This morning at Acton University I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Edd Noell, “Origins of Economics: The Scriptures and Early Church Fathers.” I have briefly examined one ancient Christian perspective on wealth in the past (here), but Dr. Noell’s survey today was far more expansive. For the benefit of PowerBlog readers, I would like to reflect on some of the major themes of his talk here as a sort of preview of what one could expect once the audio is available for sale. (more…)
Yesterday in conjunction with this week’s Acton Commentary I looked at Tim Riggins’ gift of freedom to his brother and the corresponding sense of responsibility that resulted. When Tim takes the rap for Billy, Billy has a responsibility to make something of his life. As Tim puts it, that’s the “deal.”
When Tim feels that Billy hasn’t lived up to his end, it causes conflict. Tim’s gift has created an obligation for the recipient. This reality is on clearest display in this exchange between the two brothers:
Billy: “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?”
Tim: “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”
This hints at the shadow-side of much of our gift-giving as human beings, as this good thing can be turned into a way of manipulating, controlling, or holding “it over” someone.
Consider these words about Augustine and their implications for the kinds of gift-giving that we ought to pursue:
A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!
The “spiteful benevolence” that drives much gift giving is actually intended to keep the recipient in a state of dependence, in a relationship that gives power to the giver which can be lorded over others. This, I think, is actually one of the key dynamics of much of the modern international aid movement. Aid can become a tool of a kind of neo-colonial policy.
It is this debased and corrupted form of gift-giving that has led so many to the extreme position which argues that true gifts require no response and inspire no responsibility. But as I argue this week, this abuse of the reality of gift is no argument against its proper use: “The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility.”
When discussing economics, we frequently encounter the zero-sum fallacy: the notion that the economic pie is fixed, that there is always a winner and a loser, and that, for someone to grow rich, another must become poor.
Yet in a market wherein rule of law, contracts, and property rights are properly established, the pie will surely grow. We are not static balls of flesh nestled comfortably in a static universe. We are spiritual beings made in the image of a creative God, and mutual trade and exchange help accelerate our efforts to create and collaborate alongside our neighbors. As Jay Richards notes, the uniqueness of the human person feeds into how economic value is actually determined.
But although we typically discuss the errors of such thinking in matters of basic material exchange, we should note that such a fallacy can just as easily filter into our broader social and spiritual activities in the workplace. Such limited thinking can trap us in a sort of self-centered tunnel vision, whether with our clients, co-workers, or competitors, leading us to assume that success cannot come if we allow any wiggle room for generosity, whether in basic service, various collaborations, or even end-game negotiations.
In an article for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith touches on these themes by highlighting a new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, wherein organizational psychological Adam Grant seeks to challenge such zero-sum thinking, arguing that by having a fuller, more healthy perspective of mutual gain, we can move forward together toward a more productive, more fulfilling economic and social environment. (more…)
Pope Benedict XVI delivered inspiring remarks at the European Year of Volunteering (EYV) summit held in Rome this past Nov. 10-11. He explained why gratuitous giving of personal talent and resources is so important in restoring a healthy vocational perspective to everyday business.
As Benedict knows all too well, a culture of Christian charitable giving is not at its height in Ol’ Europe, where the modern Welfare State and Keynesian economics have played such a dominant role the past 70 years (see why in Michael Miller’s 2008 Acton lecture The Victory of Socialism and the strong opinion of other Roman pontiffs in my blog Popes Say No to Socialism). European government dominance of charitable enterprise has reduced much of the Continent’s generosity in terms of private giving and volunteer activities.
A pervasive “every man for himself” mentality is now infecting the hearts of European workers and households struggling to stay afloat. From their perspective, who can really blame them? Many wonder: Who has the money or the time to care for others when you and your family are just barely surviving?
During the EYV summit, the Holy Father commended leaders from European charitable non-profits and volunteer organizations for keeping a culture of generosity and self-giving alive. Benedict underscored the absolutely essential role their work plays in building up a society of free giving and virtue (altruism, generosity and selflessness) and restoring confidence in man’s innately good heart, now withered and tested by the intense pressures of today’s down market. These latter socially destructive tendencies are the ones the Acton Insitute attempts to thwart in its program for effective charity, The Samaritan Award and Guide.
European charitable enterprise leaders, so to speak, help create a “market of gratuitousness”, as mentioned in Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). This same abundance philosophy is argued so convincingly in Arthur C. Brooks’s Gross National Happiness (see book with Brooks’s research on wealth and charitable giving). The president of the American Enterprise Institute writes that charitable giving of time and resources makes us psychologically happier and more humanly fulfilled, which in turn increases our chances of being more happy and productive in the workplace, which consequently influence growth trends in corporations and entire commercial sectors.
This is the positive circle of growth and happiness that charity helps inspire. It is the exact reason why volunteer activity ends up paying real dividends in commercial enterprise, as business people flourish morally and spiritually. To understand further, watch Arthur Brooks’s Fox News interview regarding economic growth factors linked to generosity and happiness in the United States and with some heavy criticism of giant Welfare States like France, a country ranked a miserable 91 out of 153 nations surveyed for the latest Index (download 2010 PDF report and index). According to the Index, some of the most enterprising European countries (like Great Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany and Holland), while battling the same destructive welfare culture and economic crises, all made the top 20 with the traditionally high-ranking United States (no. 5). By contrast, the same welfare dependent, economically troubled but far less enterprising Greece was ranked dead last in the Eurozone and in the bottom five of all 153 countries represented.
The opposite destructive vicious circle goes something like this: stinginess of heart leads to a lack of deep vocational interest in work and therefore a miserly contribution of one’s talent and resources, which directly lowers overall production and profits for enterprise, as worker pessimism and selfishness help undermine commercial potential. This is one good reason why markets stagnate, retract and eventually die when such negativity and selfishness swirl violently into a cultural vortex, sucking down an entire nation’s true economic potential.
We are not surprised to hear Pope telling EYV participants that volunteer work and charity “is not merely an expression of good will.” As he articulated this great teaching:
At the present time, marked as it is by crisis and uncertainty, your commitment is a reason for confidence, since it shows that goodness exists and that it is growing in our midst. The faith of all Catholics is surely strengthened when they see the good that is being done in the name of Christ… His grace perfects, strengthens and elevates that vocation and enables us to serve others without reward, satisfaction or any recompense. Here we see something of the grandeur of our human calling: to serve others with the same freedom and generosity which characterizes God himself.
A day later, during his Nov. 13 Sunday Angelus, the Pope reflected on giving and investment of human talent and resources in the context of Sunday’s gospel (Parable of the Talents: Matthew 25:14-30). As Acton’s President Rev. Robert Sirico argues in his monograph The Entrepreneurial Vocation, Benedict XVI invited faithful to respond thankfully and generously to their individual gifts for the advancement of God’s abundance on Earth:
In today’s Gospel…Jesus invites us to reflect with gratitude on the gifts we have received and to use them wisely for the growth of God’s Kingdom. May his words summon us to an ever deeper conversion of mind and heart, and a more effective solidarity n the service of all our brothers and sisters.
Finally, the Holy Father’s press secretary, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ explained what Benedict XVI meant in a interview released after the Pope’s EYV remarks:
We are in the midst of an economic crisis afflicting the whole of Europe, and raising tensions, worries and anxieties throughout the world. It is a crisis that challenges the intellects and abilities of politicians and economists. In the midst of this crisis, the Pope’s speech to the young people gathered in Rome for the European Year of [Volunteering] may provide a modest contribution to help rediscover a common hope. The Pope asks us to keep in mind the idea of ‘gratuitousness’, of giving freely —that is, not living solely for one’s own interests, but living in such a way that we are a gift to others.
“In short, man does not live on bread alone, but also on the relationships between men and women who are truly free, who respect one another and take care of one another and love one another, beyond selfish calculations. It is from these relationships that mutual trust is rebuilt between people and populations. It is the fulcrum that is needed to lift the world anew.
The generous and routine volunteering of one’s talent and resources instills everyday habits that market-based economies need and rely on for individual entrepreneurs and businesses to grow and succeed. It’s what makes or breaks businesses teetering on the edge of failure, when employees and professional collaborators give a little more of themselves to help enterprise lunge forward.
Apart from emboldening private initiatives to diminish the role of European Welfare States and increasing our Gross National Happiness, the real output of charity is measured in the increased hearts and souls of generous, selfless business people. It is these same business people who take the gratuitousness they learned in habitual acts of charity and apply this virtue to generous forms of service with “other-directed” collaboration, products and services.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”
I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”
A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”
What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”
But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”
Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.
Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:
Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.
Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”
These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.
As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.
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.
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)