Many years ago, my mother-in-law asked a friend to pick up four strawberry jellies for her at the store. When her friend returned with four jars of strawberry jam, she was dumbfounded. It turns out that they weren’t speaking the same language, though English was both their native tongues. As they discovered, British English and American English don’t use the same words to describe the same item.
I don’t believe that there was a similar linguistic explanation for my horror when I read an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I do believe the author and I speak the same language; however our worldviews are distinctly different. In a debate entitled, “Should Philanthropies Operate like Businesses,” Michael Edwards made a statement while seemingly unaware that it was at all arguable or controversial. He said, ‘For starters, let’s not forget the reason we have philanthropy in the first place. It’s to support work that will never be funded or supported effectively by the market or government. “
That is certainly not my definition of philanthropy. As I see it, philanthropy is charity writ on a large scale. And I suspect that many people, like me, give charity because we believe that God directs us to. If the marketplace and/or government were super-efficient and flourishing, I would still be commanded to assign 10% of my earnings to others. By this measure too every individual, no matter how little he or she has, is obliged to give.
Before we can argue how philanthropies should be run, we need to agree first on a worldview. Is charity a concession to the failures of the market and government or is it an affirmation that speaks to the triumph of the human soul? How we answer that question says as much about our views on the marketplace and government as it does about our ideas about charity.