04 October, 2007

the popularity of charity

All of the sudden, it’s cool to be interested in stopping genocide and saving lives in Africa and feeding the poor and adopting orphans. This is a very good thing to be “cool.” How refreshing to have a positive cultural trend. I am simultaneously thrilled and perplexed about this philanthropic rage, though. The trend itself is not what I’m questioning; it’s the motives behind it.

I read a really striking (and personally convicting) book review in my beloved NYT Book Review this week that made me start thinking about this. Paul Theroux, reviewing a new biography of Henry Morton Stanley, wrote about the types of people who go to Africa. This is what he had to say: “A common denominator in this assortment of foreign visitors—high-minded pests and exploiters alike—is their wish to transform themselves while claiming they want to change Africa.”

Is this true of us? Why do we really want to “save” Africa? Is it really because we need saving ourselves?

Theroux also quotes Thoreau, who said, “Now, if anything ail a man so that he does not perform his functions… if he has committed some heinous sin and partially repents, what does he do? He sets about reforming the world.”

So here’s my question to the Church. Are we compelled to jump on this charitable bandwagon out of guilt or sincere love? Do I really want to love Africa or do I just want to make my life seem more meaningful? To elevate myself above my ignorant countrymen who do nothing?

Motives aside, I doubt we can ever be truly altruistic. From what little I know of human nature (being very young and arrogant), I believe no one does anything without thinking of themselves first. I act because I am going to get something out of it. Are Christians freed from this? I don’t know. They don’t seem to be. I don’t seem to be. Paul seems to subtly admit this disposition when he says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Somehow I’ve always read this verse as saying: You are going to think about yourself, so do that, but don’t forget to think of others and their interests.

Is it possible to look to the interests of others while abandoning our own? Can the two ever be divorced? Or are we all just guilty, insecure people masquerading as humanitarians?


Jeff said...

Thank you for brightening my day with this post, and saying it in a more beautiful and eloquent way than I can even attempt.
I absolutely believe that you cannot divorce those.
This whole issue is incredibly complex...
Doing something for somebody makes an assumption that I know what they need. The more I think about that, the more I see the arrogance in that assumption.
I could tell a lot of stories where I've seen this played out. It sounds like your eyes are being opened as well.

SS said...

...which is why I've always found red iPods and those red GAP shirts so self-serving and disgusting. Helping poor people by commercializing their plight is the height of hypocrisy...

Anna said...

thanks. I...was trying to figure out how to call you. haha. I'll be looking forward to it.

maybe when i get a study break tonight.

p.s. Our "dean of chapel" here... talks a lot about this... he calls it, "social justice trend hopping."

clever, very clever.