Unintended Consequences of Generosity

My son, Alex, is visiting us from Miami Beach for a couple weeks. Memories of single-parenthood during some of his childhood come flooding back and I’m reminded how fortunate I am not to be living pay check to pay check. Not having ‘enough’ adds a whole other layer of stress to life. There are people in our area with real needs. I get phone calls several times a week from people needing emergency help with food or gas. Our Benevolence and Community Outreach Board has used some of their funds for discretionary giving so that I can help some of these folks. And, of course, our Loose Coin Offering goes to many great non-profits each month. The ongoing collection of supplies and clothes keeps coming in to resource the Thanksgiving Day Free Store. Our monthly STEP donations continue to stream in. We do some good giving! Well done, church!

I’m also reminded of another side of the giving story. Recently one of our members told me about their experience buying for the Free Store. They purchased 20 backpacks that were on sale which emptied the shelf at this particular store. When this church member returned to the store a couple weeks later to purchase more backpacks, the same cashier told them about ‘someone’ who’d cleaned out the store of backpacks two weeks previous. The cashier remarked that ‘some people act as if they should be able to buy as much as they want regardless if that means that someone else would go without.’

This story surprised me! It also raised discerning questions. The cashier saw this large purchase as cheating other people who also needed a cheap backpack. Though our church member informed the cashier that the purchase was for a charity, what does it say about us as good givers? What does it mean when we, who are relatively affluent, purchase large numbers of items on sale or free? Though some of us are on fixed incomes with limited spending ability, should we feel compelled to take full advantage of on-sale or free items? Who won’t be able to have these items because we’ve emptied the shelf, even for a good cause?

Though our giving is very generous to those who have needs, are there any unintended consequences of that giving? Are we teaching people to rely on our generosity instead of feeling empowered to make purchases for themselves? These are some of the questions that I’ve been wrestling with lately. The world is changing so fast and there are such great needs that it can make our heads spin. There is no easy or perfect solution to these problems, but I’m sure that none of us wants to make any of these problems worse either.

Here’s a legend that sticks with me. There was a family having a picnic at the riverside one day. One of them heard some crying and was horrified to see a baby being swept downstream. She jumped into the river and rescued the baby. After a few minutes passed trying to comfort the infant and figure out what to do next, another baby came floating down the river! Another family member jumped in and brought the baby to shore. But then … another baby came down the river … and another … and another! “What’s happening here?!” one of them thought. Where are the babies coming from? Why are they being put into the water? They headed upstream to find out while some people continued to rescue babies from the river.

This story illustrates the difference between charity and justice. Rescuing babies is a necessary thing this is charity. Finding out why babies are being tossed in the river this is justice. There is a need for both charity and justice. I can answer how we at Union church are doing in the charity department, but how are we doing in the justice department?

Thanks for considering these thoughts as we make this journey together!

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