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On Doing Good

One of the arguments for the value of religion is that it motivates good deeds. That this is a widely accepted view is evident from the fact that religious institutions receive tax breaks from the government, not because religious rituals or beliefs make social contributions, but because those rites and beliefs are seen to encourage good works in the community. Religion makes people better neighbors, and religious institutions make neighborhoods better communities, or so the thinking goes. Therefore, government should encourage it. This may all be true, though religion arguably also makes some people worse neighbors. Be that as it may, what about the many non-religious people who also do good? What about them?

Recently researchers at the University of California, Berkeley studied the motivations of religious and non-religious people for doing good. The study did not attempt to demonstrate that religious people are more generous than less religious people or vice versa. What it did demonstrate, or suggest, is that the motivations for generosity vary significantly between more and less religiously committed people.

The generosity of less religiously committed people tends, the study showed, to be driven by a sense of compassion. The more compassion one feels, the more generously one behaves. Now there’s nothing terribly earth-shattering about this. What’s more interesting is the fact that compassion, as measured by the study, has less to do with the generosity of more religiously committed people than it does for less religiously committed persons. Religious people may feel compassion, but their generosity is motivated more by a sense of what “the right thing to do” is or “what God wants or expects me to do” than by any feelings they have for people in need. Admittedly, the “ethics of obligation or duty” sounds a bit less compelling and may feel less emotionally satisfying than the “ethics of compassion.” And, of course, compassion is certainly part of the religious life. But there is still something quite powerful and important about generosity that is not dependent primarily or solely on our own “feelings.”

Pauline was a retired nurse in her 80’s who ran the food bank in downtown Easton, Pennsylvania where I was a pastor in the 1980’s. This Lutheran laywoman spent three full days a week at the church organizing, sorting, doling out food bags, managing volunteers and running a disciplined but deeply hospitable ministry for people facing family crises. Pauline was decidedly unreflective about her good deeds. “This is what we’re supposed to do” or, “It’s what a good Christian does” were about the extent of her ethical calculations when pressed to describe her motivation for spending her “leisure” years wrestling boxes of food and dealing often with need that both broke one’s heart and tried one’s patience. A product of Lutheran catechetical teaching and eight decades of Lutheran preaching, Pauline was clear that she wasn’t generous in order to merit God’s favor. Rather, being already favored – graced – by God, she simply did what God desires. In her case that meant a lifetime of nursing in the inner city and feeding the hungry in her retirement years. It’s not that she wasn’t compassionate; it’s just that her generosity did not wax and wane on the basis of how compassionate she was feeling on a given day or toward a given person. Doing good, one might say, was her “job” as a Christian and she clocked in day in and day out.

Religious folk can sometimes grow overly confident of their presumed superiority when it comes to doing good. Non-religious people often far outshine their religious neighbors with their generosity. And, as this study suggests, non-religious people don’t necessarily take a back seat to anyone when it comes to compassion. The fact is we need each other with our complementary motivations for responding to the world’s enormous need.

But this study reminded me of one of the reasons the generosity of religious folk is so important, for their sense of moral duty obliges them to do good on a regular basis, giving when it doesn’t lead to good feelings, loving even the most unlikable neighbor because that’s simply what you do. While Pauline was running the food bank at St. John’s I was usually in my office down the street at First UCC. Frequently I was interrupted by folk from the street needing money, housing, help of one sort or another. It was never convenient. Often there was the sniff of a con in the approach. Some were regulars, always in some sort of trouble. I tried to help, usually, or at least get them to a place that could offer meaningful help. Some days I just wanted to hide when they came knocking. But I helped, because it was the church, and this is what the church does. It may lack some of the warm fuzzies of compassion, but it frees generosity from its dependence on emotional tugs, relying instead on the push of moral expectation. It’s motivation for good that can hold up over the long term, as it did for Pauline, a kind of liberality impervious to the cynicism and, yes, betrayals that can so easily erode our goodness as we grow older and allegedly wiser. And in a world of deeply challenging need, that’s a good thing.

John H. Thomas
July 26, 2012

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