"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Mortensen, Madonna, and Saving the World

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Picture this scene: You are dining at a new restaurant. The server hastily distributes the plates and departs with a sarcastic, “Enjoy!” You sample each portion of the meal, but with every passing bite, your disappointment swells. The sautéed chicken is undercooked and flavorless. The corn risotto is pasty and infused with inexcusable quantities of black pepper. Wilting iceberg lettuce and gobs of artery-clogging dressing compose a poor façade of a salad.

As you dejectedly push the underwhelming plate away, the chef stops by your table for his customary check-in. “How’s the meal?” he asks.

You proceed to detail the substandard reality of the bad meal and poor service. In the middle of your complaint, the chef interjects with an outstretched hand.

“Before you go on, let me explain,” he says. “I need you to know something: I truly, honestly, attempted my very best on this meal. I made it especially for you and had actually hoped this would be the best meal you ever tasted. In regards to the bad service, we endeavor to treat our customers with first class service. It’s our hope that anyone who steps through the doors of our restaurant is treated like royalty.”

The chef’s response is baffling. Regardless of how desperately he wanted to serve great food, it does not excuse his terrible food and shoddy service. You would hold him accountable for the meal, for the results, not for his noble aims. Still, this scenario is not as preposterous as it reads.

Over the past few monts, two major charity failures hit the press. Madonna, perhaps America’s most iconic pop diva, raised eyebrows from the public and furor from the donors who supported her nonprofit. Madonna raised over $18 million to build a school for 400 girls in Malawi. The only problem is that her organization spent millions of these donated dollars but never actually built a school. “It has always been my dream to train women leaders who can help develop the country,” Madonna said when she launched her fundraising campaign for Malawi. “It is my aim to see Malawian girls get the right education.”

Photo Source: The Guardian UK

Greg Mortensen, the oft-ballyhooed author of Three Cups of Tea, was also in the news for what we now know were highly exaggerated (in some cases wholly fabricated) accounts of his heroic journeys in Pakistan. A 60 Minutes investigation of the nonprofit he founded revealed innumerable cases of mismanagement and lack of financial accountability. Sadly, 60 Minutes cites that half of the dozens of schools he claims to have built are nonexistent, empty, or were not funded by Mortensen. Several years ago, in his acceptance interview after winning a Public Service award, Mortensen said, “I decided … that I’d like to dedicate my life to promoting education and literacy, and building schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan.”

Mortensen and Madonna, like the aloof chef, had grandiose and honorable aims, which attracted thousands to support them. As we say, their hearts were in the right places—in this case, Malawi and Pakistan. What matters, however, is the quality of the food, of the results. Is it any good? Are the results positive? If someone says they’re going to change the world, we should ask if they know how to do it. If we’ve learned anything from politicians and pastors; it’s that we need to measure them by the lives they lead and by what they have done, not solely on what they say, by how famous they are, or by the nobility of their intentions.

We aren’t concerned whether the doctor loves her craft, but about whether she makes her patients well. We don’t care about whether the builder hoped to construct the world’s best home, but about whether it keeps out the rain. We don’t excuse the doctor, builder or the chef and we shouldn’t excuse Madonna or Mortensen in something as important as educating vulnerable children in Malawi and Pakistan. Madonna and Mortensen endeavored to help the poor, but pious motivation is no excuse for bad charity. Big dreams don’t matter if you can’t season the chicken or hire a quality waitstaff.