Here are a couple of observations many people who will never be called “philanthropists” have probably made: one is that large givers, oddly enough, still live largely, whereas the rest of us don’t and never will; the other is that the “rest of us,” whatever our “charitable contributions” are or may be, won’t ever be called “philanthropists”—our love for mankind notwithstanding. There are the Major Leaguers and then there are the boys playing sand-lot baseball, and we all know who the pros are.
There is no easy way to articulate what I think needs saying here without the risk of sounding ungrateful or bitter or envious or, worse yet, sanctimoniously high-minded.
So I want to say from the start, and say it emphatically, that gratitude is the proper response to kindness, and that many people who are the beneficiaries of the large-living large givers must, I think, be grateful, or at least enact a practiced gratefulness. All of us must learn first how to receive and then how to receive graciously, neither of which is easy. I myself am the embattled beneficiary of many people’s largesse—and probably in many ways I’m not even aware of. Bitterness and envy and sanctimony would surely be a sign of bad manners, if not of an improperly ordered soul or inner life or call it what you will. Let no one in receiving fail to give thanks.
But the mere fact of giving, and this includes the mere fact of giving sums that far exceed what most of us could ever be worth over several lifetimes, doesn’t put all moral concerns to rest. It doesn’t wipe justice off the table or dismiss mercy from the conversation. Dropping the sum that gets your name on a building or on the bricked archway to a college sports complex isn’t exactly the storied and exalted love that covers a multitude of sins, among which hubris ranks highly and conspicuously. The left hand still knows what the right hand is doing, and in some cases that’s about all that the left hand knows. I say this—not knowing, admittedly, the secret lives of philanthropists—as one attempting to voice nothing more than an oft- and probably widely-felt sentiment. We’d all give a lot if we could also keep a lot, which is the one thing the widow in the story of the two mites didn’t do:
And he [Jesus] looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all: For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had. (St. Luke 21: 1-4; also St. Mark 12: 41-44.)
King David prepared us for this little encounter, the uncomfortable moral of which Jesus was, as usual, quick to point out. When the Lord sent yet another pestilence—it seems the Lord had a surfeit of them back then—David thought it advisable to purchase of one Araunah the Jebusite a particular threshing place. (The site happened to be graced by an angel.) Araunah saw David and
went out, and bowed himself before the king on his face upon the ground. And Araunah said, Wherefore is my lord the king come to his servant? And David said, To buy the threshingfloor of thee, to build an altar unto the Lord, that the plague may be stayed from the people. And Araunah said unto David, Let my lord the king take and offer up what seemeth good unto him: behold, here be oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing instruments and other instruments of the oxen for wood. All these things did Araunah, as a king, give unto the king. And Araunah said unto the king, The Lord thy God accept thee. And the king said unto Araunah, Nay; but I will surely buy it of thee at a price: neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing. So David bought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. (II Samuel 24: 20-24)
And Israel, we read, was spared the plague.
I say nothing here of the efficacy of sacrifice to avert catastrophe, or of whether fifty shekels of silver is a good price from a seller’s point of view for oxen and a threshing floor, especially when the buyer is a king, only that in both of these stories, especially in the first, we are given to understand that charity looks more like charity if it is also costly. King David no doubt continued to live largely after buying the beasts and the threshing floor: kings have been known to live largely even in times of scarcity. But we see no evidence that the widow who parted with her two mites went on to the top of the Fortune 500 list, and David at least knew better than to offer up to God someone else’s goods bankrolled by someone else’s dimes and shekels. He might have given out of his abundance, but he anticipated the widow’s giving out of her penury.
Thinking about these two passages, one from the New and the other from the Old Testament, put me to thinking about Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture and a particularly striking passage from it in which Berry speaks of James Buchanan Duke, benefactor of Duke University. There’s a statue of Mr. Duke on campus, and it serves as an imposing image in the Jefferson Lecture: James Duke, cigar between his fingers, whom the engravings on the pedestal proclaim an “industrialist” and a “philanthropist.”
Berry tells the story of his grandfather’s riding off early one winter morning in 1907 to see his previous year’s crop sold in Louisville. There had been some talk of what to do with the money made once the creditors had been paid off. But there would be no profit. The sale of the crop paid only for the transportation of the crop and the commission of its sale. Berry’s grandfather had been involved in what we now call a zero-sum game. “The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago,” Berry writes, “was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers.” James B. Duke, industrialist and philanthropist, had “followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.”
You need not have much training in imagination to picture Berry before the bronze statue of the great philanthropist and benefactor of Duke University who spelled his grandfather’s hardship:
The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy. But I felt it instantly and physically. The connection was my grandparents and thousands of others more or less like them. If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”
Or, to put it another way, if in the matter of philanthropy you shouldn’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, it is nevertheless a great convenience in the matter of industry to make sure your right hand has no idea what your left hand has been up to.
Philanthropists must worry not only about giving largely while living largely. They must also consider the backs of those on whom they’ve made their givable sums.