Featured Documentaries & Discussion ToolsAuburn BlogRecommendationsVideosReligious LeadersConsultingDocumentary Film LibraryAuburn ResearchFor Seminary FacultyFor Religious LeadersFor Seminary Students
Generosity in a Time of Scarcity
The Washington Post "On Faith" 8/27/09
March 30, 2010
After hearing about Hurricane Katrina, a small group of women from Uganda raised almost $1,000 to send to the people of New Orleans. These women were refugees of warfare in their own country. Collectively, they had lost everything: homes, husbands, children, fathers, mothers, even their own health. But they heard about the plight of people in New Orleans whose losses so mirrored their own and they were moved to give. They set about their trade--making jewelry from beads---and sent the profits to their fellow refugees living in New Orleans.
As we mark the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, these women have been on my mind. How is it that they had almost none of the economic resources most of us have (even in the midst of recession, we are absurdly wealthy in comparison) and chose to give so much? The relationship these women have to money begs our attention -- not only to our response to Katrina, but to our relationship with money now in the midst of recession.
Imagine opening up a discussion with friends, at work or in your place of worship by asking each person in the room to tell everyone else his or her annual income, net worth and current credit card debt. I can think of few other topics that might surface as much resistance. But while we may be reluctant to talk about money, the writers and editors of the Bible were not. There are lots of topics the Bible doesn't touch directly. Money is not one of them.
The first thing we notice when we reflect on what the Bible has to say about money is that there are at least two equally strong and contradictory approaches to money within its pages. On the one hand, there are many passages that seem to link wealth with God's blessings: For example, Dt 28: "If you obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the LORD your God ...will make you abound in prosperity." Such passages and numerous others have been used by Christians to support a Prosperity Gospel, the notion that health and wealth are not only the direct result of faith, they are a sure and certain sign that one has been blessed by God.
As the same time, there are equally powerful passages in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that warn against a reliance upon wealth, that cry out against the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. "He who oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to want," writes the author of Proverbs 22. Likewise, Jesus was uncompromising when he suggested to one who asked how he would gain eternal life: "Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21)
This quick romp through the scriptures barely scratches the surface of what the Bible says about money. Still, it gives a foundation to assess your relationship with money. This time of crisis is the perfect time to take a candid inventory.
Being more fully conscious of where you are spending your money will very likely bring to the surface opportunities for saving and will give you a greater sense of control and agency. But doing a personal financial inventory has a broader benefit. Another consequence is that a portion of the money you save can be deployed to the benefit of others. Being more fully informed about how your spend your money is one of the first and most important steps in becoming a better steward, a more effective healer and repairer of the world.
But there is more. Our caring cannot be confined to charitable giving. Many of those passages from the Bible also point to ways of ordering society that address systemic and structural injustice. The recession has not just brought us a time to contemplate our personal finances and philanthropy but also to think deeply about our interdependence, about how we are connected to all other children of God on the planet. The global financial crisis has given us a window into how with the Internet and global markets there are no national borders. Katrina forced us to consider our interdependence at home, within this country. Today's global financial crisis makes us ponder about whether we value life beyond our nation's borders.
Many Americans assume that we are one of the most generous nations in the world. The fact is that the U.S. is near the bottom of the list of industrialized nations on the proportion of national income given to foreign aid. Less than 1% of our national income goes to foreign aid. And the lion's share of our foreign aid goes to Israel and Egypt, with military assistance and our own strategic interests being a large part of that. If providing aid to the world's neediest were the guiding purpose of our foreign aid, it would be necessary not only to radically increase the amount of resources deployed abroad, but also to reorder the priorities completely.
Imagine if we operated with the priorities of that small group of refugee women from Uganda who sent all their profits to their fellow refugees of Katrina? Those women traveled to New York to receive an award from the New York Women's Foundation. At this event, over 2000 women, among them some of the city's richest and most powerful, filled one of NYC's grandest ballrooms. The women of Uganda inspired us all singing, "We are your sisters, we love you sisters." Their $1,000 gift was multiplied 2,000 fold.
Does such generosity seem out of reach in a time of scarcity? The Bible is replete with images and metaphors of abundance: manna in the desert, blossoms in the wilderness, streams of living water appearing when desperately needed, captives being released, God drying every tear. These are images of boundless generosity. Story after story of God taking risks, going the distance to love us. Drawing upon the wisdom of the world's great sacred texts may supply precisely the inspiration needed to free us from the prison of the merely possible.
Related Content: Women, God and Money
All Things Catholic (John Allen)