In Simple Charity’s mission to “help Christians practice solidarity with the poor,” there’s an implication that Christians need help doing so. In other words, they aren’t practicing as much solidarity as they could (or should). But is that true?
Some don’t know that Americans tend to be very generous with their money. According to the Philanthropy Roundtable, the average American donates as much as seven times more money to charity than the average European, and about twice as much as the average Canadian. So on a global scale, the U.S. is pretty generous, at least on an individual private-sector basis.
This is for a few reasons: One is that America is very religious, and the strongest predictor of generosity is religious observance, according to Gallup polls. Churches are not the only ones receiving that money either: highly religious people even give more to secular charities than their nonreligious counterparts. Many secular poverty experts are forced to admit that faith alleviates poverty in a visible way.
Another reason for Americans’ generosity is simply the amount of wealth in the country, which still has the world’s largest GDP. As the economy has grown, charitable giving has increased every year since 1977, excluding major recessions. From the numbers alone, one might conclude that Americans are stewarding their gifts well.
However, if you asked people whether the attitudes of Americans seem charitable at this moment in history, very few would say yes. It goes without saying that the U.S. is politically divided right now, and that’s partly over the subject of poverty alleviation. Most agree that poverty is an issue in America; many people would even guess that 40% of Americans live below the poverty line (the actual number is closer to 15%). However, tensions remain bitterly high over the “how” of this problem: Democrats tend to say that the government should intervene and Republicans that the market, if left alone, will do enough.
Although we believe these debates are worth having, Simple Charity will not weigh in on them now. So let’s return to the question. Do American Christians practice solidarity with the poor? The truth is, solidarity is about more than giving money. It’s also more than welfare programs, and it’s more than job creation. Solidarity is standing with the poor. It’s learning from the poor. It’s sacrificing for the poor.
From this point of view, Americans still have a lot of room to grow into the practice of solidarity. Even as I write these words, I could ask myself: When was the last time I stood with a prisoner? The simple act of visiting or writing to someone in that situation might brighten their day, but my nervousness or guilt holds me back. When was the last time I, from the comfort of my home, tried to learn from a young person living in a slum in India? Americans are often surprised by how many of the world’s marginalized have access to the internet and how often they make blogs, videos, or podcasts that offer a wealth of wisdom. When was the last time I sacrificed for a charity? I give, sure, but does it pinch me? C.S. Lewis muses in Mere Christianity, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”
Americans, despite their financial giving, tend not to participate in such efforts. 46% of Americans lean towards the belief that the poor lead “easy lives” because they can get what they want from the government. Whether or not government intervention is justified, it cannot make the lives of the poor “easy” when poverty is an issue that also encompasses broken relationships and broken systems. Poverty is not an issue of “them” but an issue of “us,” as in all of us.
In 2018, national news reported that Baltimore resident Jacqueline Smith was fatally stabbed while offering money to a panhandler. Soon, homeless people across Baltimore found that nearly everyone was locking their car doors or walking the other way. One man commented, “It’s embarrassing, it’s hurtful. They’re acting like I’m not a person.” Later, the police found out that Ms. Smith had actually been killed by her husband and stepdaughter, and no homeless people had been involved. However, the damage to Baltimore’s street population had already been done. Mr. Smith, the real killer, knew he could cover for himself with a story that played into the fears everyone already had about “those people.”
It doesn’t matter how much money flows into charities’ coffers if we still fear, disdain, or disregard the poor in our daily lives. Turning your head and giving a smile to someone who is living on the street can do just as much as dropping money into a red bucket outside the grocery store. And if you’re doing it right, either of those acts should change not just the poor but yourself as well.
In the Bible, God has been telling us this for thousands of years. The gospel-writer Mark reports that as Jesus was watching people give to the temple treasury,
Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44).
When we practice solidarity with the poor, we have to do so like the widow: out of faith that God will provide for us. We must have more faith in God than in the market, and more faith in God than in the government. We must give in order to increase our faith, and we must increase our faith in order to give. Only then can we learn from, stand with, and sacrifice for the poor.
Making sure that we’re donating to good organizations is important. That’s why Simple Charity vets nonprofits so carefully. But it is just as important to make sure that those donations are changing us as well—that they change how we see the poor, and how we practice solidarity with them. Because “just as He laid down His life for us, so too should we lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).