Varieties of Giving

Not all giving is the same. Not every gift means the same things, takes the same form, or has the same motivation. An anonymous cash gift to a homeless shelter, for example, is different from a gift of stock to an elite university in exchange for the university’s business school being named after the donor; and both of those are different from a gift to a family member at Christmas. There are varieties of giving. And the differences between those varieties matter.

Here, for example, are three different – and major – forms of giving.

Patronage was the dominant form of giving in ancient Greece and Rome, based in an ongoing relationship of reciprocal exchange between two parties – sometimes people, sometimes communities – of unequal power. The more powerful person (the patron) would give things like protection, housing, land, loans, political appointments, and even cash handouts to the less powerful person (the client). The client would respond in kind by providing his patron with visits, votes, gratitude, and loyalty. At the core of this relationship lay three simple aspects of the broader social imaginary: an acceptance of social and economic hierarchy, an ethic of reciprocal exchange, and an obsession with the worthiness of the recipients of gifts. While no longer a major form of giving, patronage continues as a force in some parts of the nonprofit sector.

Charity was the dominant form of giving in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. This is what we think of when we think of giving to a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or even a person on the street. In many ways, charity takes an approach that is opposed to patronage: it’s rooted in divine command, directed specifically towards the poor, and unconcerned with the ‘worthiness’ of the recipient. In fact, charity is much more concerned about the worthiness of the donor: it is a way for the donor to fix herself by helping others.

Philanthropy is often imagined as a classical form of giving – the word itself has Greek roots – but it’s a relatively recent development and the dominant form of giving in the modern world. It’s the kind of giving that we see in towering figures like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and, more recently, billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s also the kind of giving that many of us who are not billionaires participate in when we give to foundations and large nonprofit organizations. Bearing certain similarities to patronage, it’s based in the concentration of wealth, the institutionalization of giving, and the idea of reforming society.

Why does this matter? Because how we give reflects how we think about wealth, poverty, justice, compassion, and event the structure of the cosmic order. It reflects how we think about organizing life. The person who gives out of a sense of a divine preferential option for the poor is doing something very different from the person who gives out of the hope of public recognition and honor. They are shaping the world very differently.

And that has real consequences for both the people giving and the people receiving.

(Re)Defining Poverty

When most of us think about poverty, we probably have a pretty clear idea about what we mean. Poverty means not having enough money.

Some of us might think about it a bit more. We might make a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. We might make a distinctions between income poverty, asset poverty, and liquid asset poverty. Some of us might think about poverty in relation to other issues. We might consider poverty and economic rights, poverty and social rights, or poverty and cultural rights. We might understand poverty as a symptom of bigger social and political issues.

But when you get down to it, even those of us who think about poverty a lot still think of poverty as not having enough money.

Which is why it’s noticeable when those making a case against charity define poverty in different way. And it’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that means that “the ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.”1Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle Locations 209-210 It’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that makes solving the ‘not having enough money’ problem less important than solving some other set of problems.

For example, when Ruby Payne defines poverty, she describes it as “the ‘extent to which an individual does without resources.'”2Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Location 194 While these resources include financial resources, they also include emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources, as well as other things like support systems, role models, knowledge of ‘hidden rules’, and coping strategies. Unsurprisingly, given her perspective and the quote in the previous paragraph, most of her work is focused on addressing these other deficits. In fact, because one of the ‘hidden rules’ of poverty is that “any extra money is… shared or quickly spent,”3Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Locations 387-388 giving someone money or things without addressing the other deficits would almost certainly be doomed to failure.

Or, to give another example, when Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe poverty, they look at the ‘brokenness’ of four key relationships. These are the relationships between us and God, us and the rest of creation, us and others, and us and ourselves. The brokenness of these foundational relationships leads to different kinds of poverty that affect our economic, social, religious, and political systems. In addition to material poverty – the kind of poverty we usually think of when we think about poverty – there is poverty of spiritual intimacy, poverty of stewardship, poverty of community, and poverty of being. All of these latter forms of poverty affect everyone: we are all poor.4Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 58-61 Of course, this means that we can’t address material poverty alone. In fact, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.”5Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 61

How we define a problem affects the kinds of solutions we look for. Corbett and Fikkert actually point this out: If we define poverty as a lack of knowledge, we’ll try to educate the poor; if we define it as oppression by the powerful, we’ll work for social justice; if we define it as the result of the personal sins of the poor, we’ll attempt to get them to repent; and so on.6Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 52 And if those who are making a case against poverty are right – and poverty is something different than not having enough money – then they’re also right that traditional charity can’t be the right approach to solving the problem. At least, it can’t be the sole approach.

But that leads to a question. Is the idea that we need to reform if not abandon charity the result of coming up with a better definition of poverty? Or is the more expansive definition of charity – a definition that all but demands the reformation of charity – the result of a desire to reform if not abandon charity? In other words, what comes first: the way we define the problem or the solution we favor?

I suspect it’s a mix, and individual to each author who chooses to make a case against traditional charity. But it’s also something we need to look out for. When we – as individuals, as congregations, as organizations, and so on – start rethinking our definitions of poverty, are we doing that because we’ve actually come to a better understanding of poverty or because we’re looking for a justification for moving away from charity?

As for me, I think that poverty is related to a whole host of other social problems in very complex ways. Poverty is related to racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and so on. It’s not separable from those things. But I also think that when we talk about poverty we aren’t trying to talk about the entire network of social problems. We’re trying to talk about a single aspect: not having enough money.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Defining Charity

The idea of charity is baked into our culture. We give charitable gifts. We support charitable organizations. We attend charitable events. We celebrate charity in others. We allow people to take tax deductions for their charitable donations. Charity is part of who we are. It’s part of who we imagine ourselves to be.

But what is charity? What makes a few dollars stuffed in a birthday card to a grandchild different from a few dollars given to a panhandler when we pass him on the street? What makes a check sent to a food pantry in a poor neighborhood different than a check given to an elite university in exchange for a building being named after the donor? We can all intuit a difference between these gifts. Few of us could articulate and defend that difference.

Not every gift is charitable. Not every kind of giving is charitable. Charity is a distinct kind of giving. Charity has a specific history. Charity is deeply rooted in Judaism and spread through the world as the heart of Christianity. When we understand that history – and here I’m indebted to Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition – we can approach a definition of charity.

Charity is benevolent giving that has three characteristics.

First, it originates in the divine. Sometimes this might be understood as a divine mandate: God commands us to be charitable and we must obey that command. Sometimes this might be understood as a connection to the divine: being generous helps us ride along the natural currents of the cosmos. Sometimes this might be understood as both of these at once or based in some other metaphor or analogy. The point is that charity is connected to a divine something larger than and distinct from us.

Second, it is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized. This probably seems obvious, but it makes charity distinct from other forms of giving. A birthday gift to a friend or relative may be nice, but it probably isn’t charity. A gift that helps create a new business school at an elite university may do a lot of good, but it isn’t charity. Charity has a single focus: providing for the needs of those who don’t have access to the resources necessary to participate fully in society.

Third, it doesn’t discriminate based on the worthiness of the recipient. This has become a controversial characteristic of charity. There are those who advocate creating systems of ‘reciprocal exchange’ for the poor, or making sure the recipient of charity has demonstrated a willingness to escape poverty, or creating some other set of requirements that show the the recipient is worthy of charity. These kinds of requirements diminish charity, which considers the poor and marginalized deserving simply because they are poor and marginalized.

So here is what I mean when I use the word ‘charity’: benevolent giving that originates in the divine, is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized, and that does not discriminate based on the perceived worthiness of the recipient. Not everyone would agree with this definition. But I believe it captures the historical and theological origins of charity as a Jewish and Christian practice.

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