“Raising Awareness”: Reducing Philanthropy to Vanity
A VERY POST-CHRISTIAN AMERICAN HABIT
By any measure, the U.S. is the most charitable nation on earth. A recent Washington Examiner article, for example, highlighting the findings of the Almanac of American Philanthropy, reported that Americans out-donate Canadians and Britons two-to-one, and Italians and Germans 20-to-one. Among our countrymen, “more than half of every single income class except those earning less than $25,000 donate to charity.” If the ideal everywhere is to give until it hurts, then Americans have a much higher tolerance for pain.
This is not a new trend. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French social thinker and philosopher of American life, observed in Democracy in America (1835) that civic institutions were a defining feature of the early Republic. If something needed doing, then Americans banded together to do it. If someone needed help, everyone tended to pitch in. Native American hospitality and Old World communitarianism blended beautifully on the vast North American continent.
Though it has been a constant among Americans to give of their time, fortune, talents, and even life-blood, the way in which this has been done has changed dramatically. The U.S. is a Protestant nation, after all, and biblical injunctions against ostentation in giving (cf. Mt. 6:2-4) and commands to pray and fast in secret (cf. Mt 6:6) helped temper the temptations of human pride. The heart craves approbation, but the Bible teaches us that the heart is not always to be trusted.
As American Christianity collapsed and society coarsened, however, the old restraints on our fallen natures loosened and fell away. Where once the Bible and Christian decency worked against the tendency to “toot our own horn” as we passed through the streets giving out alms, post-Christian America lurches toward high liberalism and secularism, of which self-congratulation is a distinguishing characteristic.
When I was in junior high school, for example, it was fashionable to wear t-shirts from the “charity 10K” in which you had participated. The t-shirt heralded (today, we would say “virtue-signaled”) that you were in tune with the needs of the community and savvy to social issues. There were charity runs for every conceivable cause, from animal shelters to human rights in Tibet. And everyone wanted to milk the human kindness for all it was worth. The t-shirt you received at the end of the run was crowded front and back with advertising banners and corporate logos. For a pittance in terms of marketing budget, a company or local business got to show its commitment to “corporate social responsibility,” which is another way of saying “tacky philanthropy.”
The phenomenon of public displays of largesse marked a sharp turn away from the almsgiving of the past. Whether stopping to drop a dime into a beggar’s bowl outside a subway station or handing a plate of hot spaghetti to a homeless person in the basement of a church, true charity involves one human being coming into direct contact with another. You give to someone, hand to hand, and, in doing so, reach out to him heart to heart. Charity means “love,” after all, and one does not love at random, or in general. Love, St. Thomas Aquinas taught, is willing the good of the other. For that to take place, there must first be someone else, someone with a name, an individual with whom I can enter a communion of both goods and goodwill.
If I bring a sandwich to a beggar, I don’t expect him to give me an “I Donated!” sticker in return. By the same token, I also don’t bring a sandwich to “mankind.” I bring a sandwich to this grimy man on this street corner, this person whose need compels me to act in a concrete way. I might not know much about the person to whom I give, but I do know that he too is made in the image and likeness of God. To access the universal, in other words, I must pass through the narrow gate of the particular. Philanthropy, at its core, is not writing a check but righting a wrong, an injustice I see right in front of me. Only God can claim to be a lover of mankind. I, a poor sinner, have my hands full trying to love any person other than myself.
So why don’t we give alms in private anymore? Why must we broadcast to the world that we have done a good deed? For many, the answer is because they want to “raise awareness” about a certain cause. “Raising awareness” is on the lips of countless Americans these days. Everyone is doing it. But what does it mean?
Feminists began to speak of “consciousness raising” in the 1960s, but this was a recapitulation of even more hackneyed radicalism. Forty years earlier, writers like Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács drew on lacunae in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to argue that what was truly needed for the (thus far abortive) proletarian revolution to occur was for the oppressed to break through their “false consciousness” and achieve the sociopolitical enlightenment that would send them to the barricades to bring the entire capitalist system to the ground. In a truly Gnostic way, the assumption of both Marxists and feminists — and, now, of all of us as a matter of cultural opinion — was that we have greater insight than you; we have achieved enlightenment where you have not; and we are going to shout at you until you change your mind and agree with us.
In the U.S. this Marxist claptrap got spliced with the DNA of dying Christendom to form a truly bizarre hybrid. Americans continue to be the biggest donors to charities on the planet. But we have also become the most shameless self-promoters of the fact. We justify our horn-tooting by saying that we are “raising awareness” (that is, countering “false consciousness”) among our fellow citizens. The Bible tells us to be discrete about our almsgiving and to suffer our trials in secret. Cultural Marxism tells us to treat our fellow men as benighted fools who need to be beaten over the head with rhetoric (and, very often, actual weapons) until they wake up and smell the dialectical materialism. Marxism in America has thus been poured into the old fundamentalist mold, like a lost-wax statue taking on the shape of the thing that was there before.
“Awareness raising” is not entirely a blend of warmed-over Marxism and defunct Protestantism. There is also a resemblance, if one looks closely, to some very old Jewish and Catholic teachings. American awareness raising — whether Americans’ awareness of the fact has been raised or not — is very much the grandnephew, once removed, of offering up our sufferings to the Almighty so that He might transform them, somehow, into grace for someone else. Today, we assume that we must raise everyone’s awareness every time something goes wrong. But long ago, when the human race was truly religious, our instinct in times of trouble was to raise the awareness of God to our plight. He alone could help us. If “raising awareness” as we know it today is the Protestant work ethic denatured into sloganeering and mixed liberally with Extract of Marcuse, then the original awareness-raising was prayer, supplication, communicating with God in the inner sanctum of one’s hushed heart.
The Jews spoke of a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” and acting charitably because doing so had been commanded by God. This implies that no one gives anything scot-free. Indeed, if I am honest, can I truly say that I want to go to the soup kitchen to help out? Do I really feel like parting with my hard-earned cash so that some street person can warm up with a cup of coffee? Do I honestly long to volunteer at the local women’s shelter, with all the awkward moments and unpleasant drudge work it is likely to entail? No. Charity is disagreeable. If I had my druthers, I would prefer to do something else.
Likewise the worship we owe to God. It is easy to go to synagogue on a beautiful spring day in late May. But what about on an early January morning? In 1935? In Leningrad? You are not only cold but afraid. It would be so much nicer to stay safe and warm in bed. To do what you don’t want to do, do it cheerfully, and do it for the sake of God or someone else — this costs something. It’s a sacrifice.
Sacrifice. There’s something we don’t hear much about anymore. If I give something, it must cost me. But if I have anything to give at all, it’s because God was good enough to provide it. So I can hardly boast of giving it back. If I sacrifice something, however small — a dollar for a hobo, a cold hour for Mass — it does not redound to my glory, but to God’s. “Raising awareness” short circuits this mysterious arrangement. It is even worse than Charles Dickens’s “telescopic philanthropy,” like that of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, who promoted charitable giving to faraway countries while her own family went to ruin. Raising awareness is “mirror philanthropy” — i.e., it seems to appeal to mankind, but, in the end, it’s just a method of self-promotion.
When I “raise awareness,” I tell the world that I myself have taken the reins. Like Münchhausen mounted on his horse and pulling himself out of the bog by his own ponytail, my “raising awareness” takes the prerogatives of Heaven and puts them on display down here on earth.
The ancient Greeks thought that theft from the Olympians was to be cautiously honored. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and paid a heavy price for it, but in the end it was good for mankind. The Jews thought otherwise, and so do Christians. The binding of Isaac shows that there can be no negotiation between God and man. There are no terms of exchange. “Raising awareness” is Promethean, perhaps, but at the same time it is tiny. The audience may be seven billion human beings, but in the end, if God isn’t listening, then what kind of an audience is that?
Christians learned well from the Jews how to honor God without patting themselves on the back. Christians discovered something else too: the community of saints, possibly the greatest insight in all of human history. I can offer my little sufferings up through the intercession of the blessed, and especially through that of the Mother of God, whose tender requests Her Son will never deny. (Even here, it should be noted, the transaction is from person to person. Every saint has a name.) Raising awareness means asking the Church Triumphant to focus God’s loving torrent on one of us still struggling down here below. Sacrifice is the only coin that fits in this machine. I can “raise awareness” on a global scale, but until God’s awareness is raised, often through His saints, my cause is lost.
Our secular age has emptied Heaven, but we still act as though our newest substitute will suffice. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, leukemia, or any of a thousand other horrors, we cry out in ribbons and wristbands, buttons and bumper stickers to mankind at large, hoping that someone, or some agency, will emerge from the masses to ease us gently through the gauntlet ahead.
There is something very particularly American, then, about raising awareness. It is democratic: it sees solutions to problems in swaying public opinion and gathering majorities to tackle difficulties. It is optimistic: it believes that crowdsourcing personal anguish will meet a sympathetic response among perfect strangers. It is evangelical: I rarely get asked, “Have you been saved, brother?” at bus stops anymore, but I am endlessly harangued by those who have been “awakened” by the Internet and wish to convert the unenlightened online and off. (Who remembers the Ice Bucket Challenge? It was a kind of autonomous cyber-baptism to dump ice water over your head and then post a video of it in homage to the omnipotence of the World Wide Web.) And it is post-Christian: it coasts on the momentum of the Church and its Protestant decantation, echoing the great choirs and prayer offices of the distant past even in calling out to faceless legions on Facebook to join in the hymn to Awareness Raised.
A society that has forgotten Christianity will build systems to try to attenuate the terrifying starkness of one man or one woman standing before the Judgment Seat of God. When we raise awareness, we hope that God’s awareness will dim. We have sinned; we have turned away; we have made idols and worshiped them; we have set our faces against the commandments we were given. Raising awareness is raising voices, raising a clamor to drown out the silence of one heart fluttering in God’s awful presence. How many of us have put all our chips on the earthly side of the table? How many of us are aware, at long last, of what happens when — as the Jews and the Christians believe — it is not general awareness but we, in the flesh, who are raised one by one on the Last Day?
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