Acton Commentary

The Free and Easy Charity of the 'One Campaign'


The One Campaign, an advocacy group that is lobbying to direct an additional 1 percent of the U.S. budget toward foreign aid, admirably seeks to mobilize Americans to address the AIDS crisis and extreme poverty. The campaign has drawn the support of prominent evangelical leaders, such as Rick Warren, a large following of politically-active celebrities including Bono, and not a few Christian artists. Now, with finance ministers of the leading industrial nations likely to scrap $40 billion in debt owed by the world's poorest countries at next month's G8 summit, the One Campaign is hailing this move as a significant victory for the world's poor.

Yet the One Campaign, founded by a group of international charities and NGOs, is fundamentally flawed. Its approach is flawed because it demands that the U.S. government give $25 billion toward this effort, and invites Christians to respond in ways inconsistent with Jesus' teaching. The Bible never asks individuals and churches to appeal to government to help those in need; but it does urge the virtue of charity on the members of the church.

Why appeal to government when the church is a far better resource? John L. and Sylvia Ronsvalle, authors of The State of Church Giving Through 2001 , note that if American Christians gave 10 percent of their income to support the work of the church, it would provide $143 billion to equip the church to do what she is called to do. Why ask for a measly $25 billion when the American church has more money and can directly support those private groups charged with addressing the greatest needs in the most effective ways? This approach allows governments to focus on things like building infrastructure and securing peace and justice.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers that they--not government--are “the light of the world.” Moreover, followers of Christ are actually discouraged from “practicing piety before men in order to be noticed” when giving to those in need. Yet the One Campaign somehow enticed Christians like Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay, the Newsboys, Switchfoot, and others, to display prominently pictures of their piety on the Campaign's website .

Christian workers for centuries have responded to God's call to “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17) and to “love their neighbor” (Matthew 22:39). Christians have seen it as their responsibility to extend sacrificial love to those in need by seeking justice, rebuking those who are evil, fighting on behalf of the weak, embracing those who are mistreated, and promoting freedom for all. The Samaritan story proposes to rally the church, not government.

Even black liberation theologians appeal to action modeled after the ministry of Jesus. James Cone, Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, believes that Christians are to “join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice.” Authentic Christian identity is found when Christians change their lifestyles to effect real change. “Christians fight not for humanity in general,” he says, “but for themselves and out of love for concrete human beings.”

In contrast, the One Campaign says nothing about sacrificial love or the promotion of human dignity. What's more, it promotes a depersonalized and sterile form of help characteristic of the secular appeal to radical individualism.

Interestingly, the campaign does not encourage sacrificial living by curbing purchases of music CDs or movies, so as to give more personal resources to help the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Americans could have donated the $12.2 billion spent on music in 2004 to fight poverty and AIDS. In fact, in 2004 alone, U.S. consumers spent $21.2 billion on DVD sales and rentals, $9.9 billion on video games, $14.6 billion on chocolate, $9.4 billion at the box office, and $2.8 billion North American revenue from concert tickets. Besides, does anyone really need to go to a U2 or Jars of Clay concert?

Personal sacrifice for the sake of the poor could mean a little less wealth and little less fame for the wealthy and famous entertainers behind the One Campaign. But that might not be a bad thing, since the music stars currently use their clout to make demands on how the government should use other people's money.

“One by one” is the campaign's mantra. A far superior campaign for these artists to support is the “one by one” personal virtue of charity that God calls Christians to enact through the church and other faith-based organizations. Much more could be accomplished by bypassing the bureaucratic inefficiencies of government, freeing it to do other good things, and giving a portion of the $143 billion to those agencies that do charity better than government ever could.