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How Do We Make Charity Work?

Among the many global religions, one of the most distinguishing features of the Christian faith is that its deity becomes human and sacrifices all, even unto death, for his own creation. Self-sacrifice is central to Christianity, so it is no mystery why charity and gift giving are central to the season of Christ’s birth. But from a purely economic perspective, gifts are often viewed as inefficient, wasteful or even harmful. This presents a problem for the Christian economist, but one that must be wholly resolved. We can show how capitalism works in tandem with Christian values through moral arguments for economic efficiency, creative destruction, property rights and reduced welfare spending. But in order to claim free enterprise as the moral high ground, we must also make the case for charity. Clearly, the act of giving can produce both positive and negative outcomes. It is a fact frequently asserted at Values and Capitalism—good intentions do not a better world make. In a recent video by PovertyCure, Pete Greer tells the story of a church that sent eggs to a Rwandan village, only to decimate the local egg industry, creating a much greater shortage in the region. Since it is not likely that God calls us to destroy industry and increase burdens, we should assume that this “gift” was not ultimately something Christians should be proud of. Stories like this one can make us fearful of giving; tempt us to invoke laissez-faire on the needs of our loved ones and the most vulnerable in our communities. But this is an overreaction; while we should proceed with caution, we should not abstain from giving altogether and neglect something so important to Christian life. We need only to refine our understanding of the types of charity and when they are harmful, rather than helpful. This is a difficult task—admittedly, not one I can answer exhaustively—but I can offer a few thoughts. Relational vs. Provisional Giving We can divide charity into two general types: those that meet internal needs (spiritual, emotional or mental), and those that meet material needs (food, shelter, money, etc.). Meeting internal needs requires only a gift of time and care, and is perhaps universally beneficial. Aristotle, who distinguished these as goods of the body or soul agreed, “the more [goods of the soul] are in excess the more useful they must necessarily be” (Politics, Book VII). We can say this type of gift is relationalbecause it requires direct person-to-person investment, and often benefits both parties. Material needs, however, can only be met through economic means—this type of gift is provisional. In this situation, a person falls short of some level of physical security or comfort, and someone else provides money, clothing, water, food or some other good in order to ease the burden. As an economic solution, it must involve all of the typical elements of commerce: labor, production, transportation and exchange—though none by the ultimate recipient. Thus, provisional gifts bring with them a much greater risk of something going afoul. They can easily produce slothfulness, jealousy, resentment, dependency and self-doubt. This does not to say that all provisional gifts are negative, but rather, we must be more prudent when meeting material needs. I may be painting with too broad a stroke here, but I consider the most effective acts of charity to be targeted, personal, transient and sporadic. They involve direct action for a specific time, place and need. Ideally, charity should foster contemplation of the full extent and purpose of the sacrifice by both the giver and receiver. Examples of this include helping a friend who has lost his job and needs help covering a mortgage payment, or sending aid into a region after a natural disaster. By contrast, harmful provisional giving is sustained and disconnected. It acts as a supplement to income and productivity over a period of time, and becomes worse when provided through an impersonal third party. Federal welfare programs almost always fall into this problem, but private charities sometimes do as well. When churches and charities become the economic crutch of a community instead of its refuge, they create expectation and dependency instead of thankfulness and empowerment. The Right Approach The best kind of provisional giving occurs when it promotes the relational—when person-to-person sacrifices are made in such a way that brings people together. The Good Samaritan, the Woman at the Well and those who exchanged property on the Day of Pentecost all gave for a specific time and purpose in a relational way. Christ does not say, “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, so he can take care of the poor.” Throughout the Gospels, the call is to give of oneself to help another in need, becoming a conduit and demonstration of God’s love in the process. Material needs are not like fires that must be put out by dumping money and resources onto them. They require consideration of the person and context, or else they risk making the situation worse in the long-term. When we give financially, we must do so as individuals extending a helping hand to a fallen brother, not tossing out a life preserver and walking away with smug self-satisfaction. The question of how to distinguish helpful from harmful giving is one I have taken up only recently, and I would encourage further consideration of this by those of you who can offer insight here. It is not an issue free-market advocates have made a priority, but the conversation is necessary if Christianity is to recognize and welcome the moral substance of capitalism.