Monday, July 29, 2013

Who's Your Daddy? Charity as Imagination

Brother, can you spare $316 billion?

They say charity begins at home.  And for proof, just ask Warren Buffett's three children, who between them, are in the process of setting up charities to give away just about all of the legendary multibillionaire's wealth.

The $316 billion figure represents the amount of money all Americans gave to charitable causes in 2012, which makes philanthropy a booming industry in its own right, employing an estimated 9.4 million altruists.  Almost one third of that figure was given to religious institutions, and represents more than double the amount given to the next closest category, which was education.

And no, that's not mostly Buffett money, either!  While "the Oracle of Omaha" may be worth a reputed $53 billion, and has announced plans to redistribute that money to causes he cares about, that redistribution is actually being done in dribs and drabs.  For example, Warren has so far pledged roughly $2 billion in stock to his son, Peter, and Peter's wife, who started the NoVo Foundation.  However, only a relative trickle of five percent of the stock per year is donated to NoVo to be cashed in.  And, while $100 million annually is a generous gift by any measure, compared to his many billions, though, it's easy to see that ol' Pops isn't letting go of his wealth - or the power it affords him - very quickly.

Still, 100 million smackers every year puts Peter and his wife in a rarefied orbit, and has emboldened him to pen an op-ed for the New York Times giving us a peek inside the world of mega-philanthropy.  It's a world where power brokers like his dad talk in terms of global solutions, strategic planning, and, as Peter wryly says, "philanthropic colonialism."  Basically, it's where a bunch of privileged people who've basically earned their money through various forms of subjugating and exploiting other people and resources figure they know best about how to restore a bit of dignity and empowerment to those they've left behind.

To a hard-core right-wing audience, Peter's assessment of mega-wealth and mega-charity may sound like left-wing propaganda, but you have to admit:  he's got some valid points to make.  First of all, wealth is rarely built in a vacuum.  And incredible levels of wealth rarely get amassed without any collateral damage of some sort.  In any economy, not everybody wins.  In education, not everybody gets a perfect SAT score.  Not everybody has equal access to natural resources, or political influence, or even healthcare.  Even when decent laws set out respectable conditions for healthy competition, not everybody plays by the moral structures that serve as boundary lines.  People test limits to see what they can get away with.  They seek vulnerabilities they can leverage against their competition, and also against whomever might be dependant - however primitively - on the economic systems that have been determined to be vulnerable.

It's part of the reason why Christ says we'll always have the poor with us.  Some people are poor because they are lazy, or otherwise immoral.  But other people are poor because they are disenfranchised for a variety of reasons beyond their immediate control, and even regardless of their faith in Christ.  Sometimes, charity work comes in a humble response to conditions in which we see God's grace particularly active in our own lives, forcing us to acknowledge that we really don't deserve the luxuries we've been given.  Other times, our charity may stem from guilt about how we've obtained those luxuries.  Or a mindset that we truly know better how to fix something than poorer people do, as if poverty equates to a lack of wisdom.  Or even frustration that particular forms of poverty risk suppressing our own happiness.  Perhaps some people can give selflessly of themselves without any ulterior motives, but don't you suspect those people are distinctly few and far between?

For his part, Peter Buffett writes that in his meetings with other power brokers, he hears pseudo-altruists asking about returns-on-investment when it comes to funding proposals, trying to turn charity into a business proposition, at least in terms of matching the dollars spent with measurable outcomes.  And although the attitude behind that may smack Peter as being fairly presumptuous, there's little wrong with trying to keep from throwing good money after bad.  Running some due diligence on a human development project halfway across the world is more prudence than profiteering.  In addition, some people worry about destroying ancient cultural legacies and practices with Western money, but frankly, the reason some cultures around the world are as needy as they are likely involves practices that we in the West long ago determined to be counterproductive no matter where you live.

Peter decides that he's "not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism."  He believes we have a "crisis of imagination" when it comes to solving problems because too many solutions are based on market-driven factors that, in the end, create consumers (or even products) out of people we think we're helping.  He loves the word "systemic," and it's all over his website for NoVo, but he professes an inability to grasp how systemic change can take place to create the type of organic, fundamental improvements that so many people groups around our planet need.

NoVo's primary emphasis is on helping to protect and empower young girls, a group of people in every culture the Buffett family has identified as the world's "largest undervalued asset" and the key to its future.  And to a certain extent, they're correct.  Even in the United States, with our Barbie culture, young girls are generally not encouraged to aspire to much more than trophies men can ogle or manipulate.  Of course, I think sexual promiscuity and abortion - two key planks of the liberal platform - are primary ways men exploit women, but you can't tell people like Peter Buffett that.  Ironically, despite all its talk of female empowerment, NoVo proudly sponsors abortion on its website, which surely is as catastrophic a practice for unborn girls as anything that can happen to them post-birth.

Indeed, if the Buffetts and NoVo are looking for a form of humanism to break the crisis of imagination in addressing human suffering, maybe they're overlooking that $101 billion people of various faiths contributed to their preferred religious institutions last year.  What might our planet be like without all of that money being in circulation, even if a disproportionate amount of it gets spent right here in the good ol' US of A?

Yeah, not much of that $101 billion probably went overseas, and most of it probably went into big buildings and sprawling salaries for our homegrown evangelical industrial complex.  And yeah, the short-term missions projects many evangelicals fondly assume equates to cross-cultural ministry may send wealthy Americans on tax-deductible vacations to exotic places we wouldn't ordinarily spend our own money to travel to.  And yes, the chances are virtually nil that any of the $101 billion was spent on the types of programs social liberals like the Buffetts consider worthwhile.

But if you're talking strategic humanism, what's more strategic than a person's worldview?  Trivialize organized religion - any organized religion - all you want, but ever since the Book of Acts, in the New Testament, Christianity has been going, sending, doing, teaching, helping, and praying.  Not always selflessly, or sacrificially, or even effectively, but on those three scores, the Buffet family can't claim anything better, either, as Peter testified in his op-ed piece.

We evangelicals have our problems, and the Buffetts may not consider the centuries of our Christian witness to have been worth a lot, but Christianity is replete with examples of charity that people like Buffett seem incapable of replicating.  Even many of us contemporary Christians recoil at the thought, but it's at least something we'd consider.


It was Jim Elliott, martyred by a South American people group to whom he was extending compassion, who famously wrote, "he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

A crisis of imagination?  Not when your Father has more than mere billions.

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