This article had its genesis in three unrelated events – scrawled notes after attending a charity event with my wife in Phoenix a couple of years ago, similar impressions and a few jottings while watching, yet again, “Scrooge”, the wonderful 1951 Alistair Sim version of Dickens’ classic last Christmas Eve, and on the holiday itself reading a New York Times column which, in describing certain charitable acts, underscored my own convictions about charity. Unfortunately the article was never finished so I will attempt to finally sew the pieces together to successful completion.
Have you ever read an article on the society pages of a newspaper about a multitude of befurred, bejeweled, betuxed and perfectly coiffed wealthy, arriving in their chauffeured vehicles, gathering for an event dedicated to some high profile charity? I am sure you have. There are the pictures of different couples, yes, dressed in their finest, happy to be there to help the sick or the poor. And the final tally of money raised through their pledges and contributions is supposed to invoke paroxysms of appreciation and gratitude among the eventual recipients of that generosity and among us sympathetic observers not blessed with the ability to give so much.
Yes, these people, so rich that they cannot possibly spend what they have, make themselves feel so good, having contributed a particle or dash of their wealth to a particular cause. They do not think of erasing the conditions or circumstances that cause the deprivation or impoverishment of people in our society, but conspicuously contribute a shred of their vast fortunes so that they can go home, look in the mirror and tell themselves how generous they are and that they have “done their part” in “helping the poor”.
These people do not think of changing their government or their laws so that poverty and illness can be addressed and eradicated. They do not think of going to the source of a problem to find a solution. If they really cared they would put that wealth to work electing new politicians, passing laws and regulations, that would change the tax and welfare systems so that these problems could be prevented. Oh, but that would deprive them of this opportunity to step out on their little stage and show the world how benevolent they are.
But this is the problem, is it not? We spin our wheels, raise money, give to charities and maybe offer a prayer or two. Charity is a poor substitute for government action to solve problems of need. Charity and poverty – how inadequate one is to cure the other and temporary amelioration is not a cure.
A couple of summers ago my wife and I attended the “Circle the City Garden Tea”, an annual gathering of well-intentioned charitable givers whose efforts support medical care for the homeless. I felt very uncomfortable there among the many bejeweled, expensively dressed minor league philanthropists. While I try to give as much as I can to worthy organizations, charity makes me nervous because what I can give is so limited. While there that morning surrounded by people feeling very good about themselves for having bid on “silent auction” items, buying lottery tickets for other donated items and filling out pledge cards, I couldn’t help getting the feeling that all this giving was a cop-out of sorts. Most of the people present, it seemed would rather give some money and a little time, pat themselves on the back, go home feeling smug and superior (another nice charitable tax deduction to reduce their taxable income at the end of the year), rather than see their taxes raised to ensure medical care for everyone including the indigent and a floor under everyone which would provide security for them.
The very worthy and admirable founder of Circle the City, Sister Adele O’Sullivan, herself a medical doctor who has spent much of her life treating the poor, presented a welcoming talk during which she exclaimed “Oh, I wish poverty would just go away”. Well, Sister Adele, in western European countries people really do believe in helping their fellow man, put their money where their mouths are and do pay the taxes necessary to alleviate hunger, lack of medical care, and lack of shelter….for everyone. Yes, in countries like these poverty does indeed “go away”.
Do any of these people with the designer clothes, jeweled eyeglass frames, expensive hairdos, gushing about how happy they are to be there at the “Garden Tea”, really think that there will be fewer poor people, fewer homeless in need of shelter, medical care and sustenance on the streets because of their efforts? Yes, of course, every person who is helped, every person lent a helping hand to cure their addiction to alcohol or drugs and put on a path to a job and a secure future is a worthy achievement. But do these isolated successes cure the problem? Why don’t these people try to provide homes for the homeless? Or jobs so that they can obtain homes. Or if they are unable to work, provide reliable monetary support so that they can provide a home and sustenance for themselves? People in need should not be dependent on the vagaries of charity. If Sister Adele really wanted poverty and need to “go away” she needs to support a floor under us all beneath which no one could fall.
But unfortunately we aren’t doing this – the government, thanks to Republicans, is doing even less to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness, attaching “work requirements” to virtually every benefit from food stamps to Medicaid. The best seller “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance has been seized upon by the political right as ammunition to further cut assistance and support for the poor. Vance attributes his “escape” from poverty to “hard work”, not “government handouts” and this is music to right wing Republicans’ ears. People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. People are poor because they grow dependent on government “handouts” that deprive them of ambition.
Yes, hard work is important but sometimes there are simply no jobs or if there are jobs, they don’t pay a living wage. One of the greatest ironies of modern life in this country is that so many full time jobs don’t pay enough for people to support their families. The greed of so many companies today that have chosen not to pay a living wage to full time employees is deplorable and should not be tolerated in “the wealthiest country in the world”. All employers should pay a living wage to full time employees. If they claim they cannot or else they will go out of business, let them fold. If the product or service they provide cannot generate living wages for employees, that product or service does not need to be provided. Paying a living wage to employees needs to be just as important as making a profit on that product or service, having your stock price increase and paying dividends to stockholders. And paying employees properly should be required by law.
My wife attends weekly Mass at St Patrick’s Church in Scottsdale and to keep peace between us, I usually try to attend with her. I enjoy many aspects of the experience – observing the centuries-old ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic church and appreciating the dedication, energy, leadership and humor of Father Eric Tellez, the priest who is chief pastor of the church. I also enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the church itself – its really a beautiful edifice, reflecting the faith and generosity of its huge congregation. But at certain times of the year I am disappointed to see this lovely church become an example of what upsets and troubles me, by collecting socks for the homeless and indigent. Okay, it’s better than nothing I am sure, but bringing socks to church is just another exercise in ostentatious giving. If it genuinely cared, the congregation would be politically active and elect the right politicians to raise their own taxes in order to provide decent paying jobs and eradicate poverty, rather than making a show of bringing socks to church. But there we are, parishioner after parishioner, including us, strutting up (or slinking up in my case) to deposit a package of Target or Costco socks in a bin. Wow, how generous, how selfless. We are now absolved of any guilt about not caring properly for our fellow man.
It’s Christmas 2018 and I am striving to deal with feelings deriving from two sources – our annual family viewing last night of the wonderful 1951 Alistair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol” and a column I just read from the New York Times this morning. In “Scrooge”, The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge what has become of his beautiful lost love, Alice, whose affection he tragically traded for his selfish pursuit of wealth. Alice is generously and joyfully tending to the sick and needy in a poorhouse on Christmas Eve. The final revelation of this Ghost shows him dramatically opening his robe to reveal two gaunt, sickly and ragged little children. “This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy…” he intones. Through the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ wonderful story reminds us of the real meaning of Christmas and impresses upon us our responsibility to care for those less fortunate. But just like the benevolent organizations to which I have alluded, this lovely Christmas story stresses that we do so through the unpredictability and unreliability of individual charity, rather than through the responsibility of societies and their governments.
And in the column noted above, the author, Margaret Renkl, whose work I generally admire, begins by considering the contradiction of evangelical support of Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama and of a U.S. president who violates virtually every Christian precept imaginable. She then then exhorts Christians to rally around the teachings of Jesus in which all Christians should believe: “Jesus had nothing to say about birth control or abortion or homosexuality. He did have quite a lot to say about the poor and the vulnerable… Surely Christians across the political spectrum believe we’re called to feed the hungry, heal the sick, protect the weak and welcome the stranger.” Great stuff so far, but rather than urging us to elect politicians and pass laws that would help wipe out poverty, Ms Renkl loses herself in describing the wonderful things that she and her fellow Christians are doing to help the homeless.
During the winter months, members of “Room in the Inn”, a group involving Nashville area churches, go downtown and collect homeless people, take them to their various places of worship or shelters for a hot shower, a wholesome dinner, a good night’s sleep in a clean bed, a healthy breakfast the next morning and a sack lunch for later. But then, these same people take their one-night guests downtown and dump them off again on the same streets upon which they are homeless! What does this do, pray tell? Are these selfless and generous Christians of “Room in the Inn” doing anything to eliminate the root causes of homelessness? These people are homeless – they need homes and jobs, not one night stands of temporary shelter. No, just like charities such as Circle the City, and just like Ebenezer Scrooge’s lost love Alice taking care of the poor, they’re just playing round the edges, treating symptoms and not addressing causes.
If the reader will allow me the privilege of some divergence, I would like to conclude this piece with another quite different example of “sanctimonious hypocricy”. In the same way I am disgusted by charities beating around the edges of serious problems without attacking the causes, I am sickened by the way do-gooders ostentatiously go through the motions of demonstrating understanding and sympathy for one of the greatest injustices of our time – the stripping of the dignity, welfare, safety, livelihood and land of the Palestinian people in their native country, without ever saying anything about the root causes.
As I noted in my earlier article, there are countless stories in the media of the little efforts and little events that are purported to “bring Israelis and Palestinians together”. Maybe it’s a story, like the one I described in the afore-mentioned article about Israeli and Palestinians women temporarily shedding their enmity to gossip in a beauty salon, or it might be an isolated effort to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together in some school, playground or sporting event, so that they can show the world how they can get along. Maybe the story makes the nauseating feel-good final entry on the network evening news, or makes it into a similar area of the print media. But it always produces the same feeling in me as do charity events attended by the wealthy.
Because these weak efforts are really obfuscations masquerading as solutions, only window dressing, covering and disguising the real problems. Oh, these innocent little Palestinian and Israeli children are joyfully playing together and loving each other, oblivious of the real factors and actions that keeps them apart. The daily insults, humiliation, attacks, beatings, deaths and land theft go on, aided by the 11 million dollars a day US taxpayers provide to collude in these crimes. And our politicians of whatever party continue with their unqualified praise of Netanyahu and his minions for their “only democracy in the Middle East” and “shared values” with the United States, just to keep the money flowing into their election coffers. Please save me from the platitudes and the sanctimonious hypocrisy and let’s attack the root causes of these crimes with an arms embargo, cancellation of our $11 million per day support and hauling these Israeli criminals into the World Court for trial and sentencing.
So concludes this article about the sanctimonious hypocrisy of our many institutions which, while they might do some good, refuse to expose and address the real causes of poverty, deprivation and injustice and seek real solutions. But before we part company, it might be useful to share some reminders from notable people about our responsibilities and how to fulfill them.
“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
— Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
― Hélder Câmara, Dom Helder Camara: Essential Writings
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”