I OWE WHAT TO WHOM?


‘Giving back’ is the new secular term for volunteering and charity. It comes from giving back something you borrowed or were gifted when you were in need. When you’re talking about individual to individual, giving back is a great thing to do. (So is paying forward, which is what you do when your donor refuses repayment.) But when the term is used as a substitute for charitable activity, I think it’s a misnomer, and it implies something that I find ominous about the way we think of individuals and society. Used in a general way, the term ‘giving back’ implies that the goods, money or services which I donate to a cause are, at least in part, a payment of a debt. But a debt to whom?

 It’s Orthodox belief that giving to those in need is part of our duty as Christians. We believe that everything we have, from the breath in our bodies to the earth upon which we stand, to our health, talents, gifts and material possessions is from God. Anything charitable we do is not so much giving out as it is giving back, since “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). We give not only because it’s part of a Christian life and responsibility and a way of loving our brothers and sisters, but because we believe that God created the universe, and us, and so the reality is that He gave us everything out of His own imagination, love and creation. If it weren’t for Him, we wouldn’t exist. So giving from our wealth (both material and immaterial) is very much giving back, because we do owe Him. It’s an unpayable debt.

 In a secular, atheistic society, God doesn’t officially exist. The universe and everything in it is the result of innumerable happy coincidences and every individual’s existence is the result of a coupling of two people whose DNA combined to produce an individual human being. If we owe anything to anybody, it’s to our parents, for producing us in the first place, and to our mothers for carrying us to term in the second place. So honouring your parents, doing right by them and being generous and open handed with them is right and good and proper, since yeah, we do owe them for our being. But helping causes and people doesn’t ‘give back’ to your parents.

So we ‘give back’ to society? I won’t deny that as a citizen, I benefit from belonging to geo-political-socio-economic constructs like my city and my province and my country. That’s why we have civilization – so more individuals can gain more benefits and protection as a group than by going it alone. But we “pay back” those benefits by obeying the laws, by participating in the political process, by paying our taxes (whether it’s sales tax, income tax or any other tax imposed by the state), by treating the earth in a responsible and caring manner, and by treating our fellow citizens with dignity and by respecting their rights and freedoms. That pays any “debt” we owe to society for the protections and benefits we receive. That’s how we ‘give back’ to society.

I won’t argue that it’s a good thing to help out with causes you find important. It’s a good and laudable thing to do. But in a secular, atheistic society, they aren’t “paying back”. Donating time, talent and goods is over and above anything we “owe” society for the benefits we reap as a member of that society. The assumption behind the term ‘paying back’ leaves me a little uneasy – it seems to express that everything we have and everything we’ve done, from the breath in our bodies to the earth upon which we stand, to our health, talents, gifts and material possessions is from the geo-political-socio-economic construct to which we belong. Are we really moving to the belief that it’s only because of a geo-political-socio-economic construct that we draw breath in the first place, and that we owe an unpayable debt to it for our very existence? We need to think about the implications of that.

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