July 17, 2006
The Joy of Stewardship
— Martin E. Marty
Religious commentators have had much to say (as well they should) over the recent philanthropic moves of Warren Buffett and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Among the critics, one offers theological and logical emphases that bear examination. John J. Miller, who has written at book length on the John M. Olin Foundation, and who writes regular columns for the National Review, now in the Wall Street Journal says some nice things about Buffett and the Gateses ("Open the FloodGates," July 7). But he is not happy with all their grants, and he wants them to model their work on the Olin Foundation, which chose to self-destruct. Those are worthy themes, but they are not at issue here. One thing that is at issue is stewardship.
Miller lunges right in when he hears Bill Gates list among his "motives behind dispensing untold billions" the sense that "'we really owe it to society to give the wealth back.'" To Miller that line is "a cliché, but a strange one," as he then asks, "Are we to assume that [Gates] has spent his adult life 'taking away' — as if he and the other parasites at Microsoft must make amends for having sucked the life out of the U.S. economy? Surely there are better reasons to embark upon the world's biggest grant-making program than to salve the conscience of a guy who has no business feeling guilty in the first place. If Mr. Gates views his foundations as a vehicle for guilt riddance, ..." etc. Enough.
I can't believe Mr. Miller was even trying to be fair. I have not read the complete works of the Gateses, and may have missed something in the Forbes and Fortune quotes by them on the subject, but I do not recall any reference to or sign of guilt, or repentance over any "parasitism." And though not a professional Gates-watcher, I have not been struck by any sense that he wants to salve his conscience. Miller sometimes writes on Catholicism with favor, but I don't find in him a trace of Catholic social teaching (since 1891) or biblical teaching on a simple, clear, direct theme that has nothing to do with guilt or conscience-salving: again, it's stewardship. Add another that is totally missing in this criticism: gratitude. One more: sharing common life. Jesus' parable about the rich guy who piled up wealth in his barns but did not tend to his soul calls the man "thou fool." Won't that be the judgment on all Catholics and Christians at large and heirs of the vaunted "values" system called Judeo-Christian or humanism, if those identified with these systems find no reasons to "give back," and if they do not then "give back"?
The joy of stewardship is that it frees the rich and the poor of the need for being egotistic and greedy, for claiming to be self-made and then worshipping their creators — themselves. It asks us to steward the earth's resources for the sake of the earth and the community and the future, and gratefully to acknowledge the Creator of those resources. "Giving back" is just about the highest theologically based motive. Sorry if that's a cliché, but it has become so for having been stressed so frequently in the scriptures and traditions. Neither guilt, nor salving, nor repentance over parasitism or for having sucked up resources are behind most people's "giving back." Perhaps they are not for these philanthropists either.
So much for theology. Logically, where would Gates, Buffett, Miller, or Marty (quite a gulf and gap in the middle of that four-name group!) be, were not our "society" in the past made up of people who homesteaded, invested, built, invented; served on college boards and in the military; donated to charities and provided tools and power without which...? Again, enough. Capitalism of the sort that Miller presents will self-destruct as did the Olin Foundation. But the Olin people did it by choice; we would do it by destiny.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.