Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Problem with Nonprofits

The past couple of nights, I've settled in to engage with an old friend.  Clive Staples Lewis was a major part of my childhood and my youth.  My encounter with his mind and with his faith left me with a Christianity that has been able to robustly engage with reality.  I do not fear science, nor am I troubled in my encounter with other faith traditions.  Much of that has to with the gentle, earthy, intelligent faith that radiates from both his fiction and his theology.

So I've been reading The Weight of Glory, a refreshingly short collection of his essays and "sermons."  His mind and his use of language continue to be taut and delightful, even after all these years.  It's one of the reasons I continue to consider him a primary spiritual teacher.

One thing hit me, straight off the git go, and that was a challenge in the titular essay to the idea of defining ourselves by negation.   Is the highest value "unselfishness," he asks?  He'd been hearing that, evidently, and had an issue with it.  

Why should we assume that "selfishness" has a right to dominance, with the good only existing in relation to a dark but more essential state of being?

Instead, it is more transforming and powerful to assume that our purpose is the good, which exists as a free-standing potential reality that is fundamental and positive.  This, he articulates as love, in the most radical sense of the word.  Let "love" exist as an affirmative, potent, gracious primacy in our self-understanding, Lewis suggests.

His observation sent my mind cascading off in several directions, which my mind tends to do.  One reaction touched on an old pattern of thought, having to do with the way our culture views actions taken for the benefit of others.  These are the things we do together for joy or for compassion.  These are the arts, and music, and working together for the good of all.  We make gardens.  We feed the hungry.  We visit the prisoner.  We worship and teach.  We sing and dance and share our stories and our art.

When we create organizations for the purposes of creating the good, we have a name for them.  Or rather, we have a new name for them.

We used to call them "charities."  Charity means "love," from the Latin root word caritas.  These were collective undertakings of love, community efforts done for the purpose of manifesting a more gracious state of being in the world.  But beginning in the late 1980s, our language began to change.

What mattered to our secular market culture was profit, and the power conveyed from the generation and accumulation of capital.  So what had once been called "charity" became defined as a negation, a shadow state of being.  They are not "love organizations."  

They are "non-profit organizations."  And so "nonprofit" became the defining term for that form of activity, something we do when we're not doing "profit," the thing that is most important in our culture.

Outside of our fiercely market-driven nation, an interestingly parallel semiotic event occurred in the social democracies elsewhere in the world.  

There, it is government that has primacy, setting the boundaries for culture through the use of law, regulation, and coercive authority.  In Europe and elsewhere, what had been known as "charitable" organizations now became increasingly known as "nongovernmental" organizations.

In both cases, what had been an affirmative statement became a negation.

For ten years of my life, before I entered the pastorate, I was immersed in the world of studying nonprofits.  The whole time, this negative ideation troubled me.  Well, not the whole time.  I did actually get some work done, when I wasn't musing philosophically out of the window of my office.  

This telling way of using language to indicate dominant cultural values really did stick with me.

Because business and government are all well and good.  But profit and power should not be given primacy of place in our self-understanding.  They are not our purpose.