What Does It Profit a Man?
There has been a recent flurry of articles by the World Bank, Nick Kristof in The New York Times, Andrew Mayeda in Benchmark and others about the progress in the elimination of extreme poverty in the world. Multiple studies are showing better than expected results in the reduction of extreme poverty around the world. Their main measure of success is based on the World Bank’s decision to raise its definition of extreme poverty to income of $1.90 per day, from $1.25.
Of course, there have been other articles, notably Jason Hickel writing in Al Jazeera, that these reports have been intentionally distorted and based on faulty data. Hickel believes that the UN and other agencies and funders have twisted the criteria and definitions, as well as the reporting definitions of poverty, to shape the story in their favor.
Whatever the case for declaring the success or failure of poverty elimination, there is more to the issue than the reduction of material poverty. When the only measure of success is the difference between a $1.25 and $1.95 daily income, we have created too narrow a focus on the issue.
In some ways, professional poverty relief has lost its soul in a way similar to “The Big University” David Brooks described in his recent New York Times column, “Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for.” Emotional, moral and spiritual development is equally as important as intellectual in cultivating a “whole” student.
In the same way, should there be something more to measuring the progress of a person living a life free from poverty than what we currently measure? Is poverty something more in our society than an economic problem to be solved? Is it as amenable to elimination as malaria or smallpox or river blindness? To turn a well-used phrase, “What does it profit a poor man to gain $1.00 in daily income or a rich man to give a billion away and not have his soul enriched?”
After all, I do believe that just as important as relieving physical poverty, is the soul-building effect of charity on the one who gives is vital. If it is more blessed to give than to receive, then the poverty of spirit in the donor is relieved as well. C.S. Lewis said the root word of “philanthropy” means that we have found something in common with each other. Too much of poverty alleviation is about fixing a problem and not discovering we are human beings who have much in common with each other. Our quest for economic solutions and material relief has done little to address our souls.
I have been thinking more about this topic because I am moderating a panel October 16 at the annual meeting of the Philanthropy Roundtable in Dallas. The panel will explore the role of three faith-based approaches to charity: evangelical Protestant, conservative Catholic and Orthodox Jew.
Too often, the term “faith-based” is used to describe well-intentioned do-gooders with soft hearts and less rigorous minds who are primarily interested in proselytizing or merely relieving the symptoms of poverty. They have been relegated to the margins and while they have been sometimes given great respect and esteem for their personal sacrifice – even granted sainthood – they are not always seen as serious players in the work going to scale. That is, until recently when the Gates Foundation made it plain they have begun to recognize the important role faith-based organizations play in the delivery of care and services across humanity.
But as Pope Francis has said, “The Church is not a political movement, or a well-organized structure… We’re not an NGO, and when the church becomes an NGO she loses salt, has no flavor, is only an empty organization.”
Where is the balance then? What is it that faith-based organizations bring to the local and global efforts to reduce poverty? Are they marginal – nice but not necessary – or are they perhaps the most substantive of all?
The Jewish concepts of charity are for all of us the very root of our perspectives on charity, the poor, our obligations and what God requires. Catholics have a long history of poverty relief accomplished through both secular and religious organizations. Evangelicals have only begun in the last several years to seriously wrestle with the relationship between poverty relief and the spread of the gospel.
I hope we will have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the work and contribution of these three faith traditions in addressing poverty in our world. As my dear and wise friend Curtis W. Meadows Jr. once said, “The gift without the giver is an empty gift.”