generosity redefined

More than once, I’ve heard it said that we Americans are a good and generous people. A few years ago, former Secretary of State Colin Powell described the US as “the most generous nation in the world.” Our president has frequently remarked that we are a “generous, kindhearted nation.”

The question is… are we?

Well, yes and no.

According to a recent CNN story, Americans forked over nearly $300 billion to charitable causes last year, including gifts to churches, universities, libraries, etc. That’s $13 billion more than the year before. And it’s more than twice the amount given by the next most generous country.

And that’s just private giving. For every man, woman, and child in this country, the US government provides nearly $24 in aid to developing countries every year. And thanks in no small part to the president’s promise to send an additional $30 billion to Africa over next five years to help fight AIDS, the total amount we give is on its way up.

That’s the good news. And make no mistake, it is good news. It’s good news for the 1.1 million Africans now receiving life-saving treatment for HIV. (Three years ago, only 50,000 Africans had access to such treatment.) It’s good news for the 16 million people who were given malaria nets last year. It’s good news for several hundred thousand families who got microloans to start small businesses to begin lifting themselves out of poverty.

But like almost every story, there is another side…

With per capita income at nearly $38,000, we’re one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. Yet when you measure foreign aid to developing countries as a percent of our wealth, we rank dead last among the rich countries of the world.

True, that’s just government aid, which means it doesn’t take into account the nearly $300 billion Americans gave out of their own pockets last year.

But here’s the thing. As big as $300 billion may sound, it’s barely more than 2 percent of our total wealth. (In a country where something like three-quarters of people identify themselves as Christians, why aren’t more of us giving closer to 10 percent?)

What’s more, for all our charitable giving, only around 2 percent of it goes to the world’s poor. (Which is the about same percent the average Protestant church sets aside for global outreach.)

And when you compare the rate of giving to the increase in our collective wealth, the amount we gave as a percent of income actually decreased slightly last year. From 2005 to 2006, our wealth increased by 6 percent. Meanwhile, our generosity lagged behind, increasing at just 4 percent.

We’re a country that gives 2 percent of our wealth to help others… 2 percent of which goes to the people who need it most. Two percent of two percent. In other words, for every $100 we earn, we give just four cents to help our poorest neighbors around the world.

How does that measure up to the Torah, which commanded the Israelites to set aside a tenth of their harvest every three years for priests, foreigners, orphans, and widows?

How do we reconcile our rate of giving with our allegiance to a messiah who once told a wealthy young man that the path to righteousness required him to sell his possessions and give to the poor?

How will God—who measures generosity according to what we have and not just the amount we give—judge us?

Jesus once sat and watched as people put their offerings into the temple treasury. Of all the offerings he saw that day, the one that caught his attention was that of a poor widow who gave just two small coins.

They were the only coins she had.

In God’s economy, it’s about sacrifice, not size.

May all of us remember this truth before we become too satisfied with the extent of our generosity. We in America have been entrusted with much—which means that much will be demanded of us.

more than just treatment . . .

Here’s an interesting article from today’s Washington Post:

Spread of AIDS in Africa Is Outpacing Treatment

Basically, new infections are happening faster than people can get treatment in Africa—even though the number of Africans taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) has increased 1300% since 2004.

According to the UN, for every South African who gained access to ARVs last year, five more contracted HIV.

Make no mistake, the increasing accessibility (and decreasing cost) of ARVs is making a difference. It’s saving lives every day.

Yet the Post says that millions more are being infected because there hasn’t been enough of a corresponding investment in changing behaviors like having multiple sexual partners.

Some might argue that behavioral change is unrealistic—even an arrogant expectation.

Try telling that to the people of Uganda, who’ve seen their country’s HIV prevalence decline from 15% to less than 7% over the last 15 years or so. Experts disagree, but many believe that the Uganda’s decrease in multiple sexual partnerships was one of the most important factors in the successful reduction of its HIV rate.

So what does it say about our faith in the people of Africa if we write off behavioral change as an unrealistic or unattainable goal? It may be that failing to promote positive behavioral change is not only shortsighted; it may be an insult to the very people we mean to help.

Let’s give the people of Africa the best chance of beating AIDS; let’s invest in both increased access to life-saving medicine and positive behavioral change.

Design revolution for the other ninety percent

Here’s a fascinating article from the New York Times on how some of the world’s leading designers are using their skills to develop innovative products that benefit the world’s poorest members…

Like a 20-gallon jerry can you can roll…

Or a drinking filter (looks like a giant straw) you can use to purify water as you drink…

Maybe this is why God blesses some people with remarkable amounts of ingenuity.

Stamp Out Hunger

Tomorrow (Saturday) is the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive. 1 in 10 Americans are at risk of hunger, while about 1 in 100 actually go hungry. This may be small compared to places like Sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 3 go hungry. But we’re a country that throws away nearly 100 billion pounds of food per year (and that’s just restaurants). We have what it takes to end hunger—both here and abroad. To learn more about tomorrow’s food drive, click here.

Film Faith and Justice :: day 2

Tonight we saw the film Black Gold, which chronicles Tadesse Meskela’s uphill battle to negotiate something approaching a fair price for coffee on behalf of 74,000 Ethiopian farmers who happen to grow some of the world’s finest coffee beans.

This film is powerful. Before you read another word, go to the official website. And make sure you see this movie:

There were two scenes in particular that I won’t soon forget.

The first showed several care-worn Ethiopian farmers gathered around freshly made coffee. (By “freshly made,” I mean the beans were roasted and ground by hand just moments before.)

As one of them poured the coffee, the others prayed. (Ethiopia has a large Christian population.) I was moved by the simple, elemental nature of their prayers.

The asked God to give them food — so they could eat. They asked God to give their children schools — so they could read. And they asked God to raise the wholesale price of coffee — so they could live.

They asked God to raise the price of coffee.

They were praying to the same God that I pray to.

And it hit me: when I make a choice as mundane as the coffee I drink, I can either become part of the answer this farmer’s prayer… or I can stand in the way.

If God hears the cry of the poor (Exodus 22:23, Psalm 69:33) — which means he heard the cry of this farmer — then with each cup of coffee I buy, either I am saying, “Your kingdom come; your will be done,” or I’m telling God he can do something else with his kingdom and his will.

Because coffee is a spiritual issue.

Another scene showed men from the farming co-op gathered in a room to hear the bad news that despite efforts to secure a better price for their coffee, they still had not earned enough profit to build a school for their children.

Then one of the men spoke. He said if there was not enough money to build a school, they should keep working until they earned more. And if there was still not enough, then everyone should give their own money to help build the school.

And then he said, “I will sell my shirt and give the money for the school.”

This from a man who earns pennies doing back-breaking manual labor each day. The women in his community sort the coffee beans by hand… for just 50 cents a day.

This man is willing to sell his shirt — probably his only shirt — so his children can learn to read.

Ah, but I must have that caramel macchiato.

what makes God mad?

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:21-24, TNIV)

Hey, I never promised warm fuzzies on this blog.

I’m sure I’ve seen this passage before, but when reading Exodus 22 a few months ago, I stopped in my tracks at verse 24. There aren’t many places in scripture where God threatens to kill his own people, at least not this directly.

That’s not to say there aren’t other things the Hebrew scriptures deemed worthy of death. Just a few verses earlier, God tells his people, “Do not allow a sorceress to live.”

…and, “Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal is to be put to death.”

…and, “Whoever sacrifices to any other god… must be destroyed.”

But what strikes me about these commands, in contrast to Exodus 22:24, is their passivity; God delegates the act of punishment. But when it comes to the one who mistreats the foreigner, the widow, or the orphan, God takes matters into his own hands.

It’s no longer, “Let that person be put to death.” Suddenly it’s, “I will kill you with the sword…”

Years later, Amos (the farmer-turned-prophet) recorded these words from God:

Strike the tops of the pillars so that the thresholds shake. Bring them down on the heads of all the people; those who are left I will kill with the sword. Not one will get away, none will escape. (Amos 9:1, TNIV)

Who is Amos speaking to? To find out, you have to turn back just one chapter:

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” — skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.” (Amos 8:4-7, TNIV)

I think it’s safe to say God cares deeply about how we treat the poorest and the most vulnerable…

Of course, if mistreating the poor makes God this angry, imagine how pleased, how happy he is when we do our part to bring justice, compassion, relief… when we stand with the poor and not against them… when we use the wealth he’s given us to bless others…

According to the scriptures, God’s love far exceeds his anger (Exodus 34:6-8). That’s some pretty good news, especially for those of us who are just beginning to understand our responsibility to the poor.

poaching souls

I heard a guy from Lifewater International use this phrase, and I liked it.

(Lifewater is a group that brings clean water and sanitation to those who don’t have them.)

Anyway, he was talking about the need for holistic ministry when he said, “We’re not just poaching souls.” His point was that we have to meet the needs of the whole person, body and soul… because this life and this world matter immensely to God, not just the life to come…

When it comes to it, I can’t think of many things more “Christian” than giving someone access to clean water. (Matthew 10:42 is worth checking out.)

Speaking of which, today is World Water Day. Consider this…

1.2 billion people (1 in 6) don’t have access to safe water. (Imagine having to drink water that might actually kill you.)

2.6 billion people (2 in 5) don’t have basic sanitation. (Imagine not having any toilet paper or a toilet to flush it down.)

According to some estimates, every $1 spent on safe drinking water and sanitation creates up to $34 in economic development.

In other words, helping the poor is in everyone’s interest.

I’ll drink to that.