Oh my Lord, that’s a good song. All of Hamilton is good, of course, but this song in particular is on my mind today, July 4. The day of our declaration that the American colonies would be independent of the British Empire. This song, sung from the perspective of King George III, could just as easily reflect the sentiments of the Emperor Nero in the age of Jesus. That’s right, I’m comparing the revolutionary movement of Jesus to the colonial uprising in these United States. (And I think you could easily add to this comparison the revolution led by Mohammed against the oligarchy in Mecca as well as the revolution Moses led against the imperial forces of Ramses the Great. Probably the Buddha’s revolution against the caste system too.)
The idea that the dignity of each person’s life demands that they have the freedom to exercise their own agency is not an idea unique to Christianity, but I think it is undeniable that the culture in which the founders of this country were steeped was thoroughly infused with the Christian tradition. The early Christian movement not only sought to oppose the injustice of the Roman Empire, but also to break the strangle-hold that complicit Temple authorities held over Jewish religious life. (Which, by the way, I think the Pharisees may have also been trying to break, but by a more traditionally Jewish route.) The revolutionaries of this country were by no small measure inspired by and acting in accord with the Christian movement of the first century.
Until, of course, they stopped. Many of the revolutionaries never even contemplated things like the abolition of slavery or the equal status of women under the law. Inclusion of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations would have blown their minds. When the common folk got restless and rose up against the American aristocracy, we got a new Constitution specifically designed to slow the revolution to a snail’s pace. But not to stop it.
So we find ourselves in a time when we can consider so many of the things that would not have been fathomable 240 years ago, much less 1986 (give or take a few years.) How far are we willing to allow the revolution to go in our generation? Who does our faith challenge us to include, whether we belong to the Jesus movement, the Mohammed movement, the Maccabean movement, or any other theistic or atheistic movement? Today while we give thanks for all that has brought us to this place and time, we might also ask what comes next.
I think we may have made a mistake. We being people who have worked in non-profits over the last decade or so. The mistake is not having pushed back. Specifically, we have not pushed back against the rising tide of measurable outcomes on performance dashboards. And I get that no one can hold back the ocean, but we have not even substantially challenged the idea that donations to charity are just another transaction like any other financial business. We have, in fact, played into that notion by asking people to “invest” in our “work” rather than give to a person in need.
As a result, we’ve sold out the voice of the people we serve. We’ve spread the message that a transaction with us absolves whatever sin is accrued from all the other financial transactions a person or a corporation makes. But as a recent post on Al Jazeera points out, charity is no substitute for justice. (We’ll leave for another time a discussion of why the most provocative reporting in America is coming from Al Jazeera.) There is quite a bit to unpack in this article, but I’d like to address a basic premise on which it is built: that charity is an exchange of money for a fix of serotonin.
It has become increasingly hard to imagine that there are people who give not because of what they want but because of who they are. These people are called philanthropists. That’s a mash-up of the Greek words “philos” or love, and “anthropos” or people. Philathropists put their love of people before money. Sure, we celebrate the philanthropists with a lot of money who put their love of people first, but it doesn’t take a bunch of money to be a philanthropist. It does take realizing that we are most human when we share, without restrictions, the things we have with people we love.
Love does not deny justice. To love someone includes treating them with justice and working with them for justice. But love also includes making gifts, perhaps gifts that mean we can do less of what we want to do. That’s a suggestion that sounds foolish to our ears in a time when self-determination is paramount. Why would anyone give up a bit of their own freedom (or money) for someone else? Sure, maybe for a family member or a good friend. Someone they know, but not some stranger.
And there is the rub. When we treat charity as a transaction, the recipient stays a stranger. We can maintain the illusion that she or he is different from us. We don’t have to face the reality that we too are people and will also be in need of help one day. They act weird and talk funny and smell bad and we don’t want them in our places. We don’t want to know in how many ways they are us and we are them. And we in the non-profit world have readily generated performance measurements and returns on investment that provide a rood screen between the donor and the unwashed masses. In doing so, we have not only presented a barrier to the disenfranchised who seek justice, we have put fetter on the charitable person who might become a philanthropist.
In the 1991 edition of The Cannonball, the yearbook of Battle Ground Academy, there is an ad which simply states “Compliments of the James Clarkson for US Senate Campaign.” We got a holiday from school if we sold the requisite number of ads. I think the number for seniors was ridiculously low. Of course I did not go out and pound the pavement trying to sell ads. I just bought one at the last minute. But I think my ad was, in fact, just cheeky enough.
The ad reflected what I thought at the time to be true: I wanted to be a politician. I thought that could be a good thing, a noble thing. The Senate, of all places, was where I thought nobility particularly lay. Jim Sasser and Al Gore Jr. were the Senators from Tennessee at that time, but they were not the ones who inspired me to pursue the upper chamber. It was more people like Daniel Inouye, Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan that impressed me. They had Republican colleagues like John Danforth and Orrin Hatch who seemed like decent, reasonable people as well.
I wanted to be like them, wearing suits and shined shoes that walked across thick carpets and marble floors while doing good for the people of this country and the world. Today I’m not sure that there is anything you could do to convince me that life as a Senator would be anything but miserable. I have no desire to be like Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid, and it baffles me that anyone would. That may illustrate how much I have changed, but I believe it shows how much politics have changed too.
Today, I saw a Mitt Romney campaign sticker on a car, much as I saw McCain stickers for four years and much as I saw Kerry stickers before that or Gore stickers even. All of these people who are carrying around these losses long after the campaign is over. Politics did not used to be like that, I don’t think. Certainly we were not talking about shutting down the government every three months. My notions of public service may have been naive, but our politics have not always been so cynical. Still, I’m a little sorry that no one will drive around with my name on their car for years after I lose an election.
Ok, church nerds, I know it’s not ACTUALLY Christmas yet. It’s actually Advent yet. “Coming to” might be an accurate description of what the Latin word “advent” means. Maybe it’s not. I did take three years of Latin in High School, but I did not study very hard. So, I’m going with “coming to.” Like after a long night of drinking Strawberry Boone’s Farm to find your dorm room is a total wreck. Or is that not something we share?
We are drunk though, as a culture. Right? I’m sure that if I wanted to, I could find some videos of people being ridiculous in big box stores to replace the video up there. And as easy as it might be to ridicule the individuals in those videos, I’m trying to put myself in the place of a guy who works way too much for way too little money and got off for Thanksgiving for the first time in three years. Because the X-Box is so ridiculously cheap at Best Buy at 3am, he stays up and goes down there so that his kids will finally have something as good as all their friends claim to get for Christmas. When he sees this one shot at being a good dad falling into the hands of some creep who was talking about selling it on Ebay 20 minutes ago, maybe he goes a little crazy. Maybe he starts throwing a punch or two.
Definitely a bad choice, but what are we doing that makes him think that he has to get that X-Box to be a good dad? Because we do. We totally do. Time Magazine called this year’s Black Friday “calm” because there was only one death. And I had to Google “Black Friday Deaths” to find out about that one. THAT’S CRAZY! That’s being drunk. All of us. Let’s all take a cold shower and have a cup of black coffee, what’dya say? It is not as if deaths on Black Friday are inevitable. Unless, of course, your stock price depends on it.