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Brokering Charity

At a conference a few years ago, I had the privilege to chat with a number of very wealthy, philanthropic individuals who were using their family's wealth to give back to their communities.

Here were a bunch of families who faced a challenge: How should they charitably give their excess wealth? Where should they invest it, how should the give it away, and to whom should it go? All had found various charities that they valued and entrusted them with large endowments. Throughout the conference, these charities were highlighted. Figures were mentioned. Impact measurement statistics displayed on the screens. Individuals were applauded for their giving, their social work.

While incredibly excited about the various programs and change their generosity enabled, a thought continued to linger in the back of my mind. Sitting in the comfortable confines of the large air-conditioned event space, I couldn't kick the notion that few of these wonderful, charitable individuals had any personal knowledge of their beneficiaries. They were more than aware of some of the challenges they faced: homelessness, malnutrition, illiteracy, AIDS; but they didn't actually know those that they were serving. Perhaps this is true for many of us, as well.

Mulling this over throughout the course of the conference, I started to understand why Jesus told the rich young man, “Again Itell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).When I think about the kingdom of God as a heavenly Kingdom that is breaking in and unfolding before our eyes, I get the weight of what Jesus was saying. Entering into the kingdom of God, as it is now, is literally entering the mess—it’s where those “beneficiaries” dwell. Entering the Kingdom of God, as it is now on earth, requires a willingness to step into a space where there is still brokenness and poverty and pure unfairness.

I realized how hard it is for us, living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, who have the luxury of using a buffer such as our favourite organization, the church or maybe a visiting missionary to stay out of the mess of poverty. We don't actually need to move past the "middleman" and enter into the foray in order to be charitable. But because of this, I believe we've completely missed the point. We're missing the opportunity to meet Christ in disguise. We're missing out on His Kingdom—here and now.

It seems that the very groups the wealthy are most able to distance themselves from (the sick, the homeless, the mentally ill) who were most able to accept what Jesus offered? He didn't offer them charitable giving, He gave them true charity—acts of love that fully recognized and acknowledged the dignity and humanity of each individual, regardless of the reason that society rejected or scorned them. But true acts of love involve the full acknowledgement of those who are most difficult for us to relate to—those who are served by the charities we donate to and who in turn allow us to give of our money or our things, but not necessarily of ourselves. True charity is hard to do when there’s not a relationship. Shane Claiborne has captured this well:

"[W]hen we get to heaven and are separated into sheep and goats (Matt. 25), I don't believe Jesus is going to say, "When I was hungry, you gave a check to the United Way and they fed me" or "When I was naked, you donated to the Salvation Army and they clothed me." Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He is seeking concrete actions: 'You fed me, … you visited me, … you welcomed me in, ... you clothed me ...'" 

I'm not advocating that we stop giving money to good causes, because these organizations have a capacity to serve in ways beyond our reach as a single individual. But I am hoping we will stop confusing charities with the charity that Jesus calls us to, that He modelled for us, that we don't substitute writing a check for building a relationship, that we seek out the Kingdom of God, not just make a donation to it.

Christy Campbell is (slowly) learning how to integrate sustainability, social justice and compassion into her everyday life. She tends to process this journey through her musings and photos here and on twitter at @echoinghope.



Anonymous commented…

I am a philanthropy advisor to the wealthy at a faith-based firm called Excellence in Giving as well as a Bible Professor. Your comments cast suspicion on my clients and other wealthy Christians who have given significantly to love and serve others. I know you added the caveat that we shouldn't "stop giving money to good causes," but you may not have realized how strong of a statement you made when writing that such giving is not "the charity that Jesus calls us to." I think there may be a false dichotomy here. How do we explain Jesus' command to the rich young man to give sacrificially? In that case, Jesus believed sacrificial giving would be the ultimate demonstration of this man's personal transformation and obedience. The statement that wealthy Christians' giving is not "the charity" that Jesus "modeled for us" is hard to reconcile with Jesus' own ministry. Jesus had Judas carry around money to give away to the poor? The money didn't come from or belong to Jesus. He and his disciples were in fact "middle men" distributing donations from wealthy benefactors. Jesus' own ministry would not have existed without the help of rich supporters. Luke 8:1-3 gives names of the wealthy women who "supported [Jesus and the disciples'] ministry out of their private wealth." Based on Luke 8:3, Jesus modelled the modern paradigm of wealthy families supporting ministries and had no suspicion of motives for Joanna, Susanna, and the other women who funded his work. I think we should be more cautious about projecting personal reactions from a conference or the opinions of Shane Claiborne onto Jesus. The idea that charity does not count if there is a "middle man" doesn't fit with scripture. When Paul collected money from the Corinthians to help the poor and suffering believers in Jerusalem, he described their charitable giving as "obedience to [their] confession of the gospel of Christ" (2 Cor 9:13). In Paul's words, contributing to a collection to distribute in Jerusalem is what Christ has called us to do. The Corinthians did not have to build a relationship or be involved first-hand in the delivery of the gift to obey the Gospel of Christ. These are important scriptural dynamics to remember.


Christy commented…

Hi, Thanks so much for your comment. I have great admiration for what you do at Excellence in Giving and greatly appreciate organizations who do facilitate charitable giving in the best way possible. By no means am I dissuading charitable giving in the financial sense, I think it is absolutely imperative. I do agree that we're called to it, and that it has a strong Biblical precedence if not mandate. But I feel and have seen that so many people are able to buffer themselves from the people they're serving by simply writing a check. And my hope is to challenge that--not the giving itself by the charity--or love for one another--out of which that giving comes.


Anonymous commented…

Wow, I've had very similar thoughts circling in my mind for probably the past year...and to be quite honest still struggling to apply them. Your article was a great encouragement to continue to pursue living out "concrete acts of love" as Shane put it.

I don't want to start a debate here by any means, but though the comment by EIG above was a little harsh. The point is that we shouldn't be satisfied with only writing checks and letting others do the work of going out and loving and caring for those in need. Donating money is wonderful and necessary...but we can't let it replace going out and actually getting our hands dirty.


Chad commented…

Thank you for asking these questions, Christy. I think it's really important that we don't just follow the norm because it's what we've always done. There's always room to look at things in a new, progressive way.


Christy commented…

thanks Justin!

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