Philanthropy as Culture-Making
Philanthropy as Culture-Making

Philanthropy as Culture-Making

All of life is a gift lived under grace and the only appropriate response is gratitude expressed through generosity.

Appears in Winter 2013

The biblical redemptive vision of the future is captured in the word shalom, which means the flourishing of all creation, and includes the rightly relating of all relationships: communion with God, community with one another, and coherence with all creation. The biblical vision of shalom is an imagined redemptive future that is to be realized through justice, rightly ordering that which had become disordered. It is life re-ordered, rightly related, where all is well. It focuses on the re-weaving of the torn fabric of life. “Love and faithfulness meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

Shalom, the experience of this rightly ordered life, includes five conditions being fulfilled: goodness, truth, beauty, justice, and plenty. These areas are systemically related to one another. One is not realized in isolation of the others. Beauty that is deceptive is destructive. Plenty gained unjustly is condemned. In the Bible, the realization of all five of these areas was necessary for a person or a culture to experience shalom (Isaiah 60).

Translating Shalom: On Cultural Capital

In today’s world, we still have all of these concepts, but we have retranslated them into the language of the market. Today, we call “goodness” social capital. We call “truth” intellectual capital, we call “beauty” aesthetic capital, we call “justice” political capital, and we call “plenty” economic capital. We have learned that for a culture to flourish, each of these capitals is systemically linked to each other. For instance, economic capital cannot flourish without social capital. If people do not trust each other, they may learn to coexist and perhaps, with enough explicit regulations, even cooperate; but they will not be able to collaborate. Without justice, wealth destroys trust in community. A community must reinvest in capital on a regular basis or it will be depleted. Every kind of capital is built up over time and it can be drawn down. If capital is only consumed, it will be used up. The replenishment of capital is an intentional act. It does not just happen by accident.

The communities that commit to the continual reinvestment in these areas are the ones that will flourish. This reinvestment is not just for the sake of growing the capital base, but for the intention of realizing this flourishing, which is the result of the combination of all of these capitals. For instance, it is through the creation, organization, and deployment of social, intellectual, aesthetic, and political capital that economic capital is created. The growth of economic capital can only be sustained in a culture that is also flourishing in every other sphere. True sustainable growth means the growth of every kind of capital in a society; it is the creation of cultural capital. Social, intellectual, aesthetic, political, and economic capital are all critical for a culture, an institution, and a person to flourish.

Lastly, the flourishing of the different dimensions that constitute shalom and that comprise cultural capital is critical to mitigate the ruthless power of the market and the insatiable growth of government. In a fallen world, the thrust of the market and government unchecked by any norms is always totalitarian—each sphere seeks total dominion. Left unchecked without any norms outside of their own intrinsic organizing direction, these two dimensions are destructive and disorder creation. Goodness, truth, beauty, justice, and plenty provide the norms for the market and the capitals they create are natural limits to the realm of government.

Holistic Philanthropy

It is in this context that I would like to address the issue of philanthropy, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “the effort to promote the happiness and well-being of one’s fellow people.” For many, philanthropy is defined in economic terms. But this is reductionistic. In light of the biblical vision we’ve just sketched, philanthropy is first and foremost an intentional act of love for humanity, which means helping humanity experience shalom. Philanthropy, in biblical terms, is not motivated by self-interest or egoism, but by agape. It is not transactional or reciprocal. Rather, it flows from a certain symmetry: all of life is a gift lived under grace and the only appropriate response is gratitude expressed through generosity. Given this definition, the vocation of every Christian is to be a philanthropist! In fact, by taking the very name of Christ as the defining element of our identity, we are describing ourselves as philanthropists.

While philanthropy is about more than economic action, it certainly includes the giving of economic capital. It is the giving of one’s plenty for one of two purposes: first, for charity, that is to say, the pure redistribution of one’s economic capital to another, from one’s plenty to the other who is without. Secondly, for the reinvestment of capital that one has consumed in the experience of life. The purpose of both of these acts is to reweave the torn fabric of our culture, which is the work of creating shalom.The distinguishing dimension of philanthropy as charity is that it is freely given, with no expectation for return, no obligation created, and no requirement from the recipient. It is a gracious gift. It does not boast, it is not proud, it is not self-seeking. It does not expect anything, for it is done out of love (that is, it is not given out of self-interest). It is a disadvantaging of the self for the advantaging of the other. It gives away power and empowers the other. This, of course, reflects the love of Christ, and “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), “you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21), and “his command is that you walk in love.” (2 John 6).

Redeeming Charity

I recognize that, today, “charity” carries with it multiple meanings, and for some it is a toxic term. I want to reach back to its deeper meaning—to be like Jesus. “He had compassion for them” (Matthew 14:14), and he acted personally and immediately. Perhaps a more accurate description would be “Personalized Love-in-Action,” and if we could frame this by describing it as agape, I would be equally happy. This kind of philanthropy is an attempt to capture the radical generosity, the unimaginable mercy, and the breathtaking grace that we find in the gospel. Charity as I have tried to describe it represents redemptive acts that reflect the redemption we have found in Christ. These acts are embodied examples of the love of Christ for the world to see. They should be the natural expressions of our union in Christ—for the one who has been forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47).

Christians are called to make this a pattern of their lives. It is both an act and an attitude. It is a reorienting of life from the self to the other. It is not focused on selffulfillment or self-interest. It is not focused on doing something meaningful. It is profoundly counter-cultural. It is not to think less of one’s self, it is to think of one’s self less. It is to lose the self in a movement of compassion that flows from a heart that has experienced compassion. It is life carefree of the self instead of being a careful self. Christian charity should always point to Christ. It is what it means to be free in Christ.

Christ has
 No body now on earth but yours;
 No hands but yours;
 No feet but yours;
 Yours are the eyes
 Through which to look out
 Christ’s compassion to the world;
 Yours are the feet
 With which he is to go about
 Doing good;
 Yours are the hands
 With which he is to bless now.

—Teresa of Avila

These extraordinary acts of compassion that are motivated by love and that reflect the radical generosity of the gospel are but one dimension of philanthropy. They are highly personal acts meant to address the specific needs of the moment. They are not formulaic or legalistic. They are meant to flow out of our union in Christ and our fellowship with the Spirit. However, they do not address the systematic application of resources to address the deeper shalom-shattering issues of our cultural moment. These “charitable” acts should be thought of as necessary but not sufficient. Al Erisman uses the analogy that when a person needs emergency medical care, we must act immediately. Once having done so, we begin the work of developing a long-term plan for the restoration of the patient’s health. And then we might also ask whether a problem in the system caused the accident in the first place. Likewise, we are called to expand our imagination from addressing the needs of the moment to reweaving the torn fabric of our culture.

Our Calling: Creating Capital In All Of Life

The second type of Christian philanthropy expands the scope of our work and it involves fulfilling Jesus’s challenge to us to be people whose crop multiplies a hundred times (Mark 4:8). In all areas of life we are both creators of life-giving capital and consumers of the capital that has been created by others before us. The challenge before all of us is whether or not our mark will be one of consumption or creation. Are we going to just eat the fruit that was provided for us or are we going to bear new fruit?

Investing in the reweaving of shalom is to recognize that the flourishing of each sphere is necessary for shalom to blossom. Some of us may be called to one sphere over another, while others may be called to connect spheres. Regardless, all of us are called to be creators, not just consumers, and every aspect is necessary for the flourishing of life. Investing our capital into the creation of goodness, truth, beauty, justice, and plenty is an act of philanthropy—it is to be a Re-Weaver of Shalom, a “Repairer of Broken Walls, a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12). We must do this work imaginatively, full of grace and truth.

To invest in each of these spheres is to fully acknowledge that the fall has systemically deformed and torn every dimension of life and this work of “reweaving” is a systemic work. Just as the body of Christ is not healthy unless every member is contributing, shalom cannot be realized by focusing on any one area in isolation. For a city to thrive, it requires that we strategically invest in each area in a systemic way: education, jobs, crime, drugs, homes, neighbourhoods, family stability— these are all interrelated. Caring for our neighbour requires that we invest our resources. This is not an option for those who have been called to “bring forth justice.” I may be called to work in one sphere but I need to be careful not to denigrate someone else’s calling. For instance, the investment in beauty is not superfluous. It is critical for a city to thrive

Just as some may be called to invest in different spheres, some may be called to invest primarily in individuals, while others may be called to invest primarily in institutions. It is unfortunate that some of us believe in a normative way that investing in people is more important than investing in institutions. However, I would suggest that investing in one sphere to the exclusion of another reflects an inadequate understanding of how sustainable shalom is realized.

Recovering Patronage

To live in the way of Jesus, investing in individuals means rightly ordering what we use and what we love. We use our resources to express our love for the person— to equip the recipient with everything possible to enable his gifts to flourish in service to the reweaving work of shalom. This can include investing in artists, musicians, writers, scholars, social entrepreneurs, or individuals doing ministries of mercy. Doing this means that we are more than a donor. I would suggest the appropriate language to describe this relationship is becoming a patron.

“Patron” is derived from the Latin patronus, which was also the word for a Patron Saint, the one who defends, protects, and cares for particular others. There was a specificity regarding Patron Saints. To be a patron of someone is to be personally committed to her flourishing. It is to use our time, talent, and resources to enable the recipient to fully realize the potential of her calling. It results in a deeply personal relationship. For the recipient, it embeds even the most individualized callings in the context of relationships. However, this type of relationship can be destructive if the patron uses his power and resources to control as opposed to equipping the other. natalia

For a variety of reasons, there is often an anti-institutional bent in the Christian community. In the Anabaptist tradition, it is an issue of principalities and powers being aligned with institutions. In the Reformed tradition, it can be because of the antithesis with the world overwhelming common grace, which will always tip the scales in favour of disengaging from a pluralistic world. In the charismatic tradition, it can be because of a belief that the bureaucracy of institutions thwarts the movement of the Spirit. I would suggest that James Davison Hunter’s work has clearly demonstrated that engaging the world means, by very definition, that we must be engaging institutions. All institutions require new intellectual, economic, political, aesthetic, and social capital to be sustained. If we are not investing in these institutions their capital will become depleted and their capacity to create new cultural capital will diminish. If we withdraw our investments from these institutions, then our voice will be lost in their governance as well.

Investing in institutions means becoming more than a donor. A lifestyle of only being a donor disembodies the experience of philanthropy. Writing a check and never engaging the people or the mission of the institution falls short of our calling to love our neighbour as ourselves. Without engaging people, our compassion is an abstraction or an idealized emotion. It is not concrete and lived out in the realities of life. Being a donor is better than doing nothing, but it does not represent the fullness of our calling to seek to reweave shalom from the torn fabric of this world.

Partnerships For The Common Good

As Christians, a valid question is whether we can do this in partnership with others who do not share our foundational identity, or whether we should always do this work alone. I would like to suggest that we use the following model to think about this. The work of philanthropy is like a tree. The roots are what nurture and give life to the tree. They are the “why” to life—the roots are the source of our motivation, what animates our actions. The trunk and the branches of the tree are what define the tree. They are what everyone sees. The trunk represents “how” we go about our work. The fruit of a tree is what it produces. It is “what” we do. For Christians to live authentically in a pluralistic setting, it is crucial to be clear about “why” we do something, “how” we are going to do it, and invite those who want to join us in “what” we are doing, to become part of the effort.

This clearly reflects the pattern that Martin Luther King, Jr. followed and it captures the manner in which Habitat for Humanity does its work.Today, we read about the billionaire’s pledge and the incredibly complex and expensive problems confronting us and we may wonder if our small resources might truly make a difference. Our calling is not about being significant in the world’s eyes; rather, it is to be faithful in the Lord’s eyes. As we learned from Jesus, “This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty . . .” (Mark 12:43,44). We are called to be people who bring hope, and we do so by bearing fruit, blessing, and doing good, and bringing forth justice in every dimension of life, wherever God has placed us. This may mean responding to the immediate situation with personalized lovein- action, becoming patrons by investing in the lives of individuals, or making systemic culture-creating investments in institutions. Here are the paths that we can take in life: Will we consume the rich and diverse capital that has been entrusted to us in the quest for personal fulfillment? Will we be those who enjoy the fruits of the invested capital of generations before us but feel no need to replenish it for another generation? Or will we be people who take what has been entrusted to us and create new capital that enables the generation after us to fully flourish? In short: Will we be people who drain capital from the world around us, using the capital to create the highest comfort possible, or will we be people who enhance the capital in every sphere in which we live? The latter is the vocation that is most aligned with the flourishing of life, both personally and corporately. It is a profoundly countercultural life.

Don Flow
Don Flow

Don Flow is Chairman and CEO at Flow Companies, thirty-one automobile dealerships across North Carolina and Virginia, which are known for exemplary ethical practices. The business employs over 900 associates and operates award-winning, highly respected dealerships. Flow Companies is committed to contributing to the common good in their communities.


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