their lives with the pursuit of profits. The reader can’t be certain as to the reasons why Marley myopically dedicated his life to earning money, but we know he died a wealthy man who may or may not have been forced to pay for his skin-flinted, uncharitable ways by wandering the Earth after death bound in chains festooned with account books and money boxes. (Scrooge has a head cold and, perhaps, indigestion, and may or may not be dreaming/hallucinating the apparitions of Marley and the three subsequent phantoms.)

What the reader is told, however, are details of Scrooge’s – in modern parlance – dysfunctional past, and how it formed him into a lonely, cantankerous near-recluse who employs his wealth as a shield against the human interaction which has injured him in the past. For it isn’t the possession of money that makes Scrooge a miserable man, it is his lack of human connection. His disconnection from his family leads to his single-minded pursuit of income, which, in turn, leads to the breakup with his fiancée, further perpetuating his loneliness.

But money isn’t the means to the happiness that Scrooge witnesses fleetingly in his own past or in the present circumstances of his nephew, Fred, and his employee, Bob Cratchit. As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past survey events at Fezziwig’s Christmas party, the phantom observes that Fezziwig “has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” Scrooge responds that it wasn’t the spending of money that made his employer’s party so successful but that “his power lies in words and looks.”

And, from his fiancée: “You fear the world too much…. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”

When Scrooge visits the present, he observes the cruel circumstances of an indifferent Earth, but also the power of humankind to transform it with optimism: “There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or town, and yet there was an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavored to diffuse in vain.”

And Scrooge witnesses Fred defend his uncle from the uncharitable assessments of his wife and guests:

I am sorry for him: I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? He doesn’t lose much of a dinner…. [T]he consequence of his taking a dislike to us and making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old office or his dusty chambers.

As the Spirit of Christmas Present prepares to leave, the ghost introduces Scrooge to the two waifs, Ignorance and Want, hiding in his coats. “Have they no refuge or resource?” asks Scrooge, to which the Spirit echoes Scrooge’s earlier interrogative to the men seeking a charitable donation from the businessman: “Are there no prisons? … Are there no workhouses?”

Readers for decades have interpreted this line as another indication of Scrooge’s selfishness and miserly ways. This interpretation isn’t helped by the numerous visual adaptations of Scrooge as willingly hoarding his money out of spite for the poor, disadvantaged and under-industrious. But what if Scrooge actually has a point – if one relies on government programs to help the poor, how can one be blamed for asserting “I gave at the office” rather than ponying up at the Salvation Army drum or the church collection basket, or buying a Christmas goose for the laid-off father of the family at the end of the block?

It’s easy to turn one’s attention from a community’s immediate needs if there is an assumption that one’s taxes are doing the job that might better be done through charitable contributions. Dickens acknowledges during Marley’s visitation:

“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

Eventually Ebenezer Scrooge awakens and reenters the world of humankind, a kinder, gentler individual who willingly gives of himself – and portions of his earnings – to benefit the families of his nephew and employee, and further donates to the charity whose solicitors he had chased from his office the day before.

Scrooge’s transformation is a personal epiphany—perhaps brought about by the supernatural, but personal nonetheless. His observations of the deprivation of his fellow man lead him to realize government’s limitations as a protector of the poor and needy. Government doesn’t lead Scrooge to adopt Christian principles of charitable giving, but it is government that absolves him of guilt for not initially meeting the responsibility of caring for his fellow man.

Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.

In a follow up to Jordan Ballor’s commentary last week, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” here is a related excerpt from Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism. I will review the new book published by Norton in the next issue of Religion & Liberty and for the PowerBlog. The excerpt from Dochuk’s book is an excellent reflection of not just how the local church can fulfill their Gospel mandate to help the poor, but also empower and build the community:

The sense of community the Allens found in this congregation was deeper than anything found in Dodson. Theirs was not an uncommon experience. During the last stages of the Depression, southern evangelicals relied heavily on their churches for support of all kind. After moving from Oklahoma to Compton in the 1930s, Melvin Shahan, for instance, saw his parents falling into debt, even with his own weekly ten-dollar paycheck from Goodyear helping out. In response, the Shahans’ church organized a “pounding,” a ritual that saw congregants stock the pantry of a needy and unsuspecting friend with canned goods, preserves, and smoked meat. Melvin would later recall that such acts of kindness were facilitated in part because his neighbors lived so nearby, something he did not experience in Oklahama:

‘So many people there are at Guymon [Oklahoma] came from neighboring farmhouses out around town. When they came into town for the services, it was farther for them to drive than it was here [Compton] where people lived right in the immediate area of their church.’

For the Shahan family, the intimacy of the country church often idealized by those from the South was a reality not enjoyed until after arriving in Southern California. The same applied for the Allens. When wartime conditions sent fathers to the front and mothers to work, the congregants of Southern Missionary leaned especially hard on each other. Since women constituted a majority of church membership during these years, the onus for community fell on them. Churchwomen not only organized drives to increase Sunday attendance but also made sure that neighborhood families were provide with child care, transportation, and, when needed, financial support. For Marie Allen, whose family livelihood depended on her full-time work at a local defense plant, such neighborly assistance proved financially critical. More importantly, it strengthened the bonds of Christian sisterhood and her ties to the church family. (p.21)

Over at Mere Comments, and following up on this week’s Acton Commentary, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” I discuss some reasons why Christian giving doesn’t end there.

It’s vitally important, I think, to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism.

Here’s a final and brief follow-up to the discussion about the loss of faith in institutions over recent decades. We might observe that the increase in charitable giving to religious organizations amidst declines in charitable giving overall might show that at least there is not a corresponding loss of faith by religious people in charitable institutions. This is the implication, in fact, at least for institutions other than local churches.

Overall, though, it does seem clear that “big charity” is suffering from loss of faith as much as big government, big business, and big religion (here’s some 2008 data from Brookings).

So during the recession both overall faith in and giving to charitable institutions has declined. But this isn’t the case either for religious charities or for religious givers.

People of faith continue to be faithful in giving to those institutions that they judge to be faithful in their own callings. And within that context, if you have found the Acton Institute to have been a good steward of its mandate over the last year (and the last 20 years as come to the conclusion of our anniversary year), please consider making a contribution in support of the mission of the Acton Institute to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue.

In today’s Acton Commentary I argue that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.”

I note some statistics that show that American Christians are increasingly looking beyond their local congregations and churches as outlets for their charitable giving, in spite of the fact that giving to religiously affiliated and religiously focused charities is increasing.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in large part Christians don’t trust their local congregations to spend the money in a way that is responsible and in accord with the Gospel mandate. They see other nonprofits and para-church organizations as doing the real work of Christian charity. I believe the key to reversing this perception is to revitalize and reform the office of deacon in the Christian church. This will help us in myriad ways, not least of which is properly dividing the labor, so to speak, between the responsibilities to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline, as well as to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).

Consider the words of the Twelve at the original institution of the diaconate:

It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.

I cite The Deacons Handbook: A Manual for Stewardship in the piece, and the insights from this book by Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef are worth examining in more detail. While the book is currently out of print, Christian’s Library Press is planning to release an updated second edition of The Deacons Handbook in 2011.

In the meantime, first editions of the The Elders Handbook and The Believers Handbook are available for purchase, and you can also check out a sample of The Deacons Handbook at Scribd.

With Berghoef and DeKoster I say, “Dream, deacon!”

And once you’ve given as you feel you should to your local congregation, please consider supporting the Acton Institute with your year-end gift.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 13, 2010
By

In an otherwise fine piece focusing on innovative techniques used by food banks to increase efficiency, while at the same time improving service and the recognition of the dignity of those they serve, Bread for the World president David Beckmann uses the opportunity to throw a dose of pessimism into the mix.

“We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger,” said Beckmann, co-recipient of the 2010 World Food Prize. “Christian people need to change the politics of hunger as well.”

Well. So what if “we can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger”? Does that mean that we have to make governmental lobbying our primary focus? How about using the opportunity to praise best practices and improvements in the way food banks are run? How about talking about the important and indispensable role that food banks play?

It might just be that framing the problem as political by definition minimizes the role that private charity and local giving play. The emphasis all too easily becomes one of lobbying and advocacy rather than taking practical steps to address hunger in local contexts.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this. But I think we can see right where the “politics of hunger” mindset leads. Here’s an example from my local area: “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason.”

Here in West Michigan local food bank officials point not to decrease in demand or need, but instead toward “increased state food assistance and accessibility.”

While local food banks are seeing their usage numbers decline, “We have continued to set records every month (for the food assistance program) for the past 18 months, said Edward Woods, communications director for the state Department of Human Services (DHS). “Recovery funds (federal stimulus) did increase the amount of food assistance by nearly 14 percent.”

If changing the politics of hunger means that fewer people use food banks and food pantries in favor of government welfare then I have no interest in changing the politics of hunger. Instead I want to see hunger de-politicized.

All too often discussion about charitable causes end up downplaying direct charitable giving and activity with calls for political activism and advocacy. Jim Wallis, for instance, has said “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

Instead of talking about what food banks can’t do and what Christians can’t do, I like the observation from Ron Sider about the untapped potential of Christians to act on their own through their own institutions without resorting to government advocacy.

Sider says, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Obviously evangelism shouldn’t be a “leftover” priority, but you get the point. Christians and churches can and should do more, and calls to change the “politics” of hunger, poverty, and a host of other issues let us off the hook too easily.

There’s a story that I heard, of a miner, a family down in– it was in the Appalachia area and the church there really thought that they were doing a great deal because they would go in, they said they would pick the poorest families and they would take them Christmas gifts and turkeys and that sort of thing. So they did. They went to this family and they presented them with all the gifts and gave them to them and all the children had gifts; they had a hot meal on the table. The church was so pleased with what they had done, and then they left. And the husband just broke down and cried because he said, “You mean in this community, we are thought of as the poorest family in the community?” The shame that came with that, with the charity that had been given so lovingly out of the best of intentions, but it absolutely shamed him and it destroyed his life. I heard it from his son. He said, “It destroyed my father because he said he was so shamed in front of the rest of the community because they didn’t think that he was a person of worth that they had to take care of his family for him.”

C. Neal Johnson, from an Interview Oct. 8 at a Partners Worldwide Conference in Grand Rapids.

There were a few stories from the Grand Rapids Press over the weekend that form data points pointing toward some depressing trends: a decline in charitable giving (especially to churches), supplanting of private charity by government welfare, and the attempt to suppress explicit Christian identity.

Here’s a list with some brief annotations:

  • “Study reveals church giving at lowest point since Great Depression” (10/23/10): This is really a damning first sentence: “…congregations have waning influence among charitable causes because their focus now seems to be on institutional maintenance rather than spreading the gospel and healing the world.” For various reasons, people seem to increasingly see places other than their local congregations as the place where their charitable dollars ought to go. Overall, I think this is probably a bad thing, but it does show that there is some basic accountability inherent in the donor/charity relationship. That may not be the best way of characterizing the relationship between the individual member and the local congregation, but it at least has to be seen as an element of it.

  • “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason” (10/23/10): As the headline states, there’s no good reason that state aid by government should be supplanting the help given by private local and regional organizations.
  • “Should it be illegal to post ad seeking Christian roommate?” (10/22/10): What business does the government have regulating postings on a church bulletin board? The Alliance Defense Fund is helping out with the woman’s defense, and the words used by their counsel represents the case pretty well: “absurd” and “insane.”

In a recent article in World magazine, Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky urged evangelical minister Jim Wallis to drop the pretense of being post-partisan. Olasky, World magazine’s editor-in-chief, went on to assert that (1) Wallis’s organization, Sojourners, received money from the foundation of secular-leftist George Soros, and that (2) Wallis had lent the Sojourners mailing list to the Obama campaign.

In an interview here, Wallis appears to deny these charges. But now former Acton research fellow Jay Richards has followed up with some additional findings in a new piece at NRO. The findings strongly support Olasky’s claims, and make it all the more unclear why Wallis would respond to them by denying them and calling Olasky a professional liar.

Richards has been keeping tabs on Wallis for a while now. In an October 2005 review of God’s Politics, Richards shows how Wallis sits squarely on the left and has even capitulated to the secular left on key social issues. The book review also examines Wallis’s questionable biblical exegesis as well as some of the economic fallacies that drive much of Wallis’s political thinking.

Wallis may mean well, but the big-government policies he advocates have been a wrecking ball to the very communities he seeks to help. An Acton/Coldwater video short examines why the left’s approach to poverty alleviation has done so much harm. It’s called How not to Help the Poor.