Speaking as someone who heads a Christian aid organization, our fundraising may well benefit from celebrities raising public awareness about world poverty since the proverbial rising tide lifts all boats. If Simon, Ryan, Randy and Paula decide to assist our cause, why should I complain? Pure self-interest should have me cheering them on.
Even so, something about it doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not the self-serving aspect of rich and famous people jumping on board as advocates for poor people. Self-promotion is business-as-usual for Hollywood, and therefore too obvious to be a surprise.
I am concerned that this growing “celebritization” of charity has a dark side. A problem crops up when the rich decide to make poverty their project—making it a fashionable project only aggravates the problem. The crux of the issue is power—particularly the disparity of power that exists between those who want to help, and those identified as needing help.
To expand on this, I would begin with three brief observations from the Bible. First, the Lord shapes people to be used in his service, with humility as a prime requirement. Second, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God as “good news to the poor” and called his followers to a costly discipleship marked by fellowship in his sufferings. Third, the Bible’s attitude toward money, and the power that goes with it, is cautious. Money can be used for good, but is also the source of much evil and unnecessary anguish. In either case, it is a mere instrument, not an unadulterated good in itself.
Allying fame and poverty inherently oversimplifies the deep issues involved.
I enjoy American Idol. The personalities involved seem like good-hearted people (even Simon). But their suggestion that a shortage of money is the critical issue in the fight on poverty is rejected by every reputable agency involved. Billions are being poured out, yet many problems that afflict Africa and other regions remain intractable. What’s wrong with this picture?
What is the sub-text when celebrities push to help the poor? “We (who are rich) have the power to change the world.” The experience of our organization concludes that this kind of thinking is flawed, and despite all good intentions can actually damage the very people who need help.
People who live in circumstances of poverty are not incapable of helping themselves. They have enormous (albeit often untapped) capabilities, but they are often hindered by deep feelings of powerlessness. What is required to help people in great need without reinforcing their self-perception that they have no capacity to address their own needs through their own resourcefulness? A short answer is “wisdom.” A longer answer is “coming alongside as humble servants, not riding in like celebrated saviors.”
One of our organization’s senior leaders visited an impoverished village that needed clean water. They were aware of the need, and asking for help. He had enough money to pay for a well to be built. He found himself reaching into his pocket, but his training told him otherwise. So he asked them what it would take for them to build a well, and joined them in thinking through the problem. One man drew a picture of the bricks that would be needed. Others joined the discussion. In less than an hour, the villagers outlined what they would need, and set a goal of building the well within six months. But their projection was off target. The well was successfully finished in less than two months.
This is not to say that outside aid is never needed. But it is too often assumed to be the answer, because money is the most obvious (and often easiest) thing we have to give. By resisting the urge to merely give money—and to implicitly accept the perception of those villagers that they were incapable of helping themselves—my colleague helped them discover something money cannot buy—a greater sense of their own ability, dignity, and control over their lives. That is the deep issue of poverty that money cannot solve.
The subtle idea that “we must help them because they are incapable” also flirts with an old pernicious attitude—the notion of the “white man’s burden.” Having a proper conscience about helping one’s neighbor is very different from thinking that we who are rich must rescue them who are poor because they cannot help themselves. If that is the case, then perhaps we really are superior after all. Noblesse oblige?
The concern I feel about celebrity spokespersons is summed up in photos featuring tall, handsome (mostly white) men and women walking in a sea of undernourished black children. These images rekindle stereotypes of white strength and black weakness that ought to have been discarded by our culture long ago.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of humble and dedicated people serve daily in religious and secular relief organizations, bringing hope, lifting dignity, and empowering change among the poor. Celebrity campaigns may, one hopes, create a rising tide that lifts all agencies and individuals who are helping the cause, but there is a danger to this glitzy answer. Marx famously accused religion of being “the opiate of the masses,” but the entertainment industry now holds that cultic role. Celebrity priests call for a kind of easy, feel-good generosity that eases a vague sense of guilt among the affluent.
What is really needed are people coming alongside, in suffering and self-sacrificial service, to empower people with a new sense of their own capability and dignity. When focus is put on raising money, the simplistic idea is spread that poverty can be solved if the affluent just give a little, without anyone having to sacrifice or suffer. At the very least, this grossly oversimplifies the problem.
I want to register a plea for a more effortful, deeper understanding of the human situation of poverty and the remedies that must be applied. If celebrities want their fame to make a difference to the poor, they are more than welcome to pitch in.
But the real leader in the campaign against poverty is Jesus, who defined the issues—and the price to be paid—two thousand years ago. He rejected the allure of wealth and fame, became as nothing and laid down his life so the outcast, overlooked and ordinary might gain everything—most of all their proper dignity and worth as God’s children. He still sets the standard.