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Does it Take Faith to Give a Shirt?

February 15, 2011

I’ve been thinking more on this World Vision issue as the debate rages on (with recent, noticeable silence from World Vision USA), especially from a ‘faith-based’ perspective. Why is this perspective important? First, it speaks to World Vision at a level that they operate at, challenging the religious justifications that are often underlying and unchallenged because of tolerance/relativism/fear. Beyond the dollars and cents (which are pretty damning themselves), this is World Vision’s second language. Second, it speaks to those who unquestioningly support World Vision, often because it is a faith-based aid group, and prop up bad aid (the you and me of this whole story).

Within the development/aid community, World Vision is considered part of the cadre of ‘faith-based’ organization, those whose explicit goal is not only aid but aid in the name of faith/religion/God, which exists primarily in the Christian sphere but also in other religions such as Islam. This issue of the shirts is symptomatic of of two larger issues that plague the Church/Christian religion as a whole I think, what I’ll call Complicity with Consumerism and The Problem of Ananias and Sapphira.

Complicity with Consumerism

How do these Gift in Kind (GiK) programs survive? On the premise that you are going to buy more shirts than you know what to do with and, subsequently, are going to get rid of a perfectly good shirt that someone else will want. It’s not that the shirt wears out or gets a tear (most places don’t accept shirts like this) but that we simply buy more than we need. If, as a faith based based organization, they are serious about social justice, equity, transformation, and ‘loving your neighbor‘ – is promoting consumerism the way to do it? Study after study has shown how Western consumption has negative effects on the majority developing world, from unfair trade deals to stripping vulnerable countries of resources unequitably to environmental effects because of Western manufacturing to underpaid migrant labor to… and the list goes on.

Not only do programs such as World Vision’s NFL shirts one neglect to mention any of this but it actually promotes wasteful consumerism; it manipulates an unjust system that it should, instead, be challenging. Instead of accepting the NFL’s shirts and milking it for publicity, it should be educating about how this type of wasteful production negatively affects the lives of others both at home and abroad. Instead of encouraging people to buy more shirts they don’t need they should be encouraging people to re-evaluate their consumptive priorities and challenging them to learn to live with less. Social justice is about equitable living and advocating for the oppressed; this program does the opposite by promoting and highlighting unjust, consumptive global relationships as beneficial for all. The only people this program benefits is the NFL and World Vision. This goes for many GiK programs, not just World Vision’s.

The Problem of Ananias and Sapphira

In the biblical book of Acts, we find this little story:

1But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” 5When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it…

7After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last…

At first pale, Ananias and Sapphira don’t give everything to God and are punished for it, which in itself has a message for programs like World Vision’s – God wants the best and no half measures. But, if you look at what Peter has to say to Ananias, you see the real issue here: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie“, “You have not lied to men but to God.” The issue is the lying, trying to pass off half measures as full measures. To be blunt, this World Vision program is half measures. Sure, t-shirts may be nominally useful in some situations but with the resources that are used and with the clout World Vision has, there are many better ways to use the money and to make sure all the resources are used to benefit communities and to promote equitable living in the model of Jesus. But they are passing this initiative off as full measures. They embrace the publicity that an initiative like this gives them, trumpeting it as a valuable part of their programs.

How this is connected to the larger framework of the church and giving is summed up succinctly in a comment on Texas in Africa‘s post on the issue:

I think another part of it might be the “we’ll take what we can get” attitude that a lot of Christians find at their local church. The nursery is stocked with donated toys and supplies, the clothes closet is filled with used clothes, church dinners are pot-luck style, etc. The same goes for human resources, as many roles are filled by volunteers. It’s pretty easy for us to not think critically and assume that if we can do it at home, we can do it abroad.

The giving of half measures seems to be ingrained in our church culture and we’re quite happy to pass it off as full measures.

These two issues undoubtedly intersect. It’s easier to get support and donations when you pander to the consumer culture and the church culture that looks for easy ways out, half-hearted giving, and guilt assuaging moments of charity. There is both the need for something tangible and physical but for it also to be easy, to register both proximity and distance, interest and disinterest in a sort of colonial ‘White man’s burden’ mentality. This whole initiative balances on the fulcrum of power and wealth disparity – that the wealthy consumer needs to save the lesser, poorer parts of society through… consumerism? It’s like those crazy initiative where you buy another CD/shirt/etc and part of the proceeds go to the poor. Consumerism does not fix problems created by consumerism.

So, to answer the question in the title: Does it take faith to give a shirt?  No. As I alluded to in my previous post, when Jesus said “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor” he didn’t mean literally. What he was after was sacrifice or full measures of faith. This t-shirt initiative of World Vision’s lacks this and panders to the very culture of poverty disparity that it seeks to remedy.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2011 11:07

    This is a beautiful post. I’m glad that someone had the courage to speak-up about this issue from a faith-based perspective.

    I’m shocked by the fact that people who work for World Vision or any other Christian-based organization are worried about losing their jobs for discussing these issues publicly as a private citizen. It seems to be contradictory to the faith.

    “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
    Matthew 6:26-34

    Are those who are worried about losing their jobs really trusting God to provide for them or are they really trusting in themselves and their employers to provide for them?

    I am a Christian. I have lost a job for taking a moral stance against unethical and illegal activity. I have been to Africa many times. I have partnered with my African friends to help the underprivileged and vulnerable people in their villages and communities. I am passionate about Africans helping Africans in the field of sustainable development and self-determination. Sometimes doing the right thing is unpopular and painful. Just ask Jesus.

  2. Joe Turner permalink
    February 15, 2011 13:51

    I think there is a lack of teaching on giving – for example, I was taught that giving that costs nothing is worth nothing (which I think I probably got from reading Gandhi in my teenage years). The prevailing attitude seems to be that it is perfectly acceptable – or perhaps even expected – to give in order to get something in return.

    There is also a lot of bad teaching on blessing, which I suspect influences the way many Christians think. We usually associate our ‘blessed’ status with our wealth, housing, health, employment etc. First, I’m not convinced those things are necessarily of God anyway. Second, it subtly implies that those who do not enjoy those blessings are somehow spiritually inadequate. Third it appears to fly in the face of what the New Testament actually teaches are blessings from God.

    The problem with asking God to bless us is that we then tend to imagine it involves those things rather than the necessary daily staples.

  3. July 14, 2011 19:08

    I am a World Vision employee (8 months in) and I love this post (and many others like it that challenge World Vision’s strategies). I am so new – trying to figure out how decisions like this are made, how to challenge them internally, etc. Have no idea at this point. I’m in IT so I’m sure I am nowhere close to those people, but I’ll be looking. I love the organization for reasons other than its excellent strategy, and would like to see it move in the right direction. Will continue reading and dialoguing. Thanks for posting this.

    • July 14, 2011 19:38

      Welcome! I know within institutions such as World Vision there are many people who wish to see change and to challenge traditional ways of ‘aid’ and ‘development’. Keep looking for opportunities to challenge (in love, in wisdom, and in truth) and I look forward to the dialogue!

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