When My Rules Trump Yours

When My Rules Trump Yours September 6, 2019

In the aftermath of 9/11, I worked with a group of concerned citizens in Seattle to create Pangea, a nonprofit that supports nonreligious community-building projects in East Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Since 2003, it has awarded $1.5 million in grants.

I’ve found an interesting parallel between the culture clash we had in trying to do good in the developing world and that between Christianity and reality.

Not all projects go as planned

When trying to improve living conditions in the developing world, one quickly hears cautionary tales where well-intentioned efforts didn’t turn out well. Here’s one: some years ago, a high-tech executive who had been raised in Zimbabwe wanted to go back to help a community there. As a worthwhile project, he picked a busy dirt road that needed much improvement, but things were not as simple as they seemed. Simply giving money to the local department of transportation wasn’t enough. Palms had to be greased. After trying every avenue, there seemed to be no way to avoid paying extra for the bureaucrats to permit the work to happen.

Instead of working through the system, the frustrated philanthropist simply paid to have a road grader do the work. The work crew showed up on the assigned day, but so did one of the bureaucrats who had been bypassed, backed by armed soldiers.

The road work never happened.

Pangea and culture clashes

With Pangea, we had similar clashes between our approach and the local approach. In some societies, a person who is better off is culturally obliged to help friends and family who have less, and sometimes the local accountants feel obliged to help out the less fortunate with Pangea money. Helping the less fortunate was the goal of the project, of course, but we had a specific project to complete, and bleeding off money threatened its success.

This wasn’t like the Zimbabwe problem—I don’t remember anyone embezzling money or taking bribes—but the bigger issue was that as a 501(c)3, Pangea had an obligation to the IRS to see that the money was distributed as promised.

It’s important to understand local customs, and the last thing we wanted to be was the rich, know-it-all Westerners who would come in and remake the local environment in the correct, Western way. Indeed, the opposite was true, and we learned a lot. The projects were always initiated, planned, and run by local people. But the constraints on the money were nonnegotiable. We had made a promise to the IRS—a reasonable constraint in return for tax-free donations, which we were happy to enforce. Sorry—on money issues, these Western constraints must win out. If you’re a local organization that doesn’t like that constraint, that’s fine, but don’t apply for a grant from us.

Application to Christianity

This example made me think of two parallels with Christianity. First, when you’re a church that benefits from tax-free donations, you’ve made an agreement with the IRS. Stick to it. As the Good Book says, “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no” (James 5:12).

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is one ridiculous example of civil disobedience where Christian preachers demand yet more concessions from American society. They are delighted by tax-free money, but they don’t like the prohibition against recommending one political candidate over another that comes with it. If accepting a deal with the IRS is a pact with the devil, then don’t enter into the pact.

The second parallel is with local NGOs thinking that they can do things their own way, ignoring the contract they made with Pangea. Similarly, Christians sometimes want to come to conclusions their own special way, rather than using science, history, evidence, reason, and so on.

Reason is the way we find things. Understanding things by imagining communication from the Holy Spirit might be a venerable way to learn things in your religion, but don’t imagine that it works in the real world. You can imagine your own source of knowing, but reality trumps that.

Related posts:
What do Churches Have to Hide?
Are Churches More Like Charities or Country Clubs?

Cool: “I can’t do that because of my religion.”
Not cool: You can’t do that because of my religion.”
— seen on the internet


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/19/15.)

Image credit: Bob Seidensticker


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • ThaneOfDrones

    Pangea is so commonplace. You should have named it for an earlier supercontinent, perhaps Vaalbara.

  • NS Alito

    Some types of charity have direct influence and others have to work around the system. I am ambivalent about increasing my World Food Program donation knowing that so much of the food gets siphoned off by militias and black marketeers. Social justice programs do good work, but can be a relatively high expense per person helped. Beyond Charity Navigator, it’s hard to distinguish which are the most effective charities.

    • ThaneOfDrones

      Beyond Charity Navigator, it’s hard to distinguish which are the most effective charities.

      The best way to know things is direct revelation. Therefore I am directly revealing to you that I am the most effective charity. I take cash, checks, credit card and bitcoin.

      • NS Alito

        I’m sending you 1,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars forthwith!

        • Jim Jones

          I have $100 trillion of those.

  • TsuDhoNimh

    Have you tried making the local kleptocrats give you enough information that you can make life uncomfortable for them by reporting the income?

    My standard response to the traffic cops trying to demand bribes was to agree that it was definitely a serious matter and insist that we needed to go down to the station immediately and talk to the boss to clear things up.

  • MadScientist1023

    The usual conservative response to this is to act like governments don’t have a right to taxes. The fact they are constantly protected by government workers, exercising rights protected by the government, and using resources maintained by the government never seems to enter their mental calculus.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      Lots of conservatives are civil servants and other government employees, to make the absurdity complete.

      • MadScientist1023

        Agreed. These people are usually the first to advocate for military involvement, increased law enforcement, or greater border security, all of which are they feel they benefit from. When it comes to paying those government workers who do said tasks, however, then they’re stealing to do so.

  • Jim Jones

    Mugabe is dead. I am very pleased by this. I wish I could be sure he was burning in hell.

    • Michael Neville

      To misquote Betty Davis talking about Joan Crawford: “One should only say good things about the dead. Robert Mugabe is dead. Good.”

      • epeeist

        When Thatcher died the most common statement was, “Ding-dong, the witch is dead”.

  • Norman Parron

    ALL religions should be NOT tax free, but if they want the benefits of tax free they should be 501-c-3 or pay taxes. But they will get into politics!!! Ya! Like they aren’t anyway!!!

  • Jim Baerg

    Re: situations like the one in Zimbabwe.
    Have you read “The Dictator’s Handbook”?
    It tells a lot about why human government is often so bad & so gives clues on how to make it less bad.
    For a short video summary see:
    “Rules for rulers” by CGP Grey