A Very Generous People

‘A very generous people’

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who is frequently outspoken in favor of U.S. humanitarian ventures, said he believes the initial U.S. response (to the tsunami) has been appropriate, even without a public role for Bush. "I think the world knows we’re a very generous people," he said. – MSNBC

Do they?  Are we?

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland grumbled last Monday that the richest nations of the world give less than 1 percent each of their gross national product for foreign assistance.  "It is beyond me why we are so stingy, really," he told reporters.  Oops.  In the face of bitter backlash from, specifically, the U.S., Egeland has retracted his statement.  But the facts would suggest that his initial outburst was more honest – and more accurate – than anyone cares to admit. 

Research shows that Americans consistently guess wrong if asked to estimate the percentage of our taxes that are devoted to humanitarian aid – often by a magnitude of ten or more.  The bottom line is that on any ordinary sheet of paper with an ordinary sized pie chart, the amount devoted to humanitarian aid is vanishingly small. 

We are much more generous when it comes to providing military assistance to our allies – hardly, however, a persuasive indicator of generosity.  Not only does this assistance benefit a highly subsidized industry (weapons have been promoted for over twenty years as one of our major exports), but an overlord is rarely thought of as generous for providing swords to his foot soldiers.  Generosity is not the same as prudence.  Both may be virtues, but they are not synonyms.     

Among the world’s two dozen wealthiest countries, the United States often is among the lowest in donations per capita for official development assistance worldwide, even though our totals are often larger than the totals given by other countries or coalitions of countries.   According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of 30 wealthy nations, the United States gives the least — at 0.14 percent of its gross national product.  Those godless socialists, the Norwegians give the most at 0.92 percent.  That is why we don’t like talking about percentages.  If you listen closely, you’ll notice that what you hear in the media or from government officials is that our total constitutes millions or tens of millions of dollars or is greater than the total donated by this or that country — never mind that their economy and population may be a small fraction of what ours is.

But sometimes even the totals are embarrassing.  In response to the Tsunami that devastated countries around the Indian Ocean this week, Canada, with close to one tenth of our population, pledged 40 million.  The Bush administration, amidst international mutterings, bumped its pledge from 15 to 35.  Get it?  For us to donate as much per capita as Canada we’d be pledging closer to 400 million. A New York Times editorialist points out that the original 15 million was less than half of what the Republicans plan to spend on Bush’s inaugural festivities.  Feel at all egg-faced?  Colin Powell, Bush himself, and other spokespersons for the administration have insisted, with some irritation, that the 35 million is just for starters–the number will grow.  And it probably will.  In fact, the final tally will probably even include some diversion of our military resources to civilian command or search and rescue. 

But I, personally, can’t get past that 0.14 percent. 

As a child I was taught a story that imbedded itself in my moral core:  Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.”    Mark 12:41-43

The message?  Generosity is measured not in total given, but in what it costs the giver. 

When I was traveling in India this October, I sat down in an airport next to two evangelical fathers who had brought their sons to witness the power of church-building among India’s rural poor.  It was the week of Durga Puja, the most holy holiday for Hindus in West Bengal, and the new converts, as Christians have done from time immemorial, were adapting the local holiday to their new faith.  They had pooled their resources to create days of communal feast and celebration, a time when their sharing meant none would go hungry.  But this, according to the men, was just one manifestation of their spirit of giving.   "These people are amazing," commented one of them.  "In the States, less than five percent of Christians tithe, but here they all do." 

I was tempted to point out that maybe American Christians, being uniformly literate and having access to Bibles, were more able to figure out that tithing is an Old Testament affair, part of the same holiness code that prohibits eating shellfish or milk and meat together–the code that condemns not only homosexuals to death but also nonvirgin brides and women who get raped within the city limits; the code where the price of a broken betrothal may be one shoe.  Maybe American Christians were less generous because they were more informed, and Indian converts were being exploited because of their ignorance. 

Maybe.  But do I think that is all that’s going on?  No.  The New Testament message is clear.  Giving should be voluntary, of the heart, but here is the apogee of generosity– a widow with two coppers.  If anything, the gospels set a higher standard than the Books of the Law.  They replace the ten percent rule, a flat tax if you will, with a standard that requires individual heart-searching and a priority on each giving as he or she is able

Not that I want to open a big can of nightcrawlers, but did you notice that it sounds almost like voluntary Marxism a la Israeli kibbutzim? In fact, the early Church, which took these commands quite seriously, apparently espoused a form of communalism, a god-ful socialism that made them look more Norwegian or Israeli than American.  And interestingly, when a rich man asked Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven, the Teacher told him to sell all that he had and give the proceeds – not to the church or to the disciples or to Jesus himself (in contrast to some modern cult leaders and evangelists) – but to the poor.  "And come follow me."  John the Baptist, when asked how to prepare the way of the Lord, said, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."  Definitely a higher standard, both for individuals and for Christian communities.   No, the difference between early Christians/Indian Christians and American Christians is not about Old Testament/New Testament distinctions.   It’s about American culture, a culture that prizes material wealth and individualism.  It’s about the amazing ability of that culture to filter the words of Jesus and produce an ethic that says, at its most crass, God wants you to be rich, and prosperity is a sign of His favor. 

Are we generous?  What would it mean to be generous by New Testament standards? 

I understand that thing about two tunics, but what if my ten are all different?  And what’s to be done with the Godiva chocolate that I hide from my kids?  And if I share my chocolate, do I have to share my collective resources, my tax money, too? 

January 2005




About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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