The call to be generous Christians
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight looks at what it means to be generous and the desire - or compulsion - to pay something back.
"I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned. When you're treated enormously well by this market system, society has a big claim on that."
My impression of Warren Buffett is that there is much to like about him. But his argument here, while containing a commendable ethos, isn't compelling. His argument amounts to this; "Without the existence of people in society I wouldn't be wealthy, therefore society has a big claim on my wealth". What he's perhaps overlooking (or underestimating) is that people in society have already gained from his wealth - so such a debt on those grounds is misjudged. When I buy my shopping at the supermarket, the store gains profit from the money I spend, but I gain the goods to consume. I get plenty for my money - in fact, if the gains were of lower value to me than the value of the money, I wouldn't have bought the goods. So it would be absurd if the Supermarket wrote to me the next day saying they owed me something because I'd helped contribute to their profits. Why don't I owe them something for their contributing to my consumption?
Generally speaking one doesn't automatically owe people something just because one benefits from an activity, even if the benefits wouldn't occur without the existence of the thing. I drive a Subaru - but one wouldn't say "Without the existence of Subaru I wouldn't drive a Subaru car therefore Subaru has a claim on my driving experience". If a neighbour plays an album loud that I happen to enjoy listening to, or cooks a BBQ that brings a pleasant smell wafting over the fence, I don't owe him anything. So generally speaking, I don't think a culture in which people are always talking about what they are owed is a healthy culture - it breeds not magnanimity, generosity and kindness, but awkwardness and resentful compulsion, which is never as good. I think a better way of saying what Warren Buffet said would be to say:
"I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned. When you're treated enormously well by this market system, it is good to give something back by way of generosity, magnanimity and kindness"
This transfers the emphasis away from thoughts of 'having' to pay back, into thoughts of 'wanting' to pay back. You can feel you have to pay something back without locating the benefits of wanting to pay something back, but you can't so easily feel you want to pay something back without that want being attached to the intrinsic benefits of good intentions. It's a positive circularity; to want to do good is to have noble intentions, and to have noble intentions is to want to do good.
Ironically, the Christian faith is centred on our knowledge that we owe a great debt - but all thoughts of resentful compulsion are dissipated by the news that it's a debt paid for us on the cross because none of us has the slightest chance of paying it by our own merits. It is this indebtedness in the Christian faith that presses us on towards wanting to be loving, graceful, kind, generous and charitable to others - and that these things should be sought for their intrinsic qualities, not out of any kind of resentful compulsion. Generous hearts enjoy the results of generosity not just by what they bring to the giver, but primarily by what they bring to the recipient. As the book of Proverbs says:
One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
Another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
A generous person will prosper;
Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.
I think that to be loving, graceful, kind, generous and charitable to others is most Godly when it feels as though there's no cost to yourself - for then you know that God's will is at the heart of your endeavours, and that Christ is at the centre of your intentions. And of course to be Godly is to confer on yourself the benefits of your own Godliness towards others, as all gifts are gifts from God. As Jesus says in Luke's gospel;
‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you’. Luke 6:38
I think that if we really want to make the strongest impression on the world, we need to embrace exactly what it means to be loving, graceful, kind, generous and charitable for the sake of their intrinsic qualities, and for the way they reflect Christ's attitude to the world. In doing this we'll most enhance the lives of those we meet, but also our own lives too. In applying generous measures to others we will find the key to having generous measures returned to us.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
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