Following is excerpted from “postChristian: What’s left? Can we fix it? Do we care?” (Hachette/Jericho, Aug 2014)
Any Christian—and arguably, any socially aware human being—would agree that having concern for our neighbor should be a core value of any society. And yet, we hardly have to look beyond the boundaries of our own doorstep to see evidence all around us that there is unmet need, unnecessary suffering, and unchecked oppression and violence. We know what is right, but we don’t really do all we can to make it right.
We might ask ourselves why, save for the fact that the answer we might discover is likely to be one we don’t really want to hear: Drop everything and follow me. Sell all you own and give it to the poor.
There hardly seems to be a point, though. I could sell all of my worldly possessions, give them to people in need, and there would still be an overwhelming amount of need, right there in front of me. Not only that, but now I’m among the poor, vulnerable, and in need of help. Plus I’ve lost the means to keep giving, because now I’ve given up all I had. Maybe it makes more sense to stay where I am, carve a little bit off the top (well, maybe not off the very top, but after I make sure the basics are covered for me and my loved ones), give it to a good cause, and then go about my business of making more with the intent of giving some more. Once I get more, that is.
Author Jack London says, “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” We may be willing to give from what’s left, but this isn’t the sort of sacrificial generosity to which we’re called by Jesus’ example. Our world tells us that the one who dies with the most toys wins, but the message of Jesus is different; if one is suffering, we all fall short.
Giving something to charity isn’t really the same as living every day with a charitable heart. Granted, we are called to give generously to others from what we have, but a charitable heart goes further. But we are also called to change the systems we live in which cause the inequities in the first place. The challenge is deeper, more complex, and more personal than this. We can give large sums of money to a good cause or dedicate our lives to social justice work, and yet the notion of Christ-like charity can elude us.
We, the System
Speaker, pastor, and activist David Moore argues that Christianity has become so inured to the values and effects of capitalism within our religious institutions that we’re effectively blind to its presence:
What concerns me as a pastor is we have merged religion with hyper-capitalism to develop a sacrosanct and unassailable construct, and if anyone questions it, they are dismissed as un-American, a class warrior, or a Marxist. And Christians buy and sell that construct.i
Moore suggests that we enter into an implied social contract with the power-bearing institutions and systems in our lives. How this functions: we do not threaten their existence, and in exchange, they help us feel satisfied and good about ourselves. This may sound particularly cynical on the surface, but consider, for a moment, the following parallels:
A clothing company has a shirt to sell. To close the deal, they must offer you the greatest perceived value at the lowest possible cost. The actual price is on the sticker. In the free market system where competition is fierce, these companies strain for every advantage possible by keeping labor, material, and distribution costs low. Savvier consumers express concerns about where the raw materials are sourced, whether the labor conditions of workers are fair, and if the company’s business model is environmentally friendly. Most of us, however, know little or nothing about the products we buy on a daily basis. If the seller makes us feel good about our purchase, all the better. In the last decade, we have been trained to check for key terms such as “fair trade,” “organic” or “eco-friendly,” but we’re only willing to pay so much for these add-ons. Ultimately, the transaction is consummated as long as the company can make us feel good enough about the purchase to hand over our money and think little about how it was sourced.
Another example: A political party has a candidate they are positioning for public office. In order to gain the office, they have to secure a certain number of votes. To do that, they have to campaign, which costs money. To inspire people to action, they cast a grand vision, telling you that you’re an integral part of that vision. We are the agents of change and transformation for which you long, they claim. All they need from you in order to make that happen is your vote, perhaps a contribution, and maybe a few hours on the ground in your neighborhood on behalf of your candidate. In exchange, the political system will validate your efforts and reward your faithfulness by assuring you that you are the inspiration at the heart of the movement. By taking a little bit of time and money to support the campaign, you are ensuring that all the values you hold dear will finally be realized.Your church does good things in the community. They have a food pantry, an annual mission trip to South America, and 10 percent of all offerings that come in go back out to local and global mission projects. In fact, they’ve recently embarked on a capital campaign to add a new wing to the facility, which will house a gym that will be open three evenings a week to the community. What is required of you is to lend your support in the form of an additional tithe, ongoing prayer, and maybe a few hours on the weekends to help with painting and landscaping. You maintain your present way of life while also helping out an institution whose mission you believe is worthwhile. And on Sundays, the pastor assures you that you are, indeed, living out the call of Christ to serve those in need.
In each of these scenarios, though it may be subtle, the pattern is clear. In each case, we’re engaging in a transaction. Each time, the system requires something from us, and in order to achieve a desired goal, it offers you the highest perceived reward at the lowest possible cost. The transaction takes place when you lend your support and/or resources to the system (be it political, economic, or religious), and the system, in turn, validates your commitment and helps you feel good about your decision.
The problem arises when it becomes clear that a system’s primary goal is not the ideals set forth to the consumer (your purchase helps save rain forests; your vote ensures justice for the oppressed; your tithe feeds the “least of these”), but rather the perpetuation of the system itself.
It’s easy to vilify “the system,” as if it were some abstract entity with a will of its own. But at the heart of every institutional organization are human hearts, minds, and ambitions. We are, in effect, “the system.”
Our Four Responses
There are four responses to perceived injustice, suffering, violence, or inequality to consider. In some instances, Christianity addresses these well; other times, not so much. Often, we respond with some combination of the following, and yet we fail to effect the kind of real, radical change we’re called to as followers of Christ:
- Freely giving time and material wealth toward a worthwhile cause
- Earnestly working for systemic change (i.e., social justice) to rectify the imbalance in the existing systems
- Honestly identifying and confessing the complicity we have in being a part of corrupt systems that leads to the kind of violence, inequity, oppression, and injustice we claim to want to fix
- Actively seeking to subvert the system entirely, acknowledging that it is inherently built on a set of values and principles that perpetuate the injustice
In general, most churches or denominations work well with the first kind of response. It would be hard to find a church without some kind of community outreach, either in the form of monetary gifts, community service work, or a combination of the two. But statistically at least, the issue of how deeply committed we are to charity is debatable. The United Nations estimates that the entirety of the world’s hunger problems could be solved with an annual budget of approximately $30 billion.ii Meanwhile, a recent study by The Economist magazine estimated that the Catholic Church in the United States alone had an annual combined budget of $170 billion in 2010, when all of the assets of the Church are considered together.iii So in theory, by allocating about one-sixth of the total budget of the Catholic Church in the United States to solving hunger (not counting any other denominations, religions, or even Catholic institutions outside the United States), hunger could conceivably disappear from the face of the earth.
i David Moore, “We Are Not Who You Think We Are,” Speech addressing the Black History Assembly, Feb 11, 2013
ii. Editorial, “The Price of Hunger,” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2008. http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/23/opinion/ed-food23.
iii. “Earthly Concerns,” The Economist, August 18, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21560536.