January 10, 2005
The State of Giving
Martin E. Marty
Some recent 'theological' headlines: "Disasters Like Tsunami Can Test or Strengthen Faith"; "When Faith Is Tested"; "Who Gets the Blame This Time?" (Blaming God may make us feel good, but it doesn't accomplish much); "Numbed by the Numbers of Those Who Have Died"; "Tsunami Levels a Challenge to All Our Beliefs."
And now a sample of recent 'political' headlines: "Americans Definitely Not 'Stingy'"; "Private Acts of Giving"; "Not-for-Profits Tread Carefully: Charitable Organizations Not Part of Tsunami Relief Worry about Fund Raising"; "Nations Jockey to Top Aid List"; "Possible Bidding War."
Why call the second set of references 'political'? Because they concern not the benumbed individual or community, but the polis -- the human city, which includes governmental politics but is not exhausted by "the State" and its corollaries. The title of a book by H. M. Kuitert speaks to this point: Everything Is Politics but Politics Is Not Everything.
In the United States, political controversy surrounding tsunami relief aid was instant. The administration initially offered $35 million for relief, and then raised the ante to $350 million. The first figure would buy seven minutes of Super Bowl commercial time; the second, more generously, would pay for just over an hour of such. Score one against the administration. But contra that: think of what our military is doing in the name of the government and the people. Good point; that costs us many millions of dollars. Contra that: we rank low among the nations in financial response to catastrophes. And contra that: Americans compensate by being generous in voluntary-agency and church-dispensed giving. (In this regard, my favorite point, to quote Pogo, is that "we have faults we've hardly used yet" -- but religiously motivated giving is on a scale that warrants the conclusion that such giving is the great untold or under-told American story around the world.) Thus "pro" and "contra" fight to a draw.
Two themes emerge. First, how can we citizens program ourselves to be more consistently responsive to need? A headline from Thursday, January 6, proclaimed that "more than 200,000 people died of starvation around the world in the few days since the tsunami" took more than 150,000 lives. Are the starving on our screens and agendas?
Second, how might giving be sustained in any case? Arthur W. Frank, in his wonderful new book, The Renewal of Generosity, quotes Emmanuel Levinas as he connects charity, justice, and government: "The State begins as soon as three are present. It is inevitable. Because no one should be neglected, yet it is impossible to establish with the multiplicity of humanity a relation of unique to unique, of face to face .... [If the State does not impose justice,] charity runs the risk of being wrong."
That sentence is an argument-starter, not an argument-ender, on a theme that lurks in the tsunami talk. Leaders of faith-based charities, be they Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, World Vision, or any of countless others, are impressed again by the instant and immediate response of people with generous hearts. They will be more impressed by those who pledge and give both in and out of season. And since virtually all of them, as faith-based agencies, draw on and enhance governmental funds, they have a right to promote discussion of governmental priorities -- as a religious issue. Let conversation about that ensue.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.