A View from the Top

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The panoramic view of the city was stunning from atop the Atlanta Financial Center. I had been invited to join a number of leaders from the business and philanthropic communities who had gathered to hear Oz Guinness speak on the subject of faith and philanthropy. Oz enthralled us with a masterful presentation on the historical and philosophical streams of thought that have influenced benevolent giving. His perspectives drew a lively response from the group and soon everyone was engaged in a stimulating discussion on the delicate dynamics of sharing wealth. This was no academic exercise. These were people who took seriously their responsibility as stewards of significant wealth. Many I knew to be personally involved in inner-city neighborhoods. There were mixed reviews on the effectiveness of their giving. Some expressed disappointment at the lack of lasting impact their investments had yielded. Others commented on the tension that seems always to exist between giving freely and giving responsibly. Too many in the room bore scars - and some fresh wounds - inflicted by the very people they had attempted to assist. I thought to myself: how difficult it is to rightly give to others.

My mind drifted back to another meeting I had attended a few days earlier. Leaders of the Summerhill neighborhood were gathered in a crowded street-level room to discuss the serious business of community survival. Their dream for a revitalized community, a vision that once seemed firmly within their grasp, was slipping through their fingers. Their corporate and philanthropic partners - friends they were relying upon to help them seize the Olympic opportunity to rebuild their neighborhood - were all withdrawing. Hopes for a post-Olympic endowment were fading and their organization was now deep in debt. Disappointment, hurt and anger showed in their faces as they discussed the ways their "partners" had disrespected them by attempting to assert too much control over their financial and management affairs. I listened as these grass-roots leaders made an agonizing decision. They would rather sacrifice their golden opportunity than suffer the indignity of having well-meaning outsiders tell them how to run their business. I thought to myself: how difficult it is to rightly receive from others.

Giving and receiving - what a troubling business this is! Must giving and controlling forever be joined like Siamese twins? And the cost of receiving, must it always result in the loss of self-esteem? Regardless on which side of the equation we happen to be positioned, we quickly learn how delicate this matter of sharing can become. The joy of giving can quickly turn when a measure of accountability is injected into the relationship. And the initial jubilation over receiving much needed (and often prayed for) resources can suddenly disappear when unanticipated strings are discovered. Before we realize it, compassionate motives can degenerate into condescension and what we hoped would be partnership ends in fracture. One has to wonder whether a relationship based on one person's need and another's supply can ever be authentic.

Ancient Hebrew wisdom describes charitable giving as a hierarchy. The highest form of charity, the Talmud says, is demonstrated by providing a person a job without that person knowing that you provided it. The next lower level is to give a person a job and the person knows that you provided it. The next lower form of charity is giving someone a gift without that person knowing the source of the gift. The lowest form of charity is giving a gift directly to a person in need.

This teaching goes straight to the issue of pride. It is corrective both to the inflation of the donor's pride and to the deflation of the recipient's dignity. Jesus pushed this issue to its extreme when He told his followers:

"But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matt 6:3-4 (NIV)

Anonymity is important, to be sure. But what about our responsibility to work toward reconciled relationships? Can't those with disposable resources come to the table with those who have disproportionate needs, negotiate a responsible joint venture and both come away with their dignity and expectations intact? I would like to believe so. However, idealism and good will can gloss over the dynamics of power for just so long. Eventually the hidden currents of control will begin to trouble the waters. Since resources almost always equate to power, and since there is a limit to how much power we are able or willing to share, what is touted to be partnership inevitably shows up as benevolence.

I would like to think that our wealth and its attendant power can serve as God-given gifts over which we can exercise faithful stewardship. I am hoping that authentic servanthood - the key to Kingdom greatness - can be practiced by resourced people in such a way that affirms the dignity of the poor and brings about reconciliation. One thing is clear, however. It is not an easy undertaking.

I suspect that ancient wisdom still applies to modern stewardship. Hiring is still preferable to a direct handout and anonymity is still morally superior to publicizing one's giving. But if those with the view are to be reconciled with those at street level, candid, face to face dialogue must occur. Claiming that we are equal partners when we are actually relating as donor and recipient is hardly the way to begin an honest relationship. It would be more genuine to admit that our agendas, motivations, methods and expectations grow out of vastly dissimilar experiences and that misunderstanding and conflict are necessary ingredients in forging trust. We may graciously insist that we are receiving far more than we are giving; yet, we must be candid enough to admit that in the final analysis, the power to withhold remains firmly within our control. Like the kid who owns the basketball, we can always take our ball and go home if things don't go our way. It is at this point that honesty and trust face their toughest test. The heat of this issue will either consume the chaff of our kindly intentions or refine the quality of our commitment.

A time is approaching when high-power people and low-power people will experience true parity. As a matter of fact, low-power people may actually have the edge over high-power people in status and standing. An upside-down Kingdom is coming where those who are now poor and hungry, who weep and are excluded will be owners, satisfied and leaping with great joy because of their great reward. Our status in this economy will be determined by the quality of our servanthood. Our present striving is the qualifying process for leadership in the world to come.

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