The Virtue of Generosity

Albert Camus, the French existentialist, philosopher and novelist, once said that when we in the West forgot the virtue of generosity, we began the practice of charity.  The truth of Camus’ insight was revealed to me in a significant way during my nine years as Bishop of the Diocese of South Dakota.

The Episcopal Church in South Dakota is unique in many ways.  It is the poorest diocese in our country, given the fact that it received over half of its operating budget from the National Church under the rubric of domestic mission support.  Of the 25 poorest corners in the United States, nine can be found on the reservation lands of the Great Sioux Nation, the home of the Lakota people.  Of the 100-plus churches in the diocese, almost two thirds are on the reservations with an estimated 23,000 baptized Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Episcopalians, which discloses another unique aspect of the Episcopal Church in South Dakota.  It is the only diocese, to the best of my knowledge, that is made up predominantly of a “minority” population; in fact, the minority of minorities, American Indians.

The poverty and concomitant conditions of alcoholism and malnutrition – resulting in high rates of diabetes, the highest teenage suicide rate of any ethnic group, unemployment reaching the 80th percentile on some reservations, and a host of other social ills often rehearsed as a “litany of despair” – characterize life on the reservation.  Such conditions are a result of ongoing injustices born of violations of treaties over the decades.  Despite the poverty, Lakota religion is rich in insight and has much to teach us in terms of our current concern for teaching virtues and virtuous living that is discussed so widely in our society.

Generosity is one of the four great virtues in Lakota religion and culture.  I learned the meaning and importance of this virtue from a wise old Lakota priest shortly after I began my ministry as Bishop of South Dakota.  I remember sharing with that priest, as we drove from one church to another on the Rosebud Reservation, my concern about stewardship within the Diocese and the need to teach the tithe as the normative standard of giving in the Church.  After listening attentively, he turned to me and said, “Bishop, giving ten percent in our culture does not make sense to our people.  Generosity, as one of our virtues, calls us to give all that we have in the face of need.”  He continued in his gentle manner to instruct me, “In your culture you give from a sense of surplus or excess; in our culture, we give from poverty and grief.”  After a brief silence, he laughed aloud and said, “There is also a very logical reason for practicing the virtue of generosity.  As a nomadic people that followed the buffalo, if you had it, you had to haul it?  Being able to move quickly and travel lightly was a necessity for our ancestors.”

Over the years I have grown to appreciate Father Brokenleg’s words and the spirit of gentleness and care that informed the.  As a tither, I now realize that I was giving and still continue to give from abundance.  I further realize that I am possessed by my possessions and that my life is too full of “stuff.”  If you doubt that fact, remember the last time you moved from one house to another and the amount of “stuff” that needed to be moved.  Or look alongside almost any interstate at the new American phenomenon of mini-warehouse storage facilities designed to store all the “stuff” that will no longer fit in our attics, basements or garages.

What haunts me most, however, from my lesson from the Lakota virtue of generosity is the notion of self-worth and identity.  Jesus embodied generosity through kenosis or self-empting for the other to the point of giving his own life for us.  He instructed his disciples to travel light and to avoid the human and idolatrous tendency to attempt to secure one-self through the accumulation of stuff, money, power or status.  Generosity grounded in love, which is the source of all virtue, was spontaneous in Jesus, born of such love in giving and living for others.

Far too often we think of the Church as yet one more worthy charitable organization that we should support in the mode of the tithe, as a fair share, paying dues or rendering payment for religious services rendered.  In so doing, we forget the example of Jesus and the parallel virtue of generosity practiced by the Lakota.  In love, in giving, we are able to be filled with God’s love.  Identity and worth cannot be earned; they are given to us in the kenosis of God in Jesus, the perfect gift and his gift to us of himself.

By the Right Reverend Craig B. Anderson

Planning For Tomorrow
A Newsletter of the Planned Giving Office, Diocese of Pennsylvania
Spring 1997

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