Last weekend our antiracism group started the new year with a new book: We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. When I read the first chapter, I was reminded of something I learned probably a dozen years ago: charitable giving is very uncommon in Europe.* In fact, charitable organizations are much rarer in other countries than they are in the USA. We might think that’s a good thing—that we Americans are better because we have a more charitable mindset—but I’ve come to realize that charity actually helps perpetuate poverty.
What do I mean by that? Liz Theoharris puts it quite well on page 10 of the book, referencing Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:6–11:
This idea—of earning lots of money and giving the proceeds to the poor—encapsulates how we often try to address poverty. Many Christians do charity work by buying and selling and then donating to the poor, but they never question how poverty was created in the first place.
When Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” he is quoting Deuteronomy 15, which says that there will be no poor person among you if you follow God’s commandments…. Jesus is reminding us that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end it by forgiving debts, raising wages, outlawing slavery, and restructuring society around the needs of the poor and…reminding the disciples that charity will not end poverty but instead will keep it with us always.
In other words, by choosing the scarcity and accumulation mindset (“more is always better”), we fear and fret and hoard up treasures for ourselves here on earth. This perspective is a cornerstone of modern capitalism, reinforced by an ever-present barrage of marketing campaigns that appear on all our devices (of which we must always have the latest and greatest, of course!). I freely admit that I’m not immune to the pressures and struggle myself with the concepts of scarcity and abundance.
The rich and well-connected who benefit from a society that is structured in this way will do everything in their power to keep the system in place—which is how the idea of modern charitable giving has flourished. If those in power can get those of us with soft hearts to give our money to the poor, then the system doesn’t need to change, and the rich can continue to ignore the poor and accumulate wealth. This was even openly touted as a reason behind the Trump administration’s intent to cut governmental aid to poor families in 2017.
I had never put it all together in such stark—and starkly true—terms before last week. By creating an entire social system based around charitable organizations, we have engineered in America a way to avoid caring about improving the plight of the poor among us, even though so many of us claim self-righteously to be a “Christian nation.”
It’s a complex and messy system in serious need of radical reform. Are we capable of that? I’m not sure. Over the days ahead, I invite you to ponder these issues and pray about what God might be inviting us to do about it, individually and collectively.
*I reflect further on this comment in a later post here.