Thursday, December 30, 2004

Ruminations on Giving to Our Global Community

This morning, a friend told me of a conversation she had yesterday.

"Isn't what's happened with the earthquakes and tsunamis horrible?" she asked a man she knows.

"Well, you know" the fellow said, "the populations in those countries were awfully huge anyway."

My friend could hardly believe what she was hearing. It seemed as though this man was suggesting that the massive earthquake and tsunamis were a fortuitous means of trimming the excess population of south Asia.

This guy's comments seemed gruesomely similar to those of the unreconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

There, two gentlemen have entered Scrooge's counting house, soliciting funds to help the poor. Scrooge asks if the prisons and work houses have closed. When assured that they haven't, Scrooge tells the gentlemen that the poor for whom they seek funds can very well go to those places for the help they need, not to him.

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die," Scrooge is told.

"If they would rather die," [Scrooge says], they had better do it and decrease the
surplus population..."
There have been indignant responses to the UN official who called Americans "stingy." He backtacked from that assessment when he began to see the outpouring of contributions coming from Americans and their government.

But it should be said that when people have the sort of wealth and ease that most Americans in the middle class and above enjoy, there is a danger of our developing a Scrooge mentality.

A few years back, I was talking with a neighbor. The news at the time was filled with stories of a famine endangering the lives of millions of people. "I happily donate money to animal shelters and the humane society," my neighbor told me, "but I wouldn't send a dime to help hungry people. The way I figure it, it's all about the survival of the fittest."

I considered the expanding paunch around our middles, his and mine, and suppressed the urge to tell him, "The fittest? Neither one of us is a Charles Atlas."

I know, of course, that my neighbor wasn't suggesting that we were physically fitter to live than the victims of hunger or disaster. He was saying that in America, we have a greater capacity to cope with disaster, to withstand and overcome the fickle forces of nature.

But that has nothing to do with anything I've done. Generations of people who relied on God and each other, worked hard, and accomplished much have given me the middle class life style I take for granted.

I'm pretty certain too, that if some massive disaster hit me or my neighbor, we both would hope and pray that the world wouldn't regard us as "surplus population" or as the appropriate victims of some inexorable law called, "the survival of the fittest."

"Where you live should not decide, whether you live or whether you die," sings U2's Bono in the song, Crumbs from Your Table. Nor should where we live decide whether we harden our hearts to the living and dying of others.

Jesus once shocked His followers when he said that it's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Wealth--and by the standards of the world, most Americans are fabulously wealthy--can lull us into a hypnotic somnambulence. Largely insulated from the pains with which the vast majority of the human population must wrestle, we can view our material well-being and the intellectual and physical capacities God gives us to obtain it, as only our due.

It isn't! Fortunately, I have several friends whose examples constantly remind me of that fact. They're what I would describe as middle-middle income people. They're comfortable, but they aren't taking vacations four times a year either. They all are resolute about making giving and responding compassionately to the needs of others a regular part of their lives. They believe that as difficult as it sometimes can be to keep that resolve, it's the only thing that keeps them from dehumanizing themselves, reducing their existences to piling up money which, after all, they won't take with them beyond the grave. Their examples inspire me!

Everything we have is a gift that God has entrusted to us to be used not just for ourselves and our needs, but also for our neighbors.

I'm a middle class white American. This notion of giving and being available to the hurting people of the world is tough for me to accept. But, grateful for all the blessings God has given to me, it only makes sense to me that when my neighbor--whether the one across the street or across the ocean--suffers, I should share those blessings.

Dickens writes at the beginning of his classic story that Scrooge resolutely kept to himself. We may try to do that, too. But in our increasingly interdependent global village, it's becoming harder to turn away from the crying needs of those on distant shores. Especially in the case of a tragedy of the magnitude we see unfolding in south Asia today.

I pray for the character, grace, and faith to turn toward those needs...and to offer what help I can.

To make contributions, click on the links to the following various relief organizations:


World Vision

Lutheran World Relief

Catholic Relief Services

American Red Cross

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