This week we celebrate National Philanthropy Week! It culminates annually on November 15th—National Philanthropy Day—and falls in the middle of what is commonly known as the giving season (the October, November, December timeframe) wherein many charitable organizations raise as much as 80% of their financial support. When food pantries run low, patients are unable to afford healthcare or mental wellness therapy, or kids are fed a secular worldview rather than the nurturing worldview that so many students desire—but cannot afford—philanthropic giving sustains and supports.
According to the Giving USA Foundation’s 2021 Giving USA Report, charitable donations reached a high of nearly $472 billion in 2020. Of that total, donors gave the most to Religion (28%), followed by Education (15%), with Human Services (14%) receiving the third largest share of charitable donations in the nonprofit sector. The travesty is that if we look at U.S. charitable giving in the 80’s, giving to the religious sector accounted for over half of all charitable donations. Perhaps a relevant question for Christians is this: “What exactly does God have to say about Christian philanthropy, and is it any different than secular ideas of philanthropy?”
Giving for All
Fortunately, Paul sheds critically important light on the answers to those questions. Before considering his counsel, it is helpful to consider the evolution of the concept of philanthropy. Classical Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle embraced the concept of philanthropy, which finds its roots in two Greek words philo—meaning “love of” and anthropos—meaning “humankind.” Such thinkers emphasized the importance of all members of society to aspire to and act upon their love of people through generous gestures. In its initial conception, philanthropy was about more than money.
As the Roman Empire expanded, however, the Byzantines shifted the concept to include an expectation that the wealthy should bestow charitable gifts upon those considered to be of lesser stature. In like manner, kings and emperors were expected to give gifts to plebes just as the Greek and Roman “gods” bestowed gifts upon humanity. Speaking rhetorically, I can imagine that if we asked a modern-day sage what philanthropy is about, the answer may come back in the form of Tina Turner’s well-known refrain: “What’s love got to do with it? What’s love, but a secondhand emotion? What’s love got to do with it? Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” Contemporary philanthropy is often misunderstood to be about money, and more particularly, about how those in need of funds can extract it from the wealthy. It seems most often to be a getting orientation as opposed to a giving orientation. In my work, I have even heard it said in the field: “How can we get money from the fat cats, the deep pockets?”
The Great Philanthropist
Paul, however, speaks to the heart of the matter. What does the Bible have to say about Christian philanthropy, if anything at all? According to Strong’s concordance, philanthropia—the Greek word for philanthropy—is mentioned twice in scripture. Luke mentions it in Acts 28:2 and Paul later mentions it in Titus 3:4, presumably between his recorded trial in Acts 28 and his two years preaching in Rome before his final imprisonment. Paul gives a charge to Titus to set things straight on the Grecian isle of Crete, which even today boasts of being the largest and most populous of the islands of Greece and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean Sea. In Titus 1, Paul shares the heart of Cretan society. He declares that even their own prophets declare that Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, and slow bellies seeking filthy lucre. It is in that state that God’s philanthropia steps in.
In Titus 3:3-7, Paul writes:
“For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness [philanthropy] and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Now that is good news! Philanthropy is not the concept of eros—a passionate portrayal of erotic love, nor storge—love based in the familial bonds we have one for another, nor agape—the limitless unconditional love, but is philia—love stemming from the bond of a friendship as equals.
Little Becomes Much
What happens when Christian philanthropy takes root in the hearts of people? It can make a young real estate agent like Ora Lee Brown, who’s story is chronicled in her book The Promise, provide a college education to inner city kids. The book shares how running into a young boy, during school hours, scraping together money to purchase milk and bread for his house caused her to give him money for the food, drive him to school, and be spontaneously moved to make a commitment to pay for college for anyone from that class who graduates high school. That is philanthropy at work. To date, the Spirit has led her to fund 136 inner city students. Another example is that of Oseola McCarthy, a domestic worker that donated her life’s savings of $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi for student scholarships. When the media asked why she did it, her response was heartfelt: “I want somebody’s child to go to college […] I’m giving it away so that the children won’t have to work so hard, like I did.” That is philanthropy at work.
Consider also Pastor Kenn Dixon, who now serves as the Vice-Presisent of Communications for Texas Conference. Because of his passion for the education he received while in a Seventh-day Adventist Christian boarding school–he says it saved his life–he began a 400-mile bike ride to raise funds for Christian education. In the last five years, he has diligently used media to raise awareness and funds for the annual Determined Cycle Tour. With the Spirit’s leading, Pastor Dixon and his volunteer cyclists have raised more than a quarter million dollars through independent donations and sponsorships to help make SDA Christian Education more attainable to kids that desire it. The New Orleans native raised $30,000 in year one, $35,000 year two, $65,000 in year three, $20,000 in year four, and $102,000 in year five. He and his team of volunteers are currently preparing for the 2022 Determined Cycling Tour having already raised over $252,000. Interestingly, research has shown that about half of charitable donations in the U.S. comes from everyday households making $100,000 per year or less.
That is philanthropy at work.