The Bodies in the River (a Story)

Once upon a time, there was a village that sat just beyond a bend in a great river. One day, the people of the village noted a few people floating past the bend and pulled them out of the water. Some were dead, and the people of the village buried them. Some were sick, and the people of the village nursed them back to health.

A few days later, more people came floating down the river. Then more people. Then more… and more… and more. And every time, the people of the village responded in the same way. They pulled the people out of the river. They buried the dead. They restored the living to health. The work of tending to the people floating around the bend in the river was never-ending.

One day, an intrepid young woman thought to herself, “It is too much for the people of this village to care for the people floating down the river. It would be far better to find the source of the problem and prevent these people from being thrown in the river in the first place.”

So she gathered some of the people of the village and, together, they journeyed upstream.

After many days, the young woman and the villagers she had gathered found another village. They sat on a hilltop and watched as the people in this village carried bodies to the shore and set them in the river to float downstream.

The young woman and the villagers she had gathered went into this village and found its elders. And the young woman said to them, “You must stop putting the bodies of your people in the river. They float downstream to our village and we must pull them out. We must bury the dead and restore the living to health. What you are doing is unjust.”

And one of the elders said, “You have come to us with your people and your demands. And you are all wearing fine clothes. Tell me, where did you get them?”

The young woman said, “From the market in the village to the east, away from the river.”

The elder said, “Ah. And where does the market in that village get them?”

The young woman said, “From the clothiers in the village to the north of it, near the hills.”

The elder said, “Ah. And where do the clothiers in that village get their cloth?”

The young woman said, “I don’t know.”

The elder said, “From here.

“In this village are the textile mills for the entire region, from the river to the hills to the plains to the mountains. People here work long hours making cloth, and it is very dangerous. The people of this village set sick, or are injured, or die. And we have no physicians and no room left in the graveyards. So it has become our tradition to let them float down the river.”

And the young woman said, “Well, you must stop. It is too great a burden for the people of my village to bear. You must make your mills safer. You must hire a physician.”

The elder said, “Once upon a time there was a village in the hills that had the textile mills for the entire region. They had safe mills and many physicians. The people of that village were healthy and prosperous and happy. But the cloth they produced was expensive. People didn’t want to pay so much. So they began buying their cloth from us.

“We know that if we make our mills safer and hire physicians, we will have to raise our prices. And we know that if we raise our prices, some other village will begin producing textiles. And the cloth for your clothes will come from that village.

“And this village, like the village in the hills, will become poor. More will get sick. More will die.

“You have a choice. You can pay more for what this village produces, and we can build safer mills and hire physicians. Or you can gather the bodies from the river, and bury the dead, and restore the living to health.”

And the young woman and the villagers she had gathered returned home with their heads bowed in shame. For they knew that they were part of the injustice they hated.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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