LET US BREAK BREAD TOGETHER: ‘The First Thanksgiving,’ painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris. Is this an accurate portrayal of the holiday’s origins? (Image: Wikipedia)
Turkey, honey baked ham, candied yams, collard greens, casseroles, rice and gravy, corn bread, rolls, dressing, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, carrot cake, pound cake, chocolate cake… When I think of Thanksgiving I think of food, family, fellowship, and laughter; but most of all, I think of food. Most of us do. But is that why we celebrate Thanksgiving?
What are we celebrating? What should we be thinking about? As Christians, we are encouraged by our churches to use Thanksgiving to be reflective about the many blessings that God has bestowed upon our families, friends, and loved ones, how God has given us health, favor, grace, mercy, and even performed miracles on our behalf. But shouldn’t we do that all the time? Is this why we celebrate Thanksgiving?
Is Thanksgiving as we know it a myth? Years ago, elementary schools taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving to remember the Pilgrims and the Indians in a time when the Pilgrim travelers were doomed to die as the winter months approached and they did not know how to survive in a new land. We learned how the Indians were hospitable to the strangers and fed them, befriended them, and taught them the way of their land. We learned that the Pilgrims and the Indians ate a large meal in the late 1690s, which has been recorded in history as the first Thanksgiving. Since then, Americans have made it a tradition to take a day around that time of year to remember the sacrifice, the food, and the friendship that got them through. That’s touching, but we know now that the story is largely inaccurate.
Maybe if we consider some of the myths that are associated with Thanksgiving, we can get a better understanding of what this national day can be in our lives.
Myth 1: “The first Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.
Harvest celebrations were ancient traditions for both the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. In fact, the Bible mentions entire festivals around harvest time. Most African cultures also celebrate the harvest. While the “first Thanksgiving” idea is not historically true, it is true that we should use this holiday as a special time for celebrating what God has placed in our lives as we open the season with prayer and praise.
Myth 2: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.
Actually, the people who came on the Mayflower were seeking religious freedom only for themselves. They didn’t know or really care to know how the native people worshipped; they showed little concern for the Indians’ freedom of religion. Unfortunately, it’s easy to be selfish about our own rights while overlooking other people’s needs. Today, however, each of us can use this Thanksgiving holiday to thank God that we all have the freedom to worship Him. (This might even be a time to reflect on how religious freedom is still opposed in some countries today.) The bottom line is that today in the United States we do have the freedom to worship God and to give Him thanks for all He is. Use this Thanksgiving to do that!
Myth 3: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to share their food and celebrate the first Thanksgiving.
Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, was concerned that the English colonists might be preparing for war. He led 90 men to investigate the sound of gunfire from the Plymouth colony. When it turned out that the gunshots were from hunters gathering food for the harvest celebration, Massasoit and his men returned with five deer and many turkeys–probably more than the colonists were able to provide!
Perhaps that is why the poor turkey is still the favorite bird of Thanksgiving today. In fact, another myth says that the Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn. The menu actually included venison, wild fowl, corn porridge, and mashed pumpkin.
But whether you celebrate with turkey or tofu (pooh!), make sure that this Thanksgiving you celebrate with others. They may be family or friends. You may even organize a group to help serve turkey dinners at a shelter. The food doesn’t matter. (OK, maybe tofu does.) The main thing is to celebrate God and enjoy time with family, friends, and others who are special in your life.
Myth 4: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Sadly, history proved otherwise, as within a generation the English colonists fought against the Indians to take their land. Today, Native American people often see Thanksgiving as a reminder of the legacy of betrayal and mistreatment their ancestors suffered. That pain is real as is the pain that many people feel today who are rejected or lonely or have found abuse or violence in their lives. Jesus calls on us as Christians to display brotherly love. This Thanksgiving, take time to look around at those who are suffering and to lend a hand where you can. Maybe there is a kid at school who needs a friend, or an older person who needs some help. The pain of that “first Thanksgiving” relationship cannot be changed. But you can use this Thanksgiving to help ease the pain of someone else.
As Christians, we are called to uphold truth, but more importantly, we are called to love humankind. This Thanksgiving, take time to show love to your fellow brothers and sisters by volunteering at a soup kitchen or food pantry. Follow the example of the Native Americans and be generous. This Thanksgiving, above all (tofu aside), make sure you love your neighbors.
The 1947 and 1956 editions of the ‘Green Book,’ which was published to advise black motorists where they should – and shouldn’t – frequent during their travels. Image on the left: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. Image on right: Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.
Modeled after the international advisories issued by the U.S. State Department, the NAACP statement cautioned travelers of color about the “looming danger” of discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of Missouri law enforcement, businesses and citizens.
The civil rights organization’s action had been partly prompted by the state legislature’s passage of what the NAACP called a “Jim Crow bill,” which increased the burden of proof on those bringing lawsuits alleging racial or other forms of discrimination.
But they were also startled by a 2017 report from the Missouri attorney general’s office showing that black drivers were stopped by police at a rate 85 percent higher than their white counterparts. The report also found that they were more likely to be searched and arrested.
Although they ceased publication some 50 years ago, the guidebooks are worth reflecting on in light of the fact that for drivers of color, the road remains anything but open.
The half-open road
In American popular culture, movies (1983’s “National Lampoon’s “Vacation”), literature (“On the Road”), music (the 1946 hit “Route 66”) and advertising have long celebrated the open road. It’s a symbol of freedom, a rite of passage, an economic conduit – all made possible by the car and the Interstate Highway System.
Yet this freedom – like other freedoms – has never been equally distributed.
While white drivers spoke, wrote and sang about the sense of excitement and escape they felt on automobile journeys through unfamiliar territories, African-Americans were far more likely to dread such a journey.
Especially in the South, whites’ responses to black drivers could range from contemptuous to deadly. For example, one African-American writer recalled in 1983 how, decades earlier, a South Carolina policemen had fined and threatened to jail her cousin for no reason other than the fact that she had been driving an expensive car. In 1948, a mob in Lyons, Georgia, attacked an African-American motorist named Robert Mallard and murdered him in front of his wife and child. That same year, a North Carolina gas station owner shot Otis Newsom after he had asked for service on his car.
Such incidents weren’t confined to the South. Most of the thousands of “sundown towns” – municipalities that barred people of color after dark – were north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Of course, not all white people, police and business owners behaved cruelly toward travelers of color. But a black individual or family traveling the country by car would have had no way of knowing which towns and businesses were amenable to black patrons and visitors, and which posed a grave threat. The only certainties for African-Americans on the road were anxiety and vulnerability.
‘A book badly needed’
“Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theatre, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort?” the NAACP magazine The Crisis asked in 1947. “Would he like to stop overnight in a tourist camp while he motors about his native land ‘Seeing America First’? Well, just let him try!”
Despite the dangers, try they did. And they had help in the form of guidebooks that told them how to evade and thwart Jim Crow.
“The Negro Motorist’s Green Book,” first published in 1936 by a New York letter carrier and travel agent named Victor Green, and “Travelguide: Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation,” first published in 1947 by jazz bandleader Billy Butler, advised black travelers where they could eat, sleep, fill the gas tank, fix a flat tire and secure a myriad of other roadside services without fear of discrimination. The guidebooks, which covered every state in the union, drew upon knowledge hard-won by pioneering black salesmen, athletes, clergy and entertainers, for whom long-distance travel by car was a professional necessity.
Acknowledging the era’s racial tensions and dangers of travel, the 1956 edition reminded drivers to “behave in a way to show we’ve been nicely bred and [were] taught good manners.”
It pointed to certain states that would be more amenable to black travelers: “Visitors to New Mexico will find little if any racial friction there. The majority of the scores of motels across the State accepts guests on the basis of ‘cash rather than color.’”
Yet even as they sought to ease the black traveler’s passage through an America in which racial discrimination was the norm, the guidebooks, whose covers often featured well-heeled travelers of color with upscale automobiles and accessories, also asserted African-Americans’ claims to full citizenship.
The guidebooks’ images and text conveyed an attitude of indignation and resistance to the racist conditions that made them necessary.
In 1955, “Travelguide” declared, “The time is rapidly approaching when TRAVELGUIDE will cease to be a ‘specialized’ publication, but as long as racial prejudice exists, we will continue to cope with the news of a changing situation, working toward the day when all established directories will serve EVERYONE.”
Is racial terror really over?
Travelguide and the Green Book did indeed shut down in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement sparked a profound transformation in racial law and custom across the country.
Today, copies can be found in research archives at Howard University, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. The guidebooks have been the focus of a growing body of print and digital scholarship. The University of South Carolina, for example, has built an interactive map that allows visitors to search for all of the businesses listed in the 1956 edition of the “Green Book.”
While the story of these books recall an era of prejudice many regard as bygone, there remains much work to be done.
The NAACP’s decision to issue a travel advisory calls attention to the dangers that continue to be associated with “driving while black.” The highly publicized recent deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile and Tory Sanford are the starkest examples of what can happen to black drivers at the hands of police. Studies have shown that across the nation, police are still much more likely to stop and search drivers of color.
If guidebooks for drivers of color are unlikely to make a return, it is because the internetnow fulfillstheir role, not because the “great day” of racial equality the “Green Book” heralded 70 years ago has arrived.
The Rev. James Lawson, a United Methodist minister known for his advocacy of nonviolence in the civil rights era and beyond, has been recommended for a Congressional Gold Medal.
“It is, I think, time for us as a nation to really recognize all that he has done for people in this country and for people in the world,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., at a reception on Wednesday (Nov. 14) where he announced legislation to honor the 90-year-old Lawson.
“He’s a shining light at a time where so many of these values are being called into question,” said Khanna.
More than a half dozen members of Congress, including civil rights veteran John Lewis and California Reps. Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, joined Khanna and Lawson at the Cannon House Office Building to support Khanna’s proposal and to praise Lawson for his decades of work. The medal is the highest civilian award given by Congress.
Lawson is renowned for training college students in Nashville, Tenn., in nonviolent protest so they could withstand harsh mistreatment as they defied Jim Crow laws by occupying segregated lunch counters.
Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, recalled Lawson’s instructions before Lewis had to endure being spat upon and having lit cigarettes put in his hair and down his back.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., greets the Rev. James Lawson at a reception on Nov. 14, 2018, at which members of Congress announced support of legislation to recognize Lawson with a Congressional Gold Medal. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“Every Tuesday night, this man taught us about the teaching of Gandhi. He inspired us and many of us grew to accept the way of peace, the way of love, to accept the philosophy and the discipline for nonviolence as a way of life,” Lewis said.
“If it hadn’t been for Jim Lawson, I don’t know what would have happened to our country; I don’t know what would have happened to me,” he added.
Decades later, Lawson, who lives in Los Angeles, still teaches students about civil rights.
Calling Lawson “one of the most consequential members of the civil rights movement,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., credited him with introducing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to “the whole concept of nonviolence.”
Lawson studied Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence as a missionary in India and after his return became a mentor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later he was an adviser to King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Southern field secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
But his influence is most felt in the education in specific nonviolent techniques that he gave activists who worked in the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington, and the high schoolers who became the first African-Americans to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., known as the “Little Rock Nine.”
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., son of the late segregationist Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper, said his father “was on the wrong side of history” and called Lawson “one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century and the 21st century.”
“The history of the South, the history of America, is a deeply flawed history but nobody has done more to fix those flaws than Dr. Lawson,” said Cooper.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and the Rev. James Lawson pose with proposed Congressional Gold Medal legislation on Nov. 14, 2018, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Lawson was among those who gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers’ strike that brought King to Memphis just before his assassination. Lawson preached at Clayborn Temple, the church from which strikers marched in 1968. Despite his age, Lawson insisted on marching with them five decades later.
“He still had that fire,” said Saunders. “He still believed strongly that if we fight and if we make our voices heard every single day in a nonviolent way, then we can win and we can be successful.”
William “Bill” Lucy, a longtime secretary-treasurer of the union, praised Lawson for agreeing to help the strikers as a young pastor at Centenary Methodist Church.
“Without Jim Lawson, we’d be on strike now, 50 years later,” Lucy said.
Lawson thanked the more than two dozen co-sponsors of the legislation for shedding light on a topic that he sees as crucial for a nation that has become more violent than he ever imagined it could be.
“While the gun discussion may be an important discussion, it doesn’t get into the virus that needs to be attacked: the spirit of violence, the language of violence, the thinking of violence, the despising of one another,” he said. “Nonviolence is the force that can save our nation from itself.”
One measure of predicted global interest is that Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, will be translated into 28 languages. The month-long tour plan is bold, taking in ten major arenas, with an all-star line-up of moderators including Oprah Winfrey, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, businesswoman Valerie Jarrett, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and more. One is left in absolutely no doubt that the legacy of this First Lady stands robustly alongside that of her husband. Very few of her predecessors can make this claim.
Before Barack Obama entered public life, Michelle was his mentor. When he was elected to the Senate, she earned more than him. Many said that she was smarter than him, and he was very smart indeed.
The American Dream
Michelle Obama is a potent symbol of what is good about America. She reminds us that an African American girl from the poorer end of town has the potential to do and be anything. And not to simply become First Lady, which was a role forced upon her. By determination and hard work, she got to Harvard and Princeton and carved out a highly successful career in her own right.
When obliged to embrace the role of presidential wife, her reluctance was palpable in those early days. Such caution was well founded. Her dynamism and ability were on display throughout the 2008 election, and she campaigned energetically for her husband. But even prior to his victory, she got a taste of the vitriol that would come later. In one unguarded moment, for example, she said during the presidential primaries in 2008:
For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.
Her comments were made in relation to high voter turnout in the primaries but her opponents were not concerned with the context. Immediately, she was chastised and the criticism from some quarters continued unabated.
The ‘Angry Black Woman’
Traditionally, the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) has been presented as an appendage of the president, whose priority was spousal loyalty, whatever the challenges involved. She spent her time entertaining, engaging in charitable endeavours, and attempting to provide some sort of normality to children being raised in a profoundly abnormal environment.
Adichie talked of Michelle Obama having to “flatten herself” to better fit the mould of First Lady. She reminds us that because Michelle Obama did not smile constantly and vacuously, but only when she felt like it, she was given that cheapest of derogatory labels – the Angry Black Woman. Adichie added:
Women, in general, are not permitted anger – but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.
In Michelle Obama, the nation suddenly was faced with this stunning, independent entity – and not everyone was pleased. Others, however, were thrilled as they watched her blow the doors off what was previously the suffocating confines of the First Lady’s office.
FLOTUS and Feminism
Prior to Michelle Obama, the First Lady story was too often one of wonderful, capable, intelligent women being shoe-horned into a claustrophobic position with no formal office, portfolio, title or, of course, salary. They simply had to button their lips and smile. But Michelle Obama revolutionised the role of the First Lady and, as a result, it’s as though feminism has finally been recognised as a part of what the FLOTUS could be.
We must also now recognise the meaningful impact that a First Lady can have in getting legislation passed, and implementing significant policy change. However humble Michelle Obama’s family origins on the South Side of Chicago were, she has a platform like few others, and she uses her voice to promote a positive message on a range of key issues, including her FLOTUS project on child health and nutrition. Indeed, she reveals in the book how she offered her successor, Melania Trump, help or advice – a gesture so far ignored by Mrs Trump.
In her final year as First Lady, one Gallup poll reported a 64% approval rating for her (noticeably higher than that of her husband). In her post-White House role, Michelle Obama’s approval ratings have remained strong and even increased since she left the White House. When compared to her deeply uncontroversial predecessors, such as Laura or Barbara Bush, however, her poll numbers were relatively low. It’s clear that anyone who pushes boundaries and breaks down barriers isn’t not going to please everyone. Hillary Clinton learned this lesson the hardest of ways, when she lost the presidency to Donald Trump.
But Michelle Obama is extraordinarily relatable, down to earth, too. It’s refreshing to see in her memoir, for example, an acknowledgement that when their marriage needed it, the Obamas sought professional help.
Michelle has continuously demonstrated the capacity to lead by example, to balance conflicting roles, to raise two strong and capable daughters, and to clearly still be in a loving marriage, despite the strain that comes with eight years of scrutiny and criticism. In the words of her husband:
The way in which she blended purpose and policy with fun so that she was able to reach beyond Washington on her health care initiatives, on her military family work was masterful.
She remains an inspiration for future First Ladies, and women and girls everywhere.
Fannie Lou Hamer, of Ruleville, Miss., speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supporters outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 1965, after the House of Representatives rejected a challenge to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. Hamer and two other African-American women were seated on the floor of the House while the challenge was being considered. She said, “We’ll come back year after year until we are allowed our rights as citizens.” The challengers claimed that African-Americans were excluded from the election process in Mississippi. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)
The American church has a problem with racism.
The issue is not new.
It includes support in the past for appalling acts such as lynching and racial terrorism and ongoing, inexcusable apathy. Although much has changed, the path toward deep diversity, authentic inclusion and radical repair remains long. Much of my time is spent telling Christians about the past and present concerning racism in the nation and the congregation.
Christians engaged in anti-racism work risk becoming bitter toward the church. In my speaking and travels, people often ask me, “How do you talk about racism without becoming bitter?”
Or they ask a similar question from a different angle: “How do you maintain hope in the midst of so much evil?”
There’s no easy answer.
At times, I’ve been tempted to give up on church people in frustration. Especially white evangelicals.
The 2018 midterm elections, for instance, revealed that yet again, white evangelicals chose to support a brand of politics that is inimical to people of color. In spite of the fear-mongering and overtly racist appeals of some candidates, 75 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republicans in the midterms.
Two years into his administration, white evangelicals remain the only religious group in which a majority view Trump favorably. More than 70 percent of self-identified white evangelical or born-again Christians have a favorable view of the president. Seventy-five percent of black Protestants have an unfavorable view.
It appears to me, as a person of color, that white evangelicals have little regard for my voice or those of people like me. Attempting to voice the concerns of black Christians among white churchgoers and receiving so much opposition makes it difficult sometimes for me to read the Bible and go to church.
I am still healing from wounds I’ve accrued over years of writing, speaking and teaching about racism and injustice. But no matter how discouraging the racial conditions in the church become, bitterness is not a healthy option.
To be clear, voting for Republicans is not the issue. The issue is Christians saying they support racial reconciliation on the one hand while simultaneously supporting politicians — in this case, Republicans — who traffic in racism and xenophobia on the other.
At moments like this, I think of Fannie Lou Hamer.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaks before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., on Aug. 22, 1964, in an effort to win accreditation for the group as Mississippi’s delegation to the convention. The Freedom group, composed almost entirely of African-Americans, was opposed by the regular all-white Mississippi delegation. (AP Photo)
Born in 1917 in rural Mississippi, Hamer was the last of 20 children immersed in a life of poverty as a sharecropper. In her 40s, she got involved in the civil rights movement after she heard young activists give a presentation about voting rights.
She then dedicated her life to fighting for equal rights for black people and more humane treatment of the poor.
One night in 1963, Hamer and some fellow civil rights activists, all of whom were black, were taken into custody on spurious charges by white police officers. The law enforcement officials took them to a jail and proceeded to beat each one, including Hamer. The harrowing experience left her with permanent health problems and emotional wounds such as depression. But that didn’t stop her from loving people, even her enemies.
“I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up,” she said. “Ain’t no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face.”
When I think of saints like Fannie Lou Hamer and how they endured far more than I ever have in the fight for racial equality, I cannot engage in the self-indulgence of bitterness.
I have to keep striding toward freedom because I am part of a legacy of freedom fighters who have struggled under far more adverse conditions and yet maintained hope in God and the church.
Another way I find hope is through community. Through my work, I’ve met true allies across the color line. These women and men are quick to listen and slow to speak, which makes them more informed and more effective collaborators for change.
I have also been deeply enriched by friendships with people of color. Black Christians, who often make up a minority whether in church or school or the workplace, need regular contact with others who share similar experiences and backgrounds. We need a group where we can vent, laugh and recharge — folks around whom we don’t have to explain our existence. We need relationships with people who “get it.”
Finally, I try to keep the racial situation in the church in perspective by distinguishing between the universal church and particular people and congregations. I have often felt betrayed by specific Christians and churches. Individual Christians have berated me to my face — telling me how I get race wrong. Churches and denominations have rescinded speaking invitations, and many, many others have been bold in asserting that race is a social or a political issue, but not a gospel one.
In the face of such barbs, I have grown cautious.
I do my best to carefully choose speaking engagements and writing platforms that will let me communicate my views freely while not exposing me to malicious criticism. Unfortunately, many predominantly white Christian outlets and organizations prove extremely hostile to any anti-racist messages. But those particular places do not represent the church as a whole.
Christ is building his church. And as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
The church is a beautiful bulwark against bitterness. It is a church that spans across time, nations, races and ethnicities. It is an undefeated community. It is this church, imperfect though it is, that persuades me to persist. It is Christ’s church, universal and precious, that Christians who hate racism should fight to improve.
While the bigotry of individual Christians and institutions may bend us toward bitterness, the beauty of Christ’s bride hearkens us back to hope.
Every holiday season, Americans find themselves showered with mailed appeals, beseeching phone calls and emotional pleas from Facebook friends seeking support for pet causes.
How should they sift through all these calls to give?
The conventional guidance, parroted as if it were gospel, goes something like: Be generous, follow your passions and do enough research to verify that a chosen charity won’t squander your money.
As a political philosopher who studies the ethics of philanthropy, I know it’s not that simple. In fact, there are at least five leading theories regarding the ethics of giving.
Scholars who study philanthropy and ponder why people should give to charity disagree on which is best. But they all agree that some critical reflection on how to give well is essential for making responsible decisions.
It urges donors to give from the heart and posits that no one can tell you what makes one cause better than another.
Compassionate philanthropists see choosing a cause as a two-step process. First, ask yourself what you are most passionate about – be it your religious faith, hunger, the arts, your alma mater or cancer research.
While simple and flexible, this philosophy of giving ignores considerations like a cause’s moral urgency and suggests that the only thing that matters when being charitable is what’s on the giver’s mind. It also implies that a charity’s effectiveness is measured only by management or finances, which is arguably untrue.
There are at least four other schools of thought worth considering in light of the conventional approach’s shortcomings: traditional charity, effective altruism, reparative philanthropy and giving for social change.
Rather than telling donors to simply follow their own passions, traditional charity stresses that suffering people demand urgent attention. It treats relieving that pain and meeting those needs as the highest charitable priority.
People who think this way, for example, might have trouble seeing how donors can justify supporting their local community theaters when so many Americans are experiencing hunger or homelessness and could use a free meal from a charity like the Salvation Army.
This school of thought instructs donors to do the most good they can in terms of global well-being based on verifiable cost effectiveness.
These givers argue that it’s better to give $40,000 to a carefully vetted charity in sub-Saharan Africa that can cure as many as 2,000 people of blindness than to give that same sum to a group that will spend it training a single guide dog for a blind person in the U.S.
Effective altruists reject the advice of transparency groups like Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits according to the percentage of funds they spend conducting their work versus running their organizations. Instead, they heed organizations like GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators, which draw from scientific evidence and use statistical reasoning to select charities they believe will achieve the maximum impact per donated dollar.
Giving to heal and address injustices
Another way to think about making charitable donations more responsible is to see them as a form of reparations.
With economic inequality growing, government spending on public education declining and cutbacks taking a toll on social services, social injustices are proliferating.
The political philosopher Chiara Cordelli developed this perspective. She reasons that under current conditions, the rich are not entitled to all of their wealth.
After all, under more just circumstances, they would likely be earning less and taxed more. Therefore, the rich should not think of what they spend on charity as a matter of personal discretion, nor simply as something to make lives better, Cordelli argues.
Instead, she sees excessive wealth as a debt to be repaid unconditionally to repair crumbling public services. One way that donors can engage in reparative philanthropy is by supplementing the budgets of cash-strapped public schools, as Chancelor Bennett – the Grammy-winning Chance the Rapper – is doing in Chicago.
Giving to overcome unjust policies
A fifth major school of thought advises donors to support groups challenging unjust institutions.
Its adherents acknowledge that dismantling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination is hard and can take decades or longer. But they observe that even small policy changes can do more for large numbers of people than even the biggest charitable initiatives.
Contemporary advocates of this view like Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka suggest giving money to political parties, advocacy groups and community organizers.
Gifts to political parties and lobbyists may not sound like a conventional way to be charitable and are not currently tax-deductible. But many advocacy nonprofits, voter education initiatives and community empowerment groups are considered charities by U.S. law and eligible for tax-deductible donations.
Mixing and matching
Perhaps no single school of thought offers a perfect guide to responsible giving.
But the scholars who espouse these different positions all agree on one key point: Donors should reflect more on their giving decisions.
Whether you settle on one school of thought or draw from several of them, thinking more about what it means to be charitable will help you give more responsibly.