Author: Jim Harries
Category: Partnership, Evangelism Training, Prosperity Gospel
Biblical Injunction to Give, Holding Donors Accountable
Issues of finance tend to loom large on the mission-field, as elsewhere. Many today believe this to be appropriate, as they believe that the mission of the church in the West is integrally linked with its obligation to address the resources imbalance vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Often ‘giving to the poor’ is practiced as a duty, with little consideration of its impact. This paper argues that there should be accountability of donors, and not only recipients of funds.
The Bible advocates generosity. It makes it clear that God is concerned for the poor and the vulnerable. How should Christians respond to such concerns today, on the international scene?
Globalisation has brought the ‘poor’ from other parts of the world into televisions in the living rooms of the rich. International trade and other interdependent relationships imply responsibility for the plight of others. How that responsibility is to be exercised is one of the very hot questions of this age.
Popular responses to economic inequality on the part of the West tend to be articulated in terms of wealth transfer; to bring balance. In that sense they are simple. If there is more money here than there (on the basis of ruling exchange rates), then that implies the need to transfer funds (and doctors, teachers, medicines, infrastructure etc.) from here to there. This is taken as implementation of the ‘giving to the poor’ advocated by the New Testament (e.g. James 2:16).
To the Western conscience, steeped in centuries of thought deeply influenced by the Christian faith, equality is a pressing imperative. An important question that I want to address here – is how this is to be implemented? History provides horror stories. Jonathan Martin gives us many of these. The outcome of US government policy towards native Americans is just one illustration he gives of how good intentions in wealth redistribution can reduce a people to a state of wrack and ruin.
Continuing as things are, risks a repetition of such and other similar horror stories. Where has the Western donor community been going wrong?
It seems that the power-implications of giving are often overlooked on the international scene, even though such implications are many. That a donor acquires power over a recipient community should be clear. Many efforts may be made to conceal this, but it cannot be otherwise. There are those who take advantage of this on both sides of the relationship. Exploiters on the side of the donors force people to do what they want to. The ‘corrupt’ on the side of receivers consider themselves justified to abuse the funds of those trying to exploit them.
Foster articulates a pre-modern view of economics, which he considers to be of ‘limited good’. If there is a limited amount of resource available, then someone’s having more implies that someone else is having less. This seems to have been the situation, or at least the understanding, at the time of Jesus. Giving to others for Jesus meant remaining with less. There was therefore a clear overlap between the concept of ‘giving’ and that of ‘sacrifice’.
Some contemporary forms of ‘giving’ are suspect on this score. One of these – is giving by a monopoly. A sole supplier of a staple food has a guaranteed market, and controls the price. Is it just for that supplier to raise the price, so as to produce a surplus in order to acquire power through the giving of donations to some ‘poor’ community?
Related to the above, is the making of money out of the poor, so as to ‘give’ to them. Many poor nations accuse the West of such. The West ‘exploits’ poor countries by its manipulation of markets, typically for raw materials – minerals, food crops etc., according to them. Paying low prices enables the making of super-profits that can be returned to the poor as manipulative aid. Would it not be more just to pay a good price in the first place, ask some representatives of poor nations.
These days we have many charitable specialists in the West. That is, those who act as ‘middle men’ between the conscience-stricken and the poor. Their raison d’être obliges them to promote and defend the notion that ‘giving’ is both helpful and effective in impact. Yet they themselves are not ‘givers’ in the normal sense of the word, because the ‘giving’ they do is of the money of others, from which their own incomes have already been extracted. This unfortunately leaves them suspect. These ‘middle men’ can be accused of profiteering from the maladies of others. Their self-interest often has them promote strategies against poverty that are actually oriented to the perpetuation of their own activities.
Responsibility for the ethics of giving is delegated to the above group. Those who give to the middle-men have to trust that they pass on their funds in an appropriate way. This takes us to the question more specifically – of who deserves donor funds?
There would probably be wide agreement that certain groups of people are less than totally deserving. Alcoholics/drunkards would be one group, whose poverty and that of their families can be considered self-inflicted. Not that such people do not need ‘help’, but they need more than money; they need to be assisted to throw their habit.
The ‘irresponsible’ is another group that many would agree are undeserving. This could include – the idle, the corrupt, those who exploit others, the power hungry, the sexually immoral, liars, spongers, witches and wizards, thieves, fraudsters. Those that also seem to be less deserving include: poor time-keepers, those who cannot account for money, those inclined to being rude, angry, insulting, self-praising, constantly partying and self-indulging, those who advocate policies contrary to the will of many donors, such as socialism, and so on.
People’s so called ‘religious convictions’ are often considered. Should Christian charities give to Muslims, whose orientation is to attack the Christian faith? Is it right to support Buddhist monks, who are committed to not-working in the course of searching for nirvana that is contrary to Christian teaching? Should the earnings of conscientious task-orientated economies be used to support inefficient economic practices found in much of Africa as a result of fear of witchcraft? Again in Africa – should people who are oriented to providing for the dead, exemplified by a predisposition to spending a lot on funerals, be supported? Should help be given to those whose religious convictions prevent them from effectively helping themselves?
The way a request is made should presumably be considered. Should a demand be given the same consideration as a polite request? Perhaps the most needy and most responsible people are silent, while the noisy demanding people are also the immoral or most likely to abuse any assistance given?
Giving can be abused in many ways. One party could influence a donor to give in such a way as to aggravate simmering ethnic tension. Giving can cover-over deeper issues or problems which really need attention. Giving can upset helpful but sensitive economic relationships, such as those of dependency of children on parents, or a family on the father. Giving can turn a church that worships God into a society that seeks for money.
Giving can be especially harmful if it comes to define ethnic character. This has happened in parts of Africa. Black skin is associated with poverty, need, and begging, whereas White skin with wealth, generosity and unfamiliarity with local conditions. In the West, numerous images of poverty are of Black people. Is it healthy to perpetuate such correspondence between ethnic identity and economic status?
Having looked at all these considerations, what suggestions can we make?
1) We need to realise that financial relationships can easily be abused.
2) Vested interests maintain a status quo – we should ask if that status quo is helpful.
3) Giving should be considered to be a part of relationship.
4) Giving to or receiving from people of different cultures should be entered into with extreme caution, as misunderstandings, misperceptions and wrong anticipations can easily arise. At the very least a donor ought to communicate with people in their own language.
5) People’s expressed desire for or acceptance of funds is not sufficient criterion to legitimise giving across cultural divides.
6) Accountability by receivers of funds that is nowadays emphasised should be mirrored by responsibility on the part of the donor. Giving can have negative as well as positive impacts. These days we check for abuse of funds received, but what about donors’ abuse of how they give? (Usually recipients are blamed.)
7) Intercultural relationships based on giving should be supplemented by others that are not based on giving. That is, at least some members of people A who are giving to people B, should be relating to people B other than as donors so as to be able to clearly inform people A as to what happens when their money crosses the cultural divide.
The Biblical injunction to give is not a licence to perpetuate immoral behaviour, illicit control, a dubious status quo, exploitation, or a treatment of a people like statistics to be managed and controlled in their (supposed) own interests.
 Martin, Jonathan, 2008. Giving Wisely; killing with kindness or empowering lasting transformation. Oregon: Last Chapter Publishing LLC.
 Foster, G.M. 1973. Traditional Societies and Technological Change. (Second Edition.) London: Harper and Row