In our undignified neoliberal world, charity becomes the theoretical answer to inequality. We present the response of rich fools to the suffering of those around them as philanthropy. But after forty years of neoliberalism, it should be clear that modern charity does not work. Moreover, philanthropy has more to do with image laundering than demonstrated dignity.
Perhaps the ultimate example of this is no one other than Microsoft founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates.
The Truth About Bill Gates
Conspiracy theories about Bill Gates wanting to microchip everyone through Covid 19 vaccines abound. In truth, Bill Gates is a major roadblock to people in the two-thirds world having access to vaccines. If a vaccine jumping variant of Covid develops somewhere in Africa, we can thank Bill Gates for his role in thrusting us back into the worst of the pandemic. Let me explain.
Around the world right now, there are factories ready to produce large quantities of life-saving vaccines. The one thing they lack is the knowledge necessary to make the drugs. They lack knowledge because the intellectual property patents are owned by drug manufacturers who choosing not to share that information.
Internal memos go so far as to express fear that shared information might result in someone else adapting the technology and beating them to finding a cure for cancer. Yes, you read that correctly. Drug manufacturers are so profit-centric they only want the cure for cancer found if they make money off the discovery. Never mind that the knowledge they hold a patent on was gained through tax-payer-funded research.
Who is the public face of the argument guarding for patent protection? Bill Gates. First Gates convinced Oxford to partner with AstraZeneca rather than develop a patent-free technology. Then he went on the interview circuit spreading the lie that foreign factories were unable to produce mRNA vaccines.
Why? Perhaps it is consistency on his part. After all, defending intellectual property rights allowed him to become one of the wealthiest men in the world. Or maybe it is because he owns stock in the very companies whose profits he is guarding. Whatever this reason, the self-proclaimed humanitarian and a philanthropist uses his power to prevent millions from receiving Covid vaccines. In the end, Bill Gates is little more than the rich fool seeking glory.
Turning to the philanthropy of the wealthy for solutions to the problems of our times is counting on rich fools to correct the very systems that allowed them to become rich in the first place.
Charity and Class
But most of us are not Bill Gates. Most people who give charitably are not seeking to provide cover for egregious behavior or personal gain. Instead, we are just trying to do what is right in the cultural construct of the society we know. In other words, we are doing our best in a bad system.
Unfortunately, well-intentioned individuals or organizations being loving in a system based on power often helps sustain the status quo rather than pressing towards a system based on love. And that is the much deeper problem with charity.
In his essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde calls charity, “a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution . . . usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannize over [the poor’s] private lives.” He goes on to call charity an act that prolongs the “disease” of poverty rather than something that takes action to cure it.
In 2010, Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek expanded on Wilde’s thoughts writing and offered a much harsher critique on the charitable:
When, confronted with the starving child, we are told: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can save her life!”, the true message is: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can continue in your ignorant and pleasurable life, not only not feeling any guilt, but even feeling good for having participated in the struggle against suffering!”Living in the End Times
Whether it is simply trying to do our best in a broken system, seeking to soothe our sense of guilt, or hiding inequity behind a facade as Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels argued, charity reinforces a society built on class. This means, rather than being an act of Christian goodwill, charity reinforces the division of slave and free that, according to the Apostle Paul, is antithetical to the good news of Jesus.
But What About the Good Samaritan?
So what do we make of the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Is that not a parable promoting charity? The simple answer is no.
The parable does not stand in isolation, rather, it aims to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
In context, the parable begins with a religious leader asking what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back on him and asks what he reads in the law and prophets. The religious leader correctly replies that he should love God and his neighbor. Jesus affirms the answer only to have the religious leader ask, “And who is my neighbor?” Then, Jesus tells the parable.
Rather than being about charity, the parable is about breaking down divisions, in this case, one based on race. Where charity demands a class division, the Parable of the Good Samaritan brings all of humanity together.
An Alternative to Charity
So what are well-meaning people who want to make a difference supposed to do? I would argue that, rather than charity, we need to embrace mutual aid. Mutual aid involves a reciprocal exchange of goods and services to assure the care of all involved.
Whether it is an old-fashioned barn-raising, a community garden, or something more long-term and time-intensive, mutual aid projects believe that we live in abundant communities that have the resources necessary for everyone to thrive. The key is seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors and placing the well-being of the group over the individual.
Notice how, rather than dividing the world into makers and takers or haves and have nots, this model believes everyone has something to contribute. For some, this is financial resources while others have time. Others offer beneficial knowledge while even more provide the support that often goes unseen. It is an approach that expands on the Apostle Paul’s writing on the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 and purposefully demonstrates dignity to all involved.
In 2019, historian Rutger Bregman when to Davos, an international gathering where rich people celebrate themselves as they claim to solve the world’s problem. Bregman had a simple question, “Why aren’t we allowed to talk about taxes?”
Charitable giving and philanthropy is one of the leading arguments against taxation. Reaganomics argues that elites have money because they are masters of problem solving and efficiency. Therefore, if you want to solve social problems, you should trust elites over the government to get the job done well. However, if you have a just tax system, there is no motive for the wealthy to invest their time and energy in solving problems.
There are two problems with this. One, it falsely assumes meritocracy is not a sham. Second, charity over taxation flows from an individual’s sense of justice. That is rich fool thinking that places us in the position of God. Taxation creates the opportunity for other voices and perspectives in the problem solving process.
Book: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas
Much like Rutger Bregman at Davos, Anand Giridharadas went to an elite think tank and raised a fuss. In the 2015 Aspen Institute, he delivered the speech, The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You. After delivering the speech, he expanded on the ideas in this book.
Video: An Introduction to Mutual Aid by Praxis
Do you want more on Mutual Aid? Here is a short video exploring how the concept works.
This website links to a variety of mutual aid endeavors. Check it out and see if there is something in your community.
Let’s finally delve into the long overdue post on Genesis 1 and creation care.