I was recently at Home Depot and passed a cardboard stand full of black and camouflage work gloves. What caught my eye was the Wounded Warrior Project logo on the display and on the gloves. I am a fan and supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project so I stopped to check out the gloves.
The gloves run about $14 but the display says that a portion of the profits are donated to the Wounded Warrior Project. Wow, I could get some gloves AND support this great non-profit organization, I thought for a moment. The gloves looked sturdy enough, but probably not as durable as the gloves I normally wear. But then it dawned on me, this is not a good move for me. See, I typically buy $4 gloves that are very durable and rugged. As they eventually wear out (or more true to reality get dirty and gross) I can toss them and get another pair. The same would likely be true of the Wounded Warrior gloves. But wait, this purchase would be doing some good for the Wounded Warrior Project and I would be able to feel good about myself. I pondered this as I stood before the display.
Still, there was something wrong with this picture. I could buy a $14 pair of gloves and maybe $1 would go to the Wounded Warrior Project. I'd have gloves and feel okay about doing something good. Or I could buy a $4 pair of gloves and send $10 to the Wounded Warrior Project. I'd still have gloves yet my support to the Wounded Warrior Project would be even greater. Or better still, I could keep using the perfectly fine gloves I have and send $14 to the Wounded Warrior Project, or I could send them even more money.
At what point did the definition of charity or dare I say, social justice, become more about the giver and what the giver can get than about the one receiving? Watch the video below and ponder this marriage of charity and commercialism. Ask yourself if you've been duped.
It seems that what has happened--as with most things--is that we've somehow made doing a good thing about ourselves. Advertisers have found a way to sell coffee and shoes and yogurt and any number of other things by allowing us feel good about ourselves through making the purchase.
Even more interesting is an entire culture of people finding their identity in how they make commercial purchases. We buy things or don't buy things because of their commitment to other things, or lack of commitment I suppose. I realize that we vote with our dollars, but this certainly can't be where our charity resides, right?
And might the same be true in the Church.
Might we be making specific purchases because they support a charity, a social justice endeavor, or mission of some kind. We feel good about ourselves but we allow it to end there, short of what could be better. Maybe we go to a charity auction and pay a little more for an item than we could find it sold for elsewhere, but we justify our purchase because it helps a good cause. All the while we fail to realize that simply giving the excess money we might have spent would help the cause more, apart from buying an item we would not normally drop dollars on. How often are we content buying coffee from a charity organization because it might just help us argue ourselves out of actually serving real people face-to-face in real life-changing ways? (I know I'm guilty of this.)
We discussed this issue on Salty Believer Unscripted not too long ago when we were discussing the popular shift toward social justice within the Church. You can listen to that here.
So where might we go from here?
I should confess that I didn't buy the Wounded Warrior Gloves but neither did I send them $14. I would love to support them, among many, many other charities but I didn't have the money in my budget that day. (Interestingly, I was willing to go short somewhere else in my budget to make a purchase that would help me feel good about myself and nothing more.) However, as I have room in my budget, I do give to charities and non-profits; but as I think about this, it is my hope that I simply give rather than purchase commercial items that help me feel good about myself. And I hope my giving habits grow in ways that are not about me at all.
How about instead of buying a particular brand of shoes because the shoe company will do the charity work for you, buy whatever shoes you want and give some money to a mission organization serving in Africa. Or maybe don't even buy shoes you don't need and give even more money? Or how about saving up some money and giving it to a missionary headed to Africa? Or how about going to Africa yourself? And it doesn't need to be Africa. How about finding a need wherever God is calling you--which could be as close as next door--and selflessly fill that need? Honestly, you'll probably feel even better about yourself. That's not really the point, but it does tend to happen.
Imagine how much more good could be done for people as God's Kingdom advances if we could think about selfless giving and service apart from commercialism. I don't think the proclamation of the Gospel and service to the least of these was ever intended to be wed with the necessity of selling products.