Last year I started a live, online training course called Philanthropy for Churches to teach pastors and other leaders what I’ve learned about how to adapt the best practices from the field of philanthropy to their ministries. Over the past year I’ve worked with 18 leaders from small and large churches alike in small cohorts of 5-10 pastors.
This has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. I’ve met some fantastic leaders who are leading outstanding and innovative ministries. Sadly, I’ve been too busy at the church and the University for the last few months to lead a cohort.
But with Easter almost upon us, I’ve decided to open up a new cohort in April. If you or someone you know would benefit from learning how to cultivate stronger fund development for you church or ministry, click here to learn more about the course.
To read what some of my past students have said about the training, click here.
Today we remember the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. for his civil rights legacy. I am especially inspired by his most audacious dream:
So what, exactly, was King’s economic dream? In short, he wanted the government to eradicate poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income—an idea that, while light-years beyond the realm of mainstream political conversation today, had actually come into vogue by the late 1960s.
The patchwork of social services we’ve half-heartedly assembled over the past generation have barely made a dent in American poverty. Since the 1960’s, deinstitutionalization of mental health services combined with runaway corporate profits and stagnant wages have combined to create a potent brew of hopelessness for America’s most discriminated and challenged citizens.
The best way to honor Martin Luther King Jr., is to pursue his greatest civil right’s dream.
All gifts come with an expectation of return, and that’s a good thing. Generosity is an economy of kinship, designed specifically to create interdependence. Consequently, giving must be protected from any appearance of marketplace exchange, which exists for the purpose of creating or maintaining independence. Therefore, we hide the self-interest in giving in a variety of ways (ceremony, wrapping, anonymity, etc.). In Modernity, this move has been pushed to the extreme of believing that the only virtuous gift is the pure, selfless gift.
Selfless Giving Is Arrogant Giving
The idea of purely selfless giving is actually just an altruistic version of marketplace exchange; it, too, protects independence by creating or maintaining boundaries.
When I refuse to be interested reciprocally in what I give, I’m preserving the boundaries between myself and the recipient because in doing so I refuse any kind of return. This is the inherent problem with Modern charity and altruism; it tends toward a one way movement of gifts that don’t allow for the equality of relationships that come from mutual reciprocity. In this way, both marketplace exchange and attempts at “pure” charity both contribute to the kind of distance and isolation endemic to Modern Western culture.
In Philanthropy, the issue is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, we make a show of Philanthropy as being disinterested because doing so allows charity to preserve the inequalities in our system. Charity is a one-way gift, that denies the receiver the basic human dignity of being a giver. The way charity is done in America virtually guarantees that the poor will remain poor. But at the middle class and upper class level, Philanthropy is an openly reciprocal economy. Everyone knows that giving larger sums to charity brings certain expectations, whether that be in the form of wall plaques, naming rights on buildings, or simply the power to dictate program goals and outcomes (as is the case with grant-making).
In this way, it’s easy to see how giving can become coercive, and that is precisely what selfish giving is all about; it seeks to gain power for the giver. But in much the same way, selfless giving also acquires or displays power by flagrantly denying interdependence, effectively saying to the recipient, “Here is my generosity. I have no interest in it, and I will never need anything from you in return.” So, selfless giving is arrogant giving. This arrogance not only dominates the receiver, it dominates the very act of giving, dissolving the gift into a kind of non-object by denying its vocation, thereby effectively destroying it.
What’s interesting is that last sentence describes exactly the hyper-modern turn in philosophical thinking about what defines a good or virtuous gift, particularly via Derrida, who says that the gift (and here he’s thinking of the Modern notion of pure giving) is either impossible or madness. The hyper-modern logic about the impossibility of a pure or true gift and its resulting self-destructiveness are key to “death of God” theologians. For them, the true gift is the gift that dissolves itself because of its total and radical unconditionality, which is what they claim God did to Godself in the event of the cross.
This logic relies heavily on the Modern bias against the inherent conditionality in any form of economics (and giving is an economy), a bias that I think can be traced directly back to the Reformation notion of grace as unconditional. But I don’t see any clear rationale for that bias – it simply appears to be assumed by nearly everyone that conditionality is always a form of corruption.
But Luther and Calvin were wrong. Grace is not and never has been unconditional. For an excellent and thorough theological treatment of the conditionality of grace in the writings of Paul, see John Barclay’s breathtaking work, Paul and the Gift.
Now, it bears repeating: All of this Modern logic about gifts (including death-of-God theology, in my opinion) is an attempt to protect gifts from becoming instruments of coercion or control by the giver. And I sympathize. This is a huge problem in politics, family relationships, and organizational cultures.
So, while I propose that self-interested giving is humble giving (as opposed to selfish or arrogant) because it acknowledges that the giver needs the return of the gift someday (or, at least desires it, as is the case with God), we must face this problem: the self-interest of giving is precisely what tempts us to become selfish by exerting coercion or control.
But there is a solution that doesn’t require the inherent arrogance, disconnection, and isolation of disinterested giving. I’ll visit that in my final post.
In the previous post, I said that gifts are a commerce of kinship, whereby bonds of loyalty and love are created on the basis of an expectation of return. In order to understand why we tend to insist on believing the Modern myth of pure, selfless giving, it’s important to understand how and why giving must be protected from corruption.
The Commodification of Gifts
With market-based commerce, we convert resources into commodities and trade them for cash so we can avoid creating kinship bonds with people. Cash creates boundaries, or allows them to remain intact, precisely because it eliminates all reciprocal debts. Once I pay you for a good or service, we are unburdened by any further obligation. We are both open about our interests, we agree upon the terms, and we execute the exchange. It’s a clean transaction.
That’s not altogether a bad thing. After all, we can’t be connected in kinship to a very large number of people. We couldn’t function in a society where every human interaction created a loyalty debt.
The problem in a marketplace society like ours comes in when we try to commodify things that are inherently gift-oriented. Because gifts are meant to create and deepen bonds of kinship, and because cash is explicitly meant to avoid such ties, any confusion of a gift with a directly profitable transaction runs the risk of destroying bonds of kinship.
This is why its awkward to loan money to family, or do business with close friends. We intuitively understand that treating kin like clients or customers damages the grace (a word that literally means “gift”) of interdependent relationships.
Key to this is understanding that a gift is not just something we happen to give away, it’s something we first receive. Specifically, it’s anything we receive that is dependent on something uncontrollable and external for it’s production – what we often call “inspiration,” or “wisdom,” or “love” or “God.” It therefore can’t be directly duplicated or manufactured without destroying it’s spirit. A gift cannot made, it can only be received and grown.
Consider how art works. Yes, you can “make” a piece of pottery or furniture and give it as a gift. But we consider such gifts to be more than a mere object. Even if the work is less than skillful, less than beautiful, if it was made and given by someone near and dear to us we imbue it with it own spirit, often saying it was “made with love.” When such objects rise to the level of “art,” even if it was made by a stranger, we it is say it was “inspired.” What we mean by this is that the artist alone didn’t make it; there was some other thing involved, some magic or muse that worked through the artist to beget something truly unique. That object now has a spirit that we desire and value beyond the crass exchange of money. If we do buy it, we compensate for that crassness by paying a great sums of money for it.
The effort to quantify and commodify these “gifts” in our culture has resulted in a crisis for the people most associated with them. This is why artists, teachers, ministers, and musicians stereotypically struggle for acceptance and prosperity in a market-based society, and those who do “make it” are often accused of “selling out.” Why? Because “making it” in a market society generally means selling commodities, and the very act of turning your gift into a vulgar commodity destroys the spirit of the gift.
Likewise, selfish giving seeks to turn a gift into commodities (or disguise commodities as gifts) in order to control their repayment. This is usually what we’re referring to when we denigrate certain kinds of “gifts” from certain people as “having strings attached.” We mean that they’re trying to control us or the gift – or both. In other words, it’s no gift at all.
So, that’s the danger we’re trying to avoid when we insist on pure, selfless, disinterested giving: gifts that seek to control us.
But just because good givers have relinquished control doesn’t mean gifts must be selfless and bear no obligation of return. All good gifts bear a burden of reciprocity, because that is exactly how they bind us together. In this sense, there’s no such thing as a gift with “no strings attached.” In fact, the greater the gift, the greater the obligation.
There’s a lot of buzz these days about Philanthro-capitalism and how Mark Zuckerberg is re-inventing charity. It reminds me of a story NPR ran a few years ago about the Red Campaign. In it, they talk to Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd from the story, who laments:
“I do feel like, as a country, we have lost a sense of morality for its own sake,” says Harvard professor and psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who teaches about moral development. “You should just be generous to be generous. You should do what’s right because it’s right, not because of what you get back.”
We’re hearing lots of statements like this in response to Zuckerberg’s announcement and frankly they all strike me as surprisingly naive. While I do have my own serious concerns with Philanthro-capitalism, I think it’s important to understand that there is no such thing as selfless giving.
An Economy of Kinship
There’s an inherent expectation for a return in every act of generosity – and that’s a good thing. Self-interest is what keeps us connected in kinship. The problem enters when I try to coerce people through my act of “generosity” and abdicate the blind faith that is inherent in giving, thereby converting the gift into a quid-pro-quo transaction that directly pays me back. This was a common problem in the ancient world, where gift-economies were the dominant form of social, religious, and political exchange.
So, for example, with the Pharisees in Matthew 6 their direct repayment was in the form of status or reputation. (The same could be argued for those who buy Red products.) Likewise, conscientious capitalism usually transacts in the immediate repayment of an enhanced reputation or image, as well as the repayment of a tangible good or service, or in the case of philanthro-capitalism, an actual profitable return on investment.
This is when “generosity” becomes a pure commodity. Or, perhaps more accurately, when ownership – not necessarily of stuff and things, but of people and systems – is disguised as charity.
Now, it’s true that Jesus condemned selfish giving in Matthew 6, but he did appeal to self-interested giving. And there is an important distinction between the two. We know Jesus is not teaching us to be pure, selfless, disinterested givers because he promises a “reward” in return (Matt 6 verses 4,6,14,18, and 20). The distinction is that Jesus appeals to the kind of reward that we cannot coerce or control, because it is a delayed reward that is from God by faith through the Kingdom.
So the purpose of giving is not to “Do what’s right because it’s right.” That’s merely altruistic fundamentalism and a motivational dead-end. Rather, the purpose of giving is to create bonds of gratitude, loyalty, and love between people. That kind of kinship is impossible without an expectation for a return.
For example, you wouldn’t continue loving your spouse if they ceased to love you back (at least, if she was still capable of doing so). You might hold out for a while – perhaps even a very long while – but the truth is, humans can’t remain lovingly connected to others who won’t reciprocate; not to a spouse, a friend, a child (once they reach a certain age), or even to God. This is an ugly and disturbing truth for those of us who are steeped in the Modern notions of pure giving, unconditional love, and relationships with “no strings attached.” But it is true nonetheless.
We tend to deny this reality this because it’s so vulnerable. We intuitively understand that to capitalize on the reciprocal nature of giving would corrupt it, usually by becoming a means of coercion. And that’s true. The coercion of demanding direct repayment in a relationship is exactly what we mean by “conditional love” or “having strings attached.” That is precisely what Jesus condemns in the selfish prayers and almsgiving of the Scribes and Pharisees. But he appeals to the self-interested nature of virtuous giving. That is, we really do give in order to receive. What we receive is ongoing connection to a source of sustenance, goodness, and life.
Rather than an economy of power, good gifts move in an economy of kinship. That’s what gifts are for.