Advent Firesiders

Generosity (2006)

During the past few weeks I have  been suffering from a bout of severe political incorrectness. Last year there was only a trickle of press stories and mail shots encouraging us to donate anything from a well to a flock of chickens to assist development in the world's poorest countries but this year it has been a flood. Middle class people like us, turned off by domestic conspicuous consumption, by grandchildren with ostentatiously long lists of Christmas present requirements to be piled on top of their existing surfeit, by the ritual of sock and bottle swapping, are obvious prime targets for this kind of altruism. Even so, it has its limits: the grandchild with everything plus is hardly likely to welcome a calf at 10,000 kilometres or the lecture with which we plan to accompany its certificate; and the aunt that gives us the same bottle of undrinkable sweet sherry every year doesn't want a goat in return, she wants a bottle of the same. still, being the kind of people we are, if we don't have family and friends receptive to this kind of parallel giving, we're in the wrong biological tribe and we've made the wrong kind of friends.

I can see the immense benefit to recipients of all this bounty as long, of course, as there are not so many flocks drafted in that the price of poultry falls through the coop, and there is never enough potable water but there are pitfalls, notably the urge to preach and the temptation to preen. Even so, my political incorrectness stems from something quite different. I wonder whether, if we are going to go in for this kind of generosity, we shouldn't give people certificates of our personally rendered community service rather than being bountiful at a safe distance from the squalor. I don't mean, of course, an attendance certificate for the PCC or the mothers Union nor even for working in the charity shop or serving on the flower rota; we all do these kinds of things anyway. What I have in mind is the establishment of a community service agency in East Brighton which can organise us to work directly with those who are deprived and desperate. Now a certificate for running a crèche so that single mums could go to work would be worth having!

Of course, there are all kinds of practical obstacles to this scheme including the paramount consideration that the proposed recipients of our generosity might resent it; but who said that we only ought to give if it's comfortable. In spite of the tax we pay we perhaps deserve a modest helping of resentment. Better to offer help and feel the pain than to be blandly indifferent to what happens within ten miles of us while going on line to send a gift to people we will never have to see or smell.

The real advantage of this scheme is that,  if we homed in on projects in Autumn, we really might get some feeling of how to generate goodwill in time for Christmas and we might be able to carry Christ where He most wants to go. If we send a present via a charity to a distant land it doesn't carry a part of us with it and the part that's most important is that through which Christ shines; in other words, if we give direct service the main point isn't the provider it is Christ shining through the provider. Instead of giving somebody something for Christmas we are bringing them Christ for Christmas.

I can hear the objections - there are so many - but no doubt there were objections when Oxfam started and when the present cunning schemes were first proposed.

I think what I really want to do is to buy the goats and chickens in July and find a way of doing something direct in November and December. Not so politically incorrect after all, just a bit counter cultural. We have all become so accustomed to serving Jesus at a distance that we are in danger of forgetting how to serve Him directly. I suppose it started with the industrial revolution and the beginning of the decline of the extended family. Today we can avoid the awkward and institutionalise the ailing or the frail and this is understandable, even inevitable, in our current conditions. It's all very well for idealists to say we should be doing something else as a matter of principle; but our ancient granny isn't a matter of principle, she's a matter of practice. My concern in all this is that the extended family, as well of being a wonderfully oiled mechanism of mutual support was also a laboratory for exploring methods of handling friction. Before the age of mass transit and private cars we were forced to mix with all kinds of family and friends we didn't much care for; but now we have escaped into communities of practice and self interest. The myriad flocks are just another symptom.

In other words, no matter what good we may do by giving a friend a certificate of our generosity to the poorest people in the world, we might be poorer for it in the worst possible way; our spirit may be poorer. So, next time we see an ad for providing a well in Bangladesh, think about building a playground in Whitehawk. Or, at a much more mundane level, do you think you deserve a certificate for visiting granny?