Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Rapper's Mite

I was devastated to learn that Sam Simon, one of the creators of The Simpsons, is dying.  Doctors say that he only has three to six months left.  And while there is much to criticize about the content of The Simpsons, there is still much to praise and the show has given me countless hours of joy, and dare I say insight, for free.  For that, I thank you, Sam Simon.

He has set aside enough money for his family, but he is big project before he dies is to give away the rest of his wealth to charity.  But in his waning days, Simon sees a great deal of hypocrisy that is rampant among the celebrity culture tied so closely to large causes.

He said during and interview with The Hollywood Reporter: "But I don't think the spirit of Hollywood is such a spirit of generosity. I think people really begrudge giving... In New York, it's like that. A lot of charities spend a million dollars on a fundraiser to make $15,000. It's a social swirl. They do some great stuff and then--it's called mission drift. It becomes more about the parties." 

This reminds me of some research a friend of mine did on the Susan G. Komen foundation.  At some points during the year, the color pink becomes ubiquitous on shirts, on ribbons, on balloons, and even on NFL helmets.  Millions of dollars come into the foundation "for the cure."  But what my friend discovered was that the vast majority of the money does not go to breast cancer research.  Most of it goes to raising "awareness," which means more adds, more celebrity endorsements, more t-shirts, more bumper stickers, etc.  And of course there is nothing wrong with making people aware of the great need of those with breast cancer.  But I would venture to say that most people who participate in activities sponsored by the Komen foundation think that they are raising money for cancer research, when they are not.

Why aren't they?  I think Simon was accurate when he described mission drift.  When the events become more important than the cause, something has been lost.  Those who defend the Komen Foundation may argue that the increase of awareness overall has led to an increase in donations to breast cancer research.  I hope so, though my research hasn't been able to find the data.

And this phenomenon of mission drift can be found in any organization, even in our Church.  When we  volunteer our time, talents, and treasure, do we pat ourselves on the back for having generously given of ourselves?  Or do we stop to see if we are actually helping anyone?

I want to be careful here and not get too far away from Mother Teresa's principle of charitable work.  When asked how successful she thought she was in ending poverty in Calcutta, she said, God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”  Success or failure is ultimately in the hands of the Lord, and not ours.  One of the best pieces of advice I received when I began youth ministry was from Fr. Robert Jasney, a priest who worked with Mother Teresa.  He said, "Commit yourself to process.  Do the work the Lord sets before you and don't worry about the results.  God will take care of that."  That advice kept me sane when I kept fretting if our words and actions were changing the hearts of young Catholics.  But the point is that WE do not change people's hearts.  Only God can do that.  WE can only be faithful to the work.

And while we cannot always control the results of our charity, we do have some measure of control of how we spend our charitable time, talent, and treasure.  Do we give wisely?  When we see the need that is out there, do I seek to give in a way that can be most effective?

Another big problem I see is the conflation of awareness and charity.  Recently in an interview, rap icon, multi-millionaire Jay-Z responded to some criticism by Harry Belafonte regarding the rapper's charitable giving.  Mr. Z responded:

“I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough.”

Now I'm sure a lot can be said about being a role model and what a positive impact it has (though I question its particular application to Mr. Beyonce here), but it is NOT the same thing as charity.  I can bet Mother Teresa never said, "You do the heavy lifting.  Just by being here, I've done enough."  Between the two, it sounds like Jay-Z is much weaker than Momma-T.

But I think this is part of the corrosive element of celebrity culture.  The focus on the self draws us inward like a black hole so that we convince ourselves that even our own selfish aggrandizement is somehow charity to others.

I signed a petition.  I wore a ribbon.  I am a role model.  YAY!  I'm now a saint of charity!

So then how much should we give?  Someone once asked that to CS Lewis.  His answer was "Probably more than you are giving now."  I used to think that Lewis was focusing on the sacrificial aspect of charity, that somehow it wasn't charity unless it hurt.  And to be sure in this fallen world, to be generous is dying to selfish desires.  Lewis himself donated all of the money he made from his books, living only on his teaching salary.  But now I think I've figured out what he meant.

I think about the story of the Widows Mite:   And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,  and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all;  for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”  Lk 21:1-4

I used to think that what made her more virtuous was that she sacrificed and injured her finances for the sake of others.  But I think I've always had it backwards.  I think she gave without thinking about how much it hurt.  She had complete and utter trust in God that she gave Him everything, confident that she would receive her "daily bread."  The others held back because giving, even from their surplus, was a challenge.

I think Lewis' reply to charity is not about adding more coins into another's purse.  I think he means that you should give to the point where you don't even think twice about yourself.  You put the needs of others before you.  If that means giving from your surplus or your need, you do it without hesitation.  Because THAT is the virtue of charity.

It takes great strength of character, like that of the widow, like that of Mother Teresa, to let go of our earthly wants and stop seeing ourselves through Jay-Z colored lenses where we are the center and focus of our charity.  Will you do what's right or will you choose the rapper's mite.

No comments:

Post a Comment