Posted by: Dan | December 3, 2008

The Guilt Song

You know, I try to avoid just posting quotations from whomever I happen to be reading, or links to other blogs but, dangnabbit, sometimes somebody just really, really nails a topic.  In this case, it’s Tim Minchin and I think he’s got a great perspective on charity.

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Responses

  1. I think there is a real issue there, inasmuch as people really “don’t give two sh*ts about some kids in Bengalore” they wish they did but they don’t see how they can start to care.

    About three years back, I expressed the same concerns to a priest at the cathedral. I said, let’s be honest: I love my goddaughter to bits, but I just don’t love poor kids abroad.

    He said that’s the way it should be. You cannot love someone you’ve never met and have no relationship to. But I tell you what, if you build the relationship, you will find yourslef unable to not care. Build the relationship first, the love will come.

    He was RIGHT. On the occasions where I’ve surprised myself by being very generous and wanting to be, I had a relationship to the person. Knowing the person makes it so amazingly easy to forego the vodka cranberry for the benefit of a person you love. Their welfare is so much more desirable than anything else.

    So back to basics, we really should engage with the poor directly. Our life depends on it.

  2. I think this distorts the role of charity in most people’s lives. I’m sure the contempt resonated with you however more than the truth of it though. Dan have you ever investigated how much of your love of “the poor” is really just disguised resentment towards “the other”, namely the global middle class lifestyle. Give it some thought. Unfortunately I don’t know of any books to point you to on the matter.

  3. Dany:

    Oh, I think there is more than one real issue present in the song. However, the point you make about proximity and the reformation of desire is a good one.

    james:

    Feeling guilty, eh? ;)

  4. I think that there is definitely something to the idea that a lot of charity is motivated by guilt.

    However, I think it is excessively cynical to suggest (as I think the song does) that the only reason anybody does anything for poor people is to alleviate their own guilt. Maybe it’s true that the reason Oprah built her school is guilt, but I think it’s more of a stretch to believe that the reason (Mother) Teresa spent most of her life living among the poor was to make her feel less guilty about drinking Vodka Cranberries.

    On the other hand, maybe Minchin is right. In which case I would have to say that doing the right thing out of the wrong motivation isn’t all that bad. If we waited to do the right thing until our motivation was pure, just about all of us would be waiting an awfully long time.

  5. That is generous of you elliott, but dan seems relatively unconcerned with what the poor get, justly or not. Dan seems only concerned that no one else gets better. This is still about us, or him more accurately. That is why I say he is motivated by resentment. Dan rarely if ever points to solutions for the poor(tax credits) or effective programs dealing with the homeless (which increasingly do exist), or effective charities. His one solution is not for “them” and their issues but for “us” to become like them or alongside them in some romanticized nobility of poverty. Note this needn’t help the poor at all. What are the measures of success for the poor? None mentioned, only goals for us – divest of earthly riches.

    Somehow dan sees this as what the scriptures mandate, when clearly AID to those in need is what is commanded. One need only turn to the analogous case of “the sick” in the Scriptures. The scriptures don’t require us to become sick but to tend to their needs, to not be indifferent to them. Dan doesn’t want us to become ill along with the “crucified sick” because that bit of rhetorical high ground would be too costly and more obviously silly. Christ may confront us among the sick in Matthew 25, but we aren’t called to be sick too. After all, we all are going to be sick one day but aren’t incorporated into Christ’s body through cancer.) My point is that Dan seems content to outsource this portion of Matthew 25 to charities or even for-profit hospitals and nursing homes, but not to charities directed to the economic needs of the poor. In my opinion giving to charitable hospitals is one the best responses to Matthew 25 one could imagine short of actually donating your own medical skills. But Dan seems to denigrate such charitable giving because it doesn’t make one a member of “the poor.”

    Dan I responded not out of guilt but specifically because I volunteer for and have even lived at charitable organizations.

  6. I think James makes the classic mistake of many in assuming that salvation for the poor lies in the giving of money. Making sure that people have enough money is a key component of a healthy social system, but has nothing to do with the call of Christians. Dan has it right in that our call as Christians is not to give our money to the poor, but to give our lives to them. Our salvation may have something to do with charitable giving, but their salvation lies in us dwelling in relationship with them. (Please excuse the us/them language, but it works well to address this one issu; and when I talk about salvation I don’t mean some kind of ticket out of hell and into heaven, but salvation from hell on earth.)

  7. Elliot:

    Hey man, it’s really good to see you showing up here. It made me happy to find your blog and read some of your book reviews and some of your adventures in bus driving (which I guess can kind of be like adventures in baby-sitting!).

    Regarding the point that you raise, let’s keep in mind that Minchin’s song (at least as I understand it) is satirical and, like all satires, it overstates its case. One need not accept everything that he says, or every example he provides, in order to accept some of the broader points that he is making.

    Also, I think one must carefully think about the value of ‘doing the right thing’ from ‘wrong motives’. Indeed, I think part of what Minchin’s song brings to the fore is the fact that so many of our forms of charity (say giving fifty cents to a squeegie kid) are superficial and tokenistic — and hardly come anywhere close to addressing the real needs being faced by others. In fact, all too often, this type of charity actually becomes one of the things that ends up perpetuating broader structures of exploitation and oppression. So, the question becomes, ‘are we really doing the right thing?’

  8. On World AIDS Day, Starbucks was donating 5 cents from every specialty drink ordered to AIDS research. So you could enjoy your $4.90 Chocolate Truffle Latte guilt free!!!

    James:

    Dan won’t defend himself, but I will. Don’t know how long you’ve been reading his blog, but perhaps it hasn’t been long enough to know he doesn’t think everyone (or even every Christian) ought to be poor or that being poor is a pre-requisite for following Christ, but simply that right, Biblical relationships between Christians and the poor must be established and maintained. One component of this is that many Christians (not all) need to come alongside the poor in solidarity, becoming poor themselves. But even those who do not become poor must have relationship with the poor (and something more than merely writing checks).

    You list a lot of practical ways to tackle poverty issues, but I would argue that the Gospel isn’t concerned with being practical. It is concerned with being faithful. And it isn’t (primarily) concerned with eliminating poverty, but with restoring right relationships (which, of course, will lead to less poverty).

    Obviously your hostility isn’t based on Dan’s one post here, so it must be coming from somewhere else. I hope you can work through it.

  9. Abe:

    What you say sounds a lot like what the Church Fathers had to say on this subject. However, I do get a wee bit uncomfortable with the distinctions you create because I think that our salvation is also dependent upon the righting of these relationships. This is why I talk more and more these days about mutually liberating solidarity. That seems to sum it up well.

    Brent:

    You’re right to see solidarity as the cornerstone of what I am saying. I am increasingly convinced (and convicted!) that a Christian approach to justice issues — and an approach that has the potential to be deeply and genuinely transformative — requires solidarity first and foremost. I’m speaking on this subject in January, so these discussions are helping me work out what I’m going to say (thanks!).

  10. dan,

    i was finally able to listen to the song and really enjoyed it. sure it is satirical but i think it is mostly true. at least for me.

    i’ve got to call “bullshit” on this concept of being faithful rather than practical. true, i’m not a christian anymore, but my experience of a number of xian organizations and people is that they are about as practical as can be. the problem is that in the face of overwhelming social problems – like poverty – it is hard to see any “practical results”, b/c not a whole lot seems to change. So, i’ve found that the thing that keeps these organizations going is the call to be faithful…doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned with being practical. my opinion is that xians sell themselves short when they try to put these 2 concepts as opposed to each other.

    great discussion. i would like to see Dan respond to James’ challenge re. effective solutions. connecting theology/theory with practice, in my opinion, is always helpful.

    cheers,
    jude

  11. Jude:

    I’m all for connecting theory with practice, but I do want to avoid the hasty form of pragmatism that, by being overwhelmed by the nature of the problem at hand, rushes out to do something (anything!) and thereby tends to simply contribute to the problem, rather than contributing to the solution. A lot of our so-called models of charity or development actually end up doing this.

    Hence, we see how acts of developmental aid have furthered the disparities between the West and the rest of the world, how acts of local charity quite frequently simply maintain the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and so on and so forth.

    So, I’m not saying that we should give up all thoughts of effectiveness, rather I’m suggesting that we need to learn to be effective in new and deeper ways. For example, we need to find ways of serving others that are rooted in our identity in Christ (this, I think, what Brent means when he talks about being faithful). This, then, requires us to prioritise solidarity in our acts of justice and I am increasingly coming to believe that it is the foundational moment of mutually liberating solidarity that is what transforms our acts of justice and charity into genuinely transformative and effective events.


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