February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
June 4, 2007
Beginning in the fall of 2006, a new campaign began to sweep across America called The ONE Campaign. Promoted by the likes of Oprah and Bono, Matt and George, Angelina and Brad, ONE has quickly become the campaign to be involved in. And with awareness for global poverty and disease at perhaps an all-time high, more and more people (almost 2.5 million actually)1 are choosing to respond by joining the ONE campaign. With their unique purchasing power as first-world consumers, Americans can now interact with and respond to global crises in the third world (like disease, famine, and a lack of clean water) by purchasing products associated with ONE through the Product (RED) campaign.
But I have a confession to make: I have yet to buy a (RED) Nano iPod, a (RED) Motorazr phone or even a (RED) t-shirt from GAP. I have, however, been puzzling over this newest technique, known as cause marketing, for enticing us – the consumer – to “make poverty history” by doing what we do best, consume.
In essence, the (RED) campaign now allows us to alleviate our first-world guilt by buying specially marked items secure in the knowledge that we just prolonged the life of another person suffering with AIDS in the third-world. It’s brilliant, is it not? People’s lives are saved and we don’t have to stop buying things we probably don’t need. For the consumer culture, Product (RED) is the perfect solution to one of life’s nastier problems: what to do with the world’s poor and suffering in the face of our own opulent lifestyles.
Here is my question: Shouldn’t helping be costly? If, by purchasing an item that we want, we can help some people in need, then what happens the next time when we are asked to help without a shiny new toy attached at the end of the card swipe? Suddenly helping looks like, well, helping, and all that stuff about truly affecting the life of another person is about as exciting as living with a life-changing illness. Where is the cost, or said differently, the sacrifice, when we gain something else besides the good health of a man or woman, boy or girl? The (RED) campaign is telling us something about ourselves that should give us pause. In an effort to bolster the bottom line, the (RED) campaign is telling us that life is not enough of a reason to care and they have built a business model on this idea.
On the surface, it is a difficult task to critique any attempt to raise money for those in need. But then I remember Jesus. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers,
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do – blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”2
The deeper pause reveals that perhaps another attraction of the (RED) campaign is that in this marketing-saturated culture, our specially marked (RED) products “trumpet” for us how much we want to be admired and regarded as savvy and relevant, even if for a brief moment.
The ONE campaign, whose motto is “make poverty history,” boldly states that we can actually eradicate poverty in our world. But there is also another implication in those three words that stirs something within us. As a culture accustomed to fixing problems, ONE’s motto subtly implies that there can be an end to the problem of the poor and thus an end to the need to fix the problem. As someone put it to me in a recent conversation, “Who wants to sign up for something that never ends?” In other words, we all want to be a part of something that makes a lasting difference; we just don’t want it to last very long. Yet the truth is that providing for the poor and serving them is costly and usually requires both our time and our money.
In Deuteronomy 15:7-10, God tells his people to “give generously” to the poor and that they will be blessed because of this, but He also tells them that “…there will always be some in the land who are poor.” And in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus tells us that we will always have the poor with us and that we can help them anytime we want.
As with product (RED), the ONE campaign offers real hope in the wrappings of a false promise. It is good to hope for and desire the end of poverty. But it is only in the second coming of Jesus that we will see the end of poverty, not by our own efforts but because all things have been redeemed and made ready for a new life by Jesus. ONE’s Campaign is deceptive because it sells short the costly, lifelong work of caring and providing for the poor among us.
Just as the problems of pain in our world are neither black nor white, it is true also that our attempts to help are neither right nor wrong. And while it is possibly true that some or even most of us are really more interested in our shiny new toy or the brief moment of admiration, there are also those who actually wish to help someone else in need. It is precisely for this reason that we cannot become entangled in causes that first define the problem and then sell us the answer. We must think deeply about the cost of helping those in need so that when we are faced with the choice of how to serve, we don’t first require a tip.
Sean is a psychotherapist and an avid film watcher. He lives in Seattle with his wife Laura and their newly born daughter Emma.