Well-Placed Charity

Shrewd Samaritan:
Faith, Economics and the Road to Loving Our Global Neighbor
By Michael Tessman
Thomas Nelson, pp. 256, $26.99

Review by Michael Tessman

On a recent visit to Washington D.C., with some extra time before my train, I sat on a park bench in Lafayette Square across from the White House. Apart from an amplified broadcast of one person’s take on the current administration, protesters were in short supply and demonstrators even less so. The buzz of city life continued without incident as lanyarded government employees scurried about on their appointed rounds. Tuning into the lone protester’s message, a sanitized version went something life this: “Why are they (administration types) getting away with (list of expletives) while we sit here homeless and shoeless?”  It was a sunny, warm day and, yes, a few of the garden-variety street people we’ve become so accustomed to in large cities were literally walking around barefoot. I nearly joined them!

My thoughts turned to Shrewd Samaritan: Faith, Economics, and the Road to Loving our Global Neighbor. Bruce Wydick’s general premise is a riff on the old familiar “think globally, act locally” — a salutary posture toward society’s ubiquitous disparities. The twist is that “everywhere is local” in the 21st century global village!  Thinking and acting globally is daunting. Isn’t the social mirror held up to us in the daily news depressing enough? Who needs a book on the subject?

Wydick provides numerous examples of failed attempts, as well as successes, in addressing poverty and socio-economic inequality. Especially compelling is part 3: “Effective and Ineffective Poverty Interventions.”  Building upon what he calls “the Six i’s” (ignorance, indifference, idealism, investigation, introspection, and impact) introduced early in the book, we are invited to carefully access and assess our own viewpoints and postures toward poverty, inequality, and the growing disparities surrounding us.  A seventh “i” (for identification) is, as Wydick writes, “important because it allows the giving of our time and money to draw on our humanity rather than labor against it. We give more and better when we identify with specific individuals and groups rather than statistics. We learn to come outside ourselves and all our little ambitions and plans. We learn to love.”

An economist at the University of San Francisco, Wydick writes in deft, colloquial language about one of the 21st century’s most serious social problems: the growing disparity of the world’s wealthy and impoverished citizens. Punctuating the text are useful and uncomplicated charts and graphs. Helpful endnotes contribute easily accessible bibliography and resources for readers who want to delve deeper.  A very useful study guide is appended, along with “Sinister Tips for Mission Trips,” an amusing take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, demonstrating that humor and wisdom often go hand in hand.

The book is an excellent primer. Yet, tour de force isn’t an overstatement, save that the text is barely 200 pages. Wydick charts a critical, historical perspective on the major cultural, geographic, and institutional causes of systemic poverty worldwide. From Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, Karl Marx and Maynard Keynes, Paul Samuelson and Jeffrey Sachs to Thomas Piketty, he makes sense of variable theories and practices without necessarily passing judgment on them or those who perpetrate them. Never, though, is the book an apologia for the status quo.

Perhaps the book’s greater genius is in Wydick’s ability to both describe and prescribe, all the while illustrating his narrative with a responsible, credible exegesis of two familiar parables from Luke’s Gospel: the Good Samaritan and the Wise/Unjust Steward. Wydick calls him the Shrewd Manager. It would have been enough to provide commentary on Luke’s rendering of these parables as mirror images of the social circumstances in which we find ourselves today. We are further enriched by Wydick’s perspective as a Christian and an academic economist. He elucidates core teachings of Jesus (love your neighbor, care for the least of these, feed the poor, house the homeless, etc.) while rehearsing wide-ranging possibilities for demonstrating the same in daily life.

Shrewd Samaritan offers a range of examples, from Bill and Melinda Gates to the rank and file among us. We are to become shrewd Samaritans without a shred of guilt for “not doing enough!” Wydick emphasizes that we can never solve the issues before us, nor should we set out to try. Attempting to do so leads to misplaced charity, the likes of which can generate even greater social upheavals.  One thinks of recently documented examples of the outpouring of well-intentioned gifts into mismanaged traumatic circumstances such as Newtown, Conn., following the Sandy Hook school massacre, or natural disaster relief in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

Wydick defines essential roles and responsibilities by title: investigators, givers, advocates, creators, directors and practitioners.  Aligning these with diverse temperaments and personality traits provides helpful tools for the application and delivery of aid, whether in goods and services, hands-on relief and development, or generous philanthropy.

The greatest value of Wydick’s book is in encouraging readers to cease from being fearful of looking deeper into the faces of our global neighbors, and reassuring us that, while we cannot solve the disparities on a macro scale, we must not cease from engaging at a micro level. Acting locally and globally is increasingly synonymous.

Wydick encourages engagement in substantive ways beyond generous giving and check-writing.  Sponsor a child, help build a house, volunteer in a variety of places, and, if you haven’t found a niche, look a little farther outside your comfort zone for what may be right in front of you. Do it all for the greater good, mindful of the manifold returns to one’s self, family, and community.  Even from a park bench in Lafayette Square, it is, indeed, more blessed to give than to receive!

Michael Tessman is a retired priest and former professor of parish ministry at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

Countdown to GC80 Opening Gavel


Online Archives