Stop Calling Charity ‘Giving Back’

A friend of mine on Facebook makes a great point about the phrase “give back.” This has become the millennial way of saying “charity.” Charity, of course, is wonderful, and a necessary part of a functioning and humane society. Charity should be given out of a posture of thankfulness toward God, Who provides all means and resources, and from an awareness of the profound value and potential of each human being.

Woman giving money to homeless person in an urban passageway
Woman giving money to homeless person in an urban passageway

But “giving back” implies something more. It implies that successful and wealthy people owe society something for their success, not in the sense that their fellow citizens contributed to an infrastructure that made their work possible (which is true), but in the sense that they’ve taken something from society and owe it recompense. It suggests a zero-sum view of economics–that the rich have impoverished us all by their accumulation of wealth, or that they have somehow taken advantage of us. But of course, this is ridiculous in almost all cases. Had Bill Gates never started Microsoft, we would not all be wealthier. Millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars would simply never have existed. We would, in point of fact, all be poorer, and the total size of the economy would be far smaller.

The reason this matters is that Christians with a loose grip on economics have often fallen into browbeating the rich. We’ve lost a great deal of that Protestant work ethic and sense that God blesses industriousness, resourcefulness, and good stewardship. We forget that Jesus’ harsh words for the well-to-do were directed at powerful religious leaders abusing their position and corrupt government officials stealing from the populace, not tradesmen who became wealthy through voluntary exchange of goods people wanted or needed at market values. Even if the rich young ruler came by his wealth honestly (a big assumption) let us remember that Jesus told him to sell all he had because He knew the self-righteous young man loved and trusted his money more than God. Elsewhere Jesus accepts the faith of rich followers without suggesting they take vows of poverty proving that (as Paul would later teach) it is the love of money which results in all kinds of evil, not the possession of money.

There’s an even more important point to make. The free economy that created the phone or computer you’re using to read this was not the result of imperial privilege or dirty dealings in an oppressed Roman province. It was the result of someone seeing a need, creating a solution, and doing business with people who valued that solution more highly than their money. It was the result, in other words, of a creative process of investment and application of divinely-bestowed faculties to subdue and take dominion over creation. Those who profit from these activities needn’t “give back” to society because they never took anything from society. On the contrary, they greatly enriched all of our lives, and have enabled the most average among us to live as only the super-wealthy lived scarcely a century ago.

Do the rich have a greater responsibility to give charitably? Absolutely. From the one to whom much is given, much will be required. But we should retire language that implies the accumulation of wealth, itself, is inherently parasitic on society, or reduces the share of wealth available for the rest of us. It’s just not true. In fact, without the self-interest and industry of those who become rich, we would all be far poorer. Let’s drop “giving back” and go back to just “giving.”

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