generosity redefined

More than once, I’ve heard it said that we Americans are a good and generous people. A few years ago, former Secretary of State Colin Powell described the US as “the most generous nation in the world.” Our president has frequently remarked that we are a “generous, kindhearted nation.”

The question is… are we?

Well, yes and no.

According to a recent CNN story, Americans forked over nearly $300 billion to charitable causes last year, including gifts to churches, universities, libraries, etc. That’s $13 billion more than the year before. And it’s more than twice the amount given by the next most generous country.

And that’s just private giving. For every man, woman, and child in this country, the US government provides nearly $24 in aid to developing countries every year. And thanks in no small part to the president’s promise to send an additional $30 billion to Africa over next five years to help fight AIDS, the total amount we give is on its way up.

That’s the good news. And make no mistake, it is good news. It’s good news for the 1.1 million Africans now receiving life-saving treatment for HIV. (Three years ago, only 50,000 Africans had access to such treatment.) It’s good news for the 16 million people who were given malaria nets last year. It’s good news for several hundred thousand families who got microloans to start small businesses to begin lifting themselves out of poverty.

But like almost every story, there is another side…

With per capita income at nearly $38,000, we’re one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. Yet when you measure foreign aid to developing countries as a percent of our wealth, we rank dead last among the rich countries of the world.

True, that’s just government aid, which means it doesn’t take into account the nearly $300 billion Americans gave out of their own pockets last year.

But here’s the thing. As big as $300 billion may sound, it’s barely more than 2 percent of our total wealth. (In a country where something like three-quarters of people identify themselves as Christians, why aren’t more of us giving closer to 10 percent?)

What’s more, for all our charitable giving, only around 2 percent of it goes to the world’s poor. (Which is the about same percent the average Protestant church sets aside for global outreach.)

And when you compare the rate of giving to the increase in our collective wealth, the amount we gave as a percent of income actually decreased slightly last year. From 2005 to 2006, our wealth increased by 6 percent. Meanwhile, our generosity lagged behind, increasing at just 4 percent.

We’re a country that gives 2 percent of our wealth to help others… 2 percent of which goes to the people who need it most. Two percent of two percent. In other words, for every $100 we earn, we give just four cents to help our poorest neighbors around the world.

How does that measure up to the Torah, which commanded the Israelites to set aside a tenth of their harvest every three years for priests, foreigners, orphans, and widows?

How do we reconcile our rate of giving with our allegiance to a messiah who once told a wealthy young man that the path to righteousness required him to sell his possessions and give to the poor?

How will God—who measures generosity according to what we have and not just the amount we give—judge us?

Jesus once sat and watched as people put their offerings into the temple treasury. Of all the offerings he saw that day, the one that caught his attention was that of a poor widow who gave just two small coins.

They were the only coins she had.

In God’s economy, it’s about sacrifice, not size.

May all of us remember this truth before we become too satisfied with the extent of our generosity. We in America have been entrusted with much—which means that much will be demanded of us.

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