Shining Light vs. Secret Charity

There’s been a lot of stories about Church activity in Houston and other places where members have stepped up to help people in the hurricane. You’ve probably seen a lot of stories. I’ve even linked to a lot myself. I’ll admit I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with these stories though. There’s something a bit unseemly about stories that are us telling ourselves how great a job we’re doing. It’s that sense that if you’re doing charity for praise, you’re doing it wrong. “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matt 6:3)

Further such stories seem to always emphasize what we’re doing right but neglect what we’re doing wrong or whether we’re doing enough.

Despite feeling queasy about this I’ve come around to thinking there’s something valuable in these stories. They convey what it means to be a Mormon. It’s really not about preaching how great we are as if we had our own Rameumpton. Rather it’s about conveying a set of values of what we should be doing in our own lives. The rising generation hears these stories of being prepared for disaster, of acting immediately, of not waiting to be told what to do but to find what to do. To be Mormon is to engage in this kind of service to others and so we mold ourselves to these expectations.

While I don’t want to neglect Matt 6:3, an other scripture comes to mind.

“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.┬áNeither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.┬áLet your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

We should look at these stories and then see our own communities and ask, what could we be doing here? Because acting is fundamentally what it means to be Mormon.

11 comments for “Shining Light vs. Secret Charity

  1. I too have been bothered over the years about too much emphasis on making the service a huge photo opportunity and self congratulatory and worried we were going to pull a muscle patting ourselves on the back.

    While helping clean out homes, some other groups also came and helped. Some were very unorganized and started working on a home without really even talking with the homeowner or even verbally getting their consent. I *think* the folks were honestly just trying to help, but the homeowner got very nervous and when and hid her jewelry just in case. Being a bit more open about being Mormon helping hands and (almost) all having a yellow shirt gave some comfort to others. I still would rather do it more anonymously.

    I had to laugh where you said, “so we mold ourselves”. Actually right now in Houston, we are working in the middle of MOLD

  2. I’ve never known how to properly reconcile Matthew 5:14-16 with Matthew 6:3. You can’t say that Jesus had different circumstances in mind, since both set of verses ostensibly come from the same sermon. The best I can do is boil it all down to good intentions. If bad intentions, then Matthew 6:3; if good intentions, then Matthew 5:14. But I don’t really know.

  3. Happy, yeah some people get too excited and forget that actually serving is doing what is needed not what they want. Reminds me of that old cartoon of the boy scout helping the old lady across the street only to get hit on the head. She didn’t want to go that way.

  4. Clark I’ve had similar thoughts and a similar evolution of thinking.

    Jimbob I think the key is letting light shine in such a way that God and not you end up illuminated. In this sense while I agree with Clark that self-molding is the right way to see and interpret our stories, I’d sure like to see the newsroom catch more of this spirit. Their current orientation–though I believe it still has Clark’s intended effect–is very much that of typical marketing and self-promotion.

  5. We had a flood in Brisbane in 2011, the water went down on a thursday, having been up to the benchtp in the second floor of our house. The council arranged for all those who wanted to volunteer to go on friday and the weekend, one less active member of our ward went. The “better” members waited till the next Saturday, when the church leaders got organised, and went out in their yellow shirts. In the world but not?

  6. We are far too critical as a people. If it’s not murmuring, it’s something like unto it. It’s clearly pride. The constant contrasting of ourselves or of others with some alleged ideal we have. It’s on display in this post. It’s on display in a few comments here.

    It’s on display in so much of what I do as well, so this is not a holier than thou moment. But rather a realization, that no matter what we, our neighbors, our church, etc. does, wherever we have some small axe to grind we don’t hesitate to let that color our perspective in every way.

    Now imagine the approach the Brethren take at conference in their various addresses. How often do they speak well of others and look on the bright side and encourage the church members based on the good we’re doing rather than nit pick. I think they are setting the better pattern to follow, because it’s clearly the pattern the Lord desires for us to improve.

    I realize it would be a challenge to take a step back and stop comparing and contrasting what others are doing wrong, and instead focus on what they are doing right. But I think society would be so much better off. Again, I realize this means that we turn the other cheek when we see something offend our sensibilities, and instead focus on the positive. But maybe that’s where wisdom comes in. Surely, we can all acknowledge that posting about yellow shirts won’t change anything for the positive, but instead thanking so many for being willing to serve and encouraging others to do so, would be a positive effort.

  7. I did some Mormon Helping Hands stuff in Houston this weekend (self-pat on the back acknowledged). I had some reservations about posting stuff on Facebook, but I decided to post because I know I like to see the good others are doing. It inspires me to want to do good and makes me feel like our pioneer, community-minded identity is alive and well. I also don’t mind that my non-Mormon friends see the good our Church can do. That’s not any part of the motivation for doing the service, but it’s not a horrible reason to let it be known what we are doing.

  8. The church commented on this exact tension in 2007, see here:

    “Faced with the dilemma between publicizing the good works and results of its worldwide humanitarian efforts on the one hand and appearing self-promotional on the other, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attempts to find a balance and walk that fine line.”

    It’s very difficult line to walk. Having worked in Houston this past weekend, I can tell you that the sheer numbers of members helping was impressive (10,000 that weekend, throughout Southeast Texas), and I found myself hoping it would be reported to some extent (I don’t think any national publications have picked up the story, however). I’ve got to think as an organization, we are by far the largest contingent of volunteers, and “letting that light so shine” — at least internally with other members–is a positive thing.

  9. Based on my experience with the hurricane/superstorm Sandy relief effort in NY,NJ and PA we were just one of many religious and civic groups who responded. There were as much if not more people from other religions doing the same thing we were doing in each state. But, from my Mormon pews one would have thought we were the primary first responders and the largest contributors of time, talent and energy to the relief effort. I don’t know what the ratios in Houston are like but I suspect our Mormon helping hands are one tiny part in the massive relief efforts. When our self congratulatory press releases and re telling of stories depicts our efforts at the expense of others we run afoul of the scripture, imo.

    I am grateful, however, the Church and its talented people respond to these kinds of disasters. It brings out the best in us even if we don’t miss the opportunity to very publicly pat ourselves on the back for it.

  10. RB, that’s part of what I worry about. That we portray our effort as larger than it is. Given our relatively small size we may be providing an outsized effort. But there are many, many faith groups contributing in Texas and Florida. I think we need to be careful that we don’t downplay their efforts which are definitely deserving of praise.

    Awk, while I think we can be overly critical, I also think we should be self-reflexive and see if we could be doing more. That kind of self-evaluation is healthy and important. Certainly if someone were to say, “Mormons are bad because of self-indulgent praise of how they are doing” I’d agree that’s overly critical. Some critics certainly do make silly criticisms of that sort. However I do think being careful to balance portraying what Mormonism means with humility is important.

  11. I would much rather see the Church comment on its charitable activities (foreign aid, emergency response, homeless assistance, etc.) than obsess over LGBTQ issues and other headliners that put the church in a bad light. By publicizing its “good works” maybe it will encourage more members to participate in humanitarian efforts. And if leaders see significant benefits (good publicity) from relief efforts maybe they will put more Church resources into the activities.

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