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boycotts and charity

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For the past few days, I have been struck by how imperfect the world is and how imperfect we as people are. I am also amazed at how beautiful it all is and how beautiful we all are, despite our imperfections. I have been thinking about this paradox in relation to two issues. One is the offense that certain Christians are taking to the red Starbucks holiday cup because of its lack of holiday symbols. There are those who would boycott the chain because of a perception that the company is anti-Christian. On the beautiful side of the equation, there are those who have suggested that instead of boycotting the chain, we might take someone out for coffee or pay for the person in line behind us. (An article summarising some of the controversy can be found here).

Another article I read in recent days critiques Operation Christmas Child run by Samaritan's Purse (you can find it here). It cites several problems with this project and the organisation in general, all of which are generally true. Indeed, people in developed countries like Canada choosing gifts for children in poor countries with unfamiliar cultures and contexts is not ideal. In some ways, it imposes our North American ideal of Christmas on another culture, and let's be honest, it has more to do with consumerism than incarnation. In all likelihood, what children and their families in developing countries need more than a box full of goodies is housing, healthcare, food staples, political stability, and long-term partners who will invest in them and their communities. By buying goods in North America and shipping them to another county, we are investing in our economy, not theirs. The idea behind Operation Christmas Child is not perfect, nevertheless, I think the simple act of putting together boxes of gifts for strangers is beautiful. It enlarges our hearts and, according to numerous first-hand stories I have heard and read, brings much joy and delight to the children who receive the gifts. 

In grappling with the issue of how we define righteousness and generosity, I realise that we, as North American followers of Jesus, often confuse righteousness with feeling morally superior (hence a boycott) and generosity with feeling good about some small act (sending gifts overseas). What is missing from both of these is loving encounter. Instead of getting up close and personal with people, we distance ourselves though boycotts, petitions, and diatribes on the internet. Instead of befriending strangers and people in need, we send cheap toys to children halfway around the world. When I look at the lives of Jesus' first followers, encounter was what it was all about. They encountered Jesus, they encountered those who opposed Jesus and his message, they encountered the sick and the demonised and the criminally inclined, they encountered children, they encountered hungry people, and perhaps most challenging, they encountered other imperfect disciples. And in the midst of the mayhem and the hardship, great beauty shone forth in these encounters as the disciples and those they interacted with were humbled by Jesus, transformed by Jesus, amazed by Jesus, and set free from their particular bondage by Jesus. 

I think it behooves us to be better informed about the practices of companies where we shop and the charities where we give our money or time or goods, but we can't divorce due diligence from the beauty inherent in all God's creation, and the loving compassion which Jesus asks us to give to all people. Because, in the end, we are all imperfect and we are all beautiful. The barista at Starbucks needs our kindness as much as those orphans in Romania. The CEO of Samaritan's Purse needs loving encounter with Jesus as much as every Muslim child in Africa. If our righteousness is used as a way to distance ourselves from others, like boycotts and petitions and diatribes tend to do, I would venture to say that it is not righteousness. If our charity does not require us to actually touch another human being or get our hands dirty in some actual, on the ground work with those we are seeking to help, is it really charity? 

If you want to boycott anyone, perhaps you should boycott me. I have supported unjust causes. I have diminished the story and message of Jesus. I have sought to further my own agenda instead of helping those less fortunate than me. I have participated in token acts of charity which were probably more harmful than helpful. I have practiced favouritism and acted out of prejudice. I have refused to listen to honest critique. I have believed that the way I do things is the best way. I have wronged people and excluded people and spoken words of death instead of life. And yet, God does not boycott me. He reaches out to me. He sees what is beautiful in me and calls it to life. He patiently shows me a better way, and he does it by doing it first. I am righteous not because of my good and holy acts, but because Jesus offered to trade his righteousness for my unrighteousness. I am generous not because of how much I give, but because Jesus shows me the best gift to give is myself. 

Like Jesus, let us not point out people's imperfections without identifying with them. And let us always remember that every act of generosity requires us first of all to give ourselves in loving encounter. 

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