Helping One Person Matters More than Saving Thousands
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
"If I look at the mass I will never act."
It’s hard for people to relate to statistics and big numbers when hearing about disasters and people suffering. The question for advocates, and journalists, is how big is too big? Paul Slovic says the magic number is two.
In a study from the Decision Science Research Institute, Slovic and his team presented some people with the opportunity to donate to a starving girl named Rokia, and others to a starving boy named Moussa. People responded compassionately to their cause. He then presented a third group of people with the opportunity to donate to both Rokia and Moussa, helping both of them equally. Surprisingly, people were less likely to donate anything at all when they were presented with two starving children.
For New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, our guest on next week’s show, this has meant focusing on one person’s story. Devoted to raising awareness of human rights and poverty, he told Krista, “My job as a journalist is to find these larger issues that I want to address but then find some microcosm of it, some Rokia who can open those portals and hopefully get people to care.”
In the non-profit world, some organizations have found success by creating a model around this idea — child sponsorship organizations or Kiva, for example. Microfinance organizations weren’t new, but a model in which one could seemingly loan directly to an individual was. As a result, Kiva exploded onto the American donor scene. Even though in both of these cases donations aren’t going directly into the hands of the recipient, Kiva capitalized on the human instinct to take action to help one person in need. Organizations like DonorsChoose.org have used this same model to fund education projects within the United States.
It is not altogether shocking that we feel more compassion when we have relatable stories. But what stands out in Slovic’s paper is a study in which groups were either given the story of Rokia, a list of statistics, or the story of Rokia combined with more general statistics.
"Donations in response to the identified individual, Rokia, were far greater than donations in response to the statistical portrayal of the food crisis. Most important, however, and most discouraging, was the fact that coupling the statistical realities with Rokia’s story significantly reduced the contributions to Rokia. Alternatively, one could say that using Rokia’s story to ‘put a face behind the statistical problem’ did not do much to increase donations.”
And, this is one of the points Nicholas Kristof makes in next week’s show — how to make us care enough about massive, global tragedies to act.
A New Generation, A Simple Revolution
Krista Tippett, host
In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne quotes the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” Shane Claiborne has given himself over to finding and emulating “real Christians” — past and present — who “act accordingly.”
We’ve updated and refined our show with Shane Claiborne and re-released it in our podcast and on the radio because he has continued to grow in appeal and influence, even as the politicized Evangelical voices that dominated the news when I first interviewed him in 2007 have receded. We also supplemented this interview with a written Q&A update on his work and thinking that is fascinating and inspiring. I hear echoes of Shane Claiborne’s influence — or rather, echoes of the emerging universe of which he is a charismatic exemplar — in the recent decision of the Southern Baptist Convention to take on Christian responsibility for the natural world and climate in a whole new way. I am confirmed in my sense that he represents something larger than himself and his community when I speak with Evangelical leaders and hear from them that the evolving story of younger Evangelicals is scarcely being told.
And the story Shane Claiborne has to tell addresses a question I encountered in our culture in 2007 and continue to encounter today. Born of longing as much as curiosity, it goes something like this: How can we possibly move beyond the rancorous stalemate of our culture — the culture war divides into which even religion has fallen and which religion itself has inflamed?
Shane Claiborne’s life was at one time a kind of microcosm of that stalemate and is now a tale of contrast to it and life beyond it. It also illustrates how new generations — and others in “older generations” whom they are inspiring — are pragmatically redefining the meaning of a life well lived. He puts it succinctly, I think, when he says that he and his companions are less interested in what they will do — be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher? — than in what kind of person they will be — what kind of doctor, lawyer, or teacher.
Shane Claiborne’s theological heart and mind were first captured by 40 homeless families in north Philadelphia who moved into an abandoned Catholic cathedral and were rewarded with an eviction notice. As he tells it, he and over 100 students from his Christian college, Eastern University, put their lives alongside them and helped catalyze a minor miracle. The media of Philadelphia was galvanized. People opened their homes. Section 8 housing was made available. In the end, all 40 families had found or been given a permanent place to live. And Shane Claiborne was set on fire by this experience of resurrecting the essence of Christianity quite literally, as St. Francis of Assisi said before him, in “the ruins of the church.”
In making this kind of connection, Shane Claiborne exhibits a capacity I’ve observed in others his age and younger — an ease of movement, in thought and conversation, between what is ancient and what is modern, what is local and what is global. It is almost as though they are not constrained by space and time as previous generations have been. They draw with immediacy, even intimacy, on the words and example of St Francis, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. And they bring a 21st-century twist to a classic adage of how to be of help to needy others. So, Shane Claiborne says, his community gives people fish and also teaches them to fish. But beyond that, he adds, they are compelled to ask, “Who owns the pond? And who polluted it?”
One could certainly make the case that the culture wars, with a strong religious component, have not ended but simply assumed new forms. And yet, and still, maybe these New Monastics are as much a great story of our time, and ultimately more defining a force, than what will dominate the headlines today and tomorrow. I recall a conversation I had with Benedictine nun Joan Chittister (I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be called an “old monastic”) a good decade ago. She told me about St. Benedict, one of the founders of the entire monastic enterprise. Benedict had his share of problems in his day, the sixth century, including being poisoned and reviled by other religious people who didn’t like what he was up to. And Sister Joan pointed out to me that if you had observed him and his followers in the midst of the great historical drama of the Roman Empire of his time — one little community here, another there — you would never have guessed that they were starting a movement that would endure into the 21st century, and along the way keep European learning and civilization alive — from the margins — during Europe’s Dark Ages.
Happily for all of us, Shane Claiborne knows his history. Ask him if he thinks that the constellation of small communities he’s a part of can really change the world, and he’ll tell you that this is the only way it’s ever been done. The New Monastics are part of larger, important, and underreported stories of religion in the present, including the evolution and diversification of Evangelical Christianity, and the way in which young people are challenging “religion as usual” with their keen insistence on authenticity and spiritual depth.
Shane Claiborne: Interview with a New Monastic
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Your community, The Simple Way, has expanded in the last several years, even in terms of physical space. What used to be one house is now six residences. I imagine life at The Simple Way has changed quite a bit. How has it changed from its humble beginnings?
We are turning into a little more of an intentional village than an intentional community. We had a big fire about four years ago that burned down our main house and community center, and it caused us to step back and think about where we are headed together. Instead of building back the center, we decided to buy up some of the abandoned and troubled houses on the block and grow into them — and to build a park on the old land where our houses used to be.
What’s cool is we are a little more decentralized and sprinkled in the neighborhood. It is less about a house on the corner with a bunch of missionaries and more about a neighborhood that is on a mission together. So now we still gather for prayer and meals, but it is just as much neighbors as “relocaters” to this neighborhood.
What’s it like living there now?
Growing a community is sort of like raising a kid; there are different stages. Each has its own charm and its own awkwardness. We continue to stay true to our original vision: “To love God, love people, and follow Jesus.” But now, we are not a bunch of young folks in one house. We like to say we are a web of subversive friends plotting goodness together with an open invite for new conspirators. In fact, you can have a bunch of folks living in a house and not have community, and you can have community without all living in one house. Things are still hubbed out of our neighborhood here in inner-city Philadelphia with the gardens and murals and open fire hydrants on hot days, but all sorts of stuff has been born, provoked, and inspired by the story here in Philly. I like to believe we are still committed to doing small things with great love. After all, Mother Teresa’s mantra has always been close to our heart: ‘We can do no great things, only small things with great love.’ What is important is not how much we do but how much love we put into doing it.
What’s gained and lost with this type of success and growth?
The world is infatuated with success and growth, bigger is better. So we started The Simple Way as a prophetic critique, calling ourselves a 501c3 anti-profit organization. I guess The Simple Way is less simple now. Ha ha ha. But no less fun. Now we just get to give more money away. We are helping to rebuild a hospital in Iraq that was bombed by the U.S. and that I visited again this year in January. We have a football league now where young men are being mentored and learn character (and conflict management!) on the football field, with over 150 kids on a dozen teams, each sponsored by a local congregation. We still get to help kids with homework, but now we also get to see some of them beat the odds and actually make it through high school and even to college. So we are doing all sorts of new stuff in the neighborhood. And around the world.
We have a magazine now called Consp!re magazine and a directory of communities called Community of Communities. I suppose the great thing is it really does feel like a movement. After all, we are not spreading a brand or a franchise but just want people to inspire each other to live meaningful lives that are not centered around themselves but around God and neighbor. Just as important as choosing a campaign or issue or cause, it is important to choose relationships with real people. We will not “Make Poverty History” until we “Make Poverty Personal.” And, unfortunately, it is often more popular to talk about poor folks as it is to talk with poor folks.
You cited Martin Luther King Jr. in a previous conversation with Krista: “‘We’re called to be the Good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch.’ But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, ‘Maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be transformed.’” What does that road look like today in terms of a sustainable, self-reliant community?
Yeah, we can’t just swat at the mosquitoes, we have to do something about the swamp that is producing them. As long as we uncritically care for victims, the systems will continue to produce victims. That’s why charity has to lead to justice, otherwise we just end up accommodating injustice with our philanthropy and volunteerism. In fact, sometimes charity is a way we quell our guilt but do little to change our lifestyle, much less challenge systemic injustice or take on the principalities and powers.
As we mature, we get to ask new questions, deeper fundamental questions about poverty and violence — and not just respond to the symptoms. For a while we were giving people food, then we started asking why people are hungry. You know the old give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish they eat for their life — and then there is more. You start saying, “Who owns the pond?” “Who polluted the pond?” “Why does a fishing license cost so stinking much?”
The great thing about community is that we can feel like we are part of something bigger and more holistic than ourselves. We are more together than any of us is on our own. Some folks will love feeding people. Others will love tearing down the gates around the pond. Regardless, we celebrate that each is critically important and incomplete without the other.
One of the things we have really wrestled with this year is the gun violence. In 2006, guns murdered 27 people in Australia, 59 folks in England, 190 folks in Canada, and 10,177 people in the U.S. We have nearly one homicide every 48 hours in Philly. So we are trying to teach kids conflict resolution and nonviolence as we see it exemplified in Jesus and the cross. And eventually, after you hold a kid as he bleeds from gunshot wounds, as I did a few months ago, you also start to ask, “Where are they getting the guns?” And the answer is that there are a few notorious irresponsible gun shops in Philadelphia. So we have begun to approach the owners asking them to sign a voluntary code of responsible business that our mayor and 300 other mayors insist would decrease gun violence. When they refuse, we have gathered outside the gun shops and held vigils and prayer services, even direct action putting our bodies in the way of the trafficking of guns. And it seems to be working; the worst gun shop in Philadelphia closed down last year, but we have many more to go.
We also see things like the bio-diesel coop creating jobs for formerly homeless folks. It’s all about having imagination and creativity as we interact with the patterns of injustice and oppression.
You travel and speak quite a bit, and you’ve been invited to speak in a dozen countries in the upcoming year. What are you learning from other communities that you’re taking back to The Simple Way?
It’s funny. Four years ago when I wrote my first book, the publisher said, “Social justice books don’t really sell, but we like yours because you don’t argue people into social issues. You story people in.” Now after about half a million sales, it seems like I get a social justice book every few weeks to do a foreword or cover-blurb for. There is a new Christianity emerging in post-religious right America. And it is arising from a generation that is convinced that we cannot settle for a Christianity that uses our faith as a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the hells around us. And it comes from a growing movement of Christians that not only care about people, but are genuinely and intimately in love with Jesus. People care about the fragile world we live in. They are reading the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and asking, ‘How does my faith affect the way I live?’
Can you share a story that illuminates what you’re learning?
What’s beautiful is there are many different expressions. Protestants and Catholics are living together in Northern Ireland. Black and white South Africans are raising their kids together outside Johannesburg. Israeli and Palestinian Christians are fighting the home demolitions together. Christians along the U.S. border have created sanctuary houses in places like Arizona and are helping folks get proper documentation and confront terrible laws (We even met folks that had organized worship services along the wall with Christians living on both sides serving each other communion by throwing it over the wall.). That is what I see. Christians living with brilliant courage and creativity and whose faith causes them to engage the world and the injustices facing our world.
I am excited as I see these sorts of communities because they catch people’s attention. And I believe the Gospel spreads best not through force but through fascination. In the past few decades, much of Christianity has become less and less fascinating to the world. But I see so many signs that this is changing, and there is a whole new crop of Christians that are reading the words of Jesus and asking, “What if he really meant the stuff he said?”
Conversely, faced with these commitments that take you away from Philadelphia and The Simple Way community, how do you stay connected to the people you care about and love? What have you learned from them as your stature has grown publicly?
Actually one of the things that’s really hilarious is seeing neighbors who I’ve known for years stumble across a story I’ve done in Esquire magazine or see me on CNN and come over hooting and hollering. The cool thing is, after we laugh it off, we go right back to jumping in the fire hydrants or weeding the garden. One of my favorite moments this year was getting to take a ton of my neighbors along with my family from Tennessee to commencement at Eastern University where I got an honorary doctorate. It was the most beautiful site to see kids I had mentored, and had seen grow up, with my mom and pop and some of my favorite scholars. Then a couple of weeks later I got to go with kids here to the high school graduation around the corner and celebrate them. There are lots of heroes here.
In the end, community keeps you pretty grounded. People who know you well are not overly impressed by you. Ha ha ha. I have a quote on my wall that says:
Dear God, forgive me for thinking too highly of myself.
Dear God, forgive me for thinking too lowly of myself.
Dear God, forgive me for thinking of myself too much.
Is it vital that you stay grounded in The Simple Way community so that your message stays true to how you’re actually living? How does this message deepen as you live and work?
We are always tempted to abandon the small things in pursuit of the big things — to leave community for the sake of the movement or to leave the grassroots to lobby on Capitol Hill. There are book deals and TV shows and clothing lines. Oh my… We can convince ourselves that there are more important things to do than help Tyreek with his homework or sit on the steps and listen to Betty talk about her husband beating her up again. But those are the important things.
As I look at Jesus, one thing that strikes me is how He is constantly present with pain and struggles around him. The Gospels are filled with interruptions and surprises — someone whose daughter just died, a party that ran out of wine, someone pulling on his shirt or asking him for something. He lives in those interruptions, the very things we don’t have time for and try to squeeze out of our predictable routinized lives.
I love trying to connect my public vocation with my life in the neighborhood. I’ve gotten to travel with families here and take homeless folks to Yosemite as I travel. And I continue to try to have integrity with how I travel — having folks offset the carbon footprint and insisting on staying in homes not hotels so I get to meet real people and save real money. Ha ha ha. I am grateful for a community that supports me as I do that.
I also find it utterly important not to think too highly of ourselves if God should graciously use us. One of my friends has reminded me that there is a story in the Old Testament where God spoke through a donkey. He says, “God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and God has been speaking through asses ever since.”
StoryCorps Moms: Lourdes and Roger Villanueva
Shubha Bala, associate producer
This story reminded me of my own grandmothers who, having been forced to drop out of grade school to get married, both taught themselves how to read so that they could help motivate their own children to obtain the education they did not get themselves. This is a story that is echoed by so many mothers — working hard to be something, solely to help their children achieve a life they did not have.
Reconciling “Intrusive Paternalism” and “Soft Power”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story."
Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:
In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.
These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program "The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective." Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:
A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.
I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?
One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.
It would be harder for a Lao person to be without a family or community than to be without a job…
— Sarah Zwier, on living and working with Hmong communities in Laos. Read her essay she submitted as part of our series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Eleanor Roosevelt on Noblesse Oblige
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
This 1959 interview with the former first lady surprised me. Introduced as the “archetype of the twentieth-century woman,” Ms. Roosevelt’s plain-spoken manner and repetitive use of the word “obligation” caught me off-guard. In our recent RV conversation with Elliot Dorff, the rabbi was adamant that we shouldn’t view helping others in need as a duty.
My first reaction was to equate “duty” and “obligation.” That was the wrong approach. Listening more deeply, I hear Ms. Roosevelt use “obligation” in the same sense that Rabbi Dorff uses “responsibility.” She speaks with a sense of doing what’s right, of being moral as a shared sense of justice.
I had thought of noblesse oblige as a literary concept, a convention intended to give flesh to fictional characters of another time, of another place, of Faulkner and Flaubert. And, even now, 50 years later, I contemplate if this idea still exists within the wealthier classes who have privilege and position — at least the idea in its humbler sense, without self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement.
Perhaps with the loss of so much wealth in the U.S. and internationally, we collectively might rediscover the best of this manner of conduct. What’s being done in the spirit of noblesse oblige nowadays that just isn’t being covered because of its quiet, serving nature? I wonder.