Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Americans Aren't 'Stingy,' But We Can't Rest on Our Laurels...or Wallets

[This is the latest of my columns, written for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area.]

United Nations official Jan Egeland was out of line recently when he accused Americans of being “stingy.” He riled up many in this country with that assessment, and rightly so.

In defense of Egeland though, it should be said that as a percentage of our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), America’s foreign aid is smaller than that of any of the world’s other developed nations. US government appropriations for foreign aid amount to litle more than one-tenth of one per cent of our GDP. The Netherlands, for example, devotes about nine-tenths of its GDP to foreign aid.

Some misinformed Americans wildly overestimate the amount of money the government dedicates to foreign aid programs. And many often fail to see that it’s in the country’s hard-nosed self-interest to use aid in order to cultivate positive perceptions of our country internationally and to create future strong American trading partners.

But what Egeland’s rash statement failed to take into account is this country’s enormous private contributions to overseas charities and development organizations. They clearly prove that Americans aren’t stingy.

No doubt going back to Colonial times, when citizens of the embryonic United States had to develop local, non-governmental institutions to get things done, Americans have always had a tradition of personal giving and involvement in civic affairs. Alexis de Tocqueville noted these “habits of the heart” in Americans when he toured the young republic in the 1830s.

Perhaps an even bigger reason for this tradition in America goes back to our Christian roots. When I talk with Europeans, with their state churches resentfully supported by tax dollars, they’re astounded by the amounts of money that ordinary Christians in this country give not only to support their local congregations, but also to social service agencies and international relief efforts. It’s doubtful that without America’s tradition of separation of church and state and the strong influence of Jesus Christ on our cultural development that Americans would be responding as generously as they are to the recent tsunami tragedies.

But this is no time for Americans to sit back smugly on our laurels or our wallets. Jesus once 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. By the standards of the world, most people reading this are unimaginably wealthy. Money can be the world’s deadliest drug: the more we have of it, the more dependent on it we become and the less inclined to share it. We begin to lose sight of the fact that even our capacity for earning the dollars entrusted to us is a blessing from God.

Jesus tells us that, in addition to providing for our families and ourselves, God expects us to use our money to express love for our neighbor. He says that from those who have much, much is expected and that whenever we provide for the most pathetically needy people we encounter, we’re really worshiping Him.

Jesus even says that we’re to use our money to buy friends for ourselves in eternity, by which He means that, in employing our money as an expression of His love, the beneficiaries of our largesse will be attracted to follow the One Who incites such selflessness, the only One Who can give eternity to us: Jesus Himself.

I’ll be honest: Giving doesn’t come easily to me. I’d rather buy books and CDs than give my money away.

But I find myself positively challenged by the pastor and family I know who have decided not to eat out for the forseeable future, choosing monthly to give what they would have spent on restaurant fare to tsunami relief work.

Americans aren’t stingy. But the best way for us to avoid becoming so is to give. At least that’s what I’m starting to learn.

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