Saturday, 17 May 2014

Puppet on a string

Giving isn’t always entirely what it seems. Giving by governments to developing countries is particularly notorious for being linked to the economic benefit that might be accrue to the donor. Whilst the UK government is probably better than many at resisting that siren call, you can still guarantee that every year or two some prominent politician will advocate linking UK aid to the purchase of UK products. At its worst it stretches all the way to pressing upon recipients products such as military equipment that many of us might feel are well off the top of the shopping list of the neediest people in whichever nation it may be. It’s not really giving, it’s just a crafty way to subsidise our own industries and services.

Churches can give like that too. I remember in my early years as a vicar visiting a parish in a very poor neighbourhood. They were getting considerable financial support from a wealthy parish elsewhere. What became clear very quickly was that the price of this generosity was that the recipient parish would be ‘sound’ on a particular set of theological positions. I’m sure the rich parish justified its stance on the basis that it was paying for Christian mission, and if the poorer one took a different stance then the work it did would no longer be advancing the Kingdom. For my part I prefer the phrase ‘bribery and corruption’.

And if we imagine that such failings lie only with institutional giving, then a recent and particularly stark example at the individual level is what happened to one charity earlier this year when its USA arm announced it would not refuse to employ people in same sex marriages. The recipients of the ‘generosity’ clearly mattered less than the theological presuppositions of some of the donors. That’s not giving, it’s just using our money to advance our own ends.

So what I like about Christian Aid Week is that it encourages us to go back to proper giving. Giving without strings. Giving for no other reason than to improve the lives of others. When I put my money in the envelope, or see my Standing Order go from my bank account, I am trusting a charity with a very wide brief, and that encompasses a huge diversity. I’m trusting it to make its own mind up as to where that money may best be spent. It’s not that I don’t care about the people who will benefit, it’s that I care enough to want to distance the choice of recipients from my own preferences and prejudices. I want to be adamant that there is nothing I expect by way of return.

My prayer is that the act of giving to Christian Aid Week can then help me to recognise where, in other areas of my life, I am claiming a false generosity that disguises (perhaps most of all to my own self) my mixed and muddied motives.

David Walker is Bishop of Manchester

Posted by David Walker on Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 7:00am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

So what do we make of the opposite, when African church leaders now tie accepting gifts to certain theological positions of the giver?
Does the same "no ties" obligation that applies to giving also apply to receiving?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 7:31am BST

Interesting point Erika. It would be good to know how often the person refusing such a gift is actually the intended end beneficiary as opposed to being the conduit.

Posted by: David Walker on Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 1:45pm BST

My daughter works for Christian Aid, and I know from what she explained to me about a trip to a country in Africa, that the approach was not "We are coming here to do 'this' and 'this'", but rather it was a fact-finding and sharing initiative, trying very hard to listen to what people themselves were engaged with doing, and their own perceptions of where financial support was needed.

It was not about 'giver's agenda' but about paying closer attention to the agenda of people in their own communities already working hard to help others, and what resources might support these initiatives.

I think Christian Aid is an excellent organisation.

Attaching conditional values to aid giving seems like an unfair exploitation of economic privilege and power.

Rather, the opportunity to share (not just economically but in understanding, prayer, and engagement) needs to be rooted in identifying ongoing work, and being willing to help people (with resourcing and other ways) to help their own work and community building or practical outreach to others.

To take the example of Jesus, his help and engagement was not conditional on the recipient being Jewish, or male, or respectable, or any kind of pre-condition.

Probably our biggest principle for engaging with people is to put our own agendas behind us, and simply listen.

Posted by: Susannah Clark on Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 3:46pm BST

Our experience, with TEC's many partnerships In Africa, is that no one has refused any gifts, let alone refused gifts based on our more inclusive theology.

The best "charity" is certainly in partnership with the locals, to actually serve their needs. There actually is something called "toxic charity" which involves feel good activities that make the givers feel good but don't actually help the people in need. That's often the case when missionaries come in to build things, rather than hire locals who are perfectly capable.

I got a little confused, +David, about the USA charity that got in trouble because it "announced it would not refuse to employ people in same sex marriages." Wasn't the case that they were going to be non discriminating, and then some of their donors complained and insisted that they absolutely discriminate against those in SSM? It reads as if it is bad charity because they decided to follow the non discriminatory policy, which I actually believe is the law of the land in most of our states, with some "outs" for religious organizations. Surely it isn't immoral for a charity to have nondiscriminatory hiring practices, that are in sync with law? Somehow it seems like that got muddled. Nondiscriminatory hiring practices is the norm in the majority of US states, especially when public funding raising, such as for a charity, is involved.

Posted by: Cynthia on Sunday, 18 May 2014 at 3:28pm BST

Hi Cynthia. Sorry if it wasn't as clear as intended. That paragraph was, as it said, reflecting on the behaviour of individual donors.

Clearly some were more interested in the employment practices of the US charity than in the wellbeing of the recipients of their generosity.

My criticism was of the donors who withdrew their "gifts", not of the charity, which sought to abide by inclusive employment practices.

Posted by: David Walker on Sunday, 18 May 2014 at 9:26pm BST

Thank you for the clarity, +David. I assumed that was the intent, but only from your previous writings.

Charity with strings attached are often a problem. No one seems to purchase the insistence of their particular "strings" more readily than rich American arch-conservatives.

Posted by: Cynthia on Monday, 19 May 2014 at 5:11pm BST
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