Even in the midst of several really excellent pieces from secular writers on the Giving Pledge (my own favorites are here, here, here, and one particularly insightful piece I’m saving for the end of this post), I’ve been surprised not to see more vigorous discussion among Christians of this billionaire-driven challenge to America’s billionaires to give away more than half their wealth to charity. Since nature abhors a vacuum even in virtual reality, I’ve decided to devote this week’s posts to my own (Christian) perspective on the Giving Pledge.
We begin our consideration of the topic by contrasting the focus of two different “billionaire pledges”—the first from the Giving Pledge and the second from Zacchaeus the tax collector.
First, from America’s billionaires:
The Giving Pledge is an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the wealthiest American families and individuals to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or after their death.
Second, from Zaccheus the tax collector:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ “
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Zacchaeus is not helping address society’s most pressing problems. Instead, he is repenting as a result of his warm, personal, unwarranted encounter with Jesus Christ.
In the same vein, Peter Wilby, in an especially insightful piece entitled The Rich Want a Better World? Try Paying Fair Wages and Tax suggests that the greatest social impact of all may come from the repentance of the philanthrocapitalists themselves:
If the rich really wish to create a better world, they can sign another pledge: to pay their taxes on time and in full; to stop lobbying against taxation and regulation; to avoid creating monopolies; to give their employees better wages, pensions, job protection and working conditions; to make goods and use production methods that don’t kill or maim or damage the environment or make people ill. When they put their names to that, there will be occasion not just for applause but for street parties.
There is an irony in the claim of the Giving Pledge that “the Giving Pledge is specifically focused on billionaires”. In truth, the Giving Pledge is not focused on billionaires but rather on social problems as understood and reshaped by billionaires according to their values and experience. Absent a Zacchaeus-like transformation, it is difficult to imagine such philanthropy not being warped by what Samuel Torvend expositing Martin Luther (p. 32) called our “strong inward curvature” which “pull[s] everything, consciously and unconsciously, into the orbit of self.”