I have a resentment around charity.
No doubt my resentment gets feed by my own selfishness and bah humbug tendencies, but there is also a fundamental flaw in our Christmas passion for the “neediest”.
My resentment is awkward because I work for a non-profit that is all about charity (our kids have already been showered with stuff). I spent my career in church work (more charity!) and we even had a brief foray into foster parenting this year with (yep) more charity. I am a professional charity-promoter. But I resent it nonetheless.
Early on in my career, I spent a season working with people who are homeless and I saw just enough to know that charity for Americans is like like alcohol for the person depressed. There is just enough medicinal value to keep us hooked but not only is alcohol no cure for depression, the alcohol actually exacerbates the disease and makes true healing impossible.
When it comes to charity in America, the ones addicted are not those most vulnerable. Tragically the true addict of charity is privilege. Privilege feasts at the trough of charity. The message that permeates that season is that we (those of us with privilege to do so) will reap benefit by giving. We will feel good when we (discover who much we have and) help those in need. We will feel affirmed in our goodness and reinforce the distinction between the haves and the have-nots.
The posture of charity is fraught with power dynamics which allude to the isms in our culture that we’ve recently been on the streets to out. Racism and classism intertwine to create a toxic field of poverty that produces juicy opportunities for charity. Families denied justice will gratefully accept bags with a smile, but the exchange is one more bit of violence, one more loss of dignity, one more message that black lives and/or poor lives do not matter in our society.
While every one wants to see children happy on Christmas, children don’t need plastic crap on December 25.
And parents know. They know that what their children need are safe homes where parents do not live in fear of incarceration or worse; children need parents or caregivers who have living wage jobs, children need schools that are fairly and adequately funded, children need consistent access to fresh and healthy food. And so do their parents.
What children really need is racism exposed, with the coconspirators of classism and patriarchy laid bare. What children need is a fundamental shift in the economic framework so that we don’t have 15 million hunger children in America, so that a full 22% of our children aren’t living in poverty. It’s time for Scrooge to have a wake up call.
In the meantime, we are invited, encouraged, even at times shamed into participating in ‘charitable’ activities. We settle for giving a child one day of glee in lieu of a lifetime of justice. And we are invited to feel good about ourselves for doing so.
(Note: I am aware that this is a Christian/Christmas specific message. I do not know how or if it translates for other winter holidays. I am a Christian minister, so I speak what I know about our winter holiday.)