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Profiles in Generosity : A CHINESE PERSPECTIVE

Generosity is a universal virtue and one of the most valued virtues within Chinese tradition. While sharing much commonality, its manifestation and understanding are largely shaped by cultures and social customs. The 4th century B.C.’s I-Ching, or Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese text of wisdom that is used as a prophecy and divination manual. It says that, just like the earth, which is generous and peaceful, a man of virtue should have ample virtue and accommodate all things. In this instance, if “the earth” was replaced by “God,” it would sound much like a Christian teaching.

Although the Book of Changes is one of the most important scriptures in traditional Chinese philosophy, a more popular traditional Chinese teaching is Confucianism. Represented by The Confucian Analects and the work of Mencius, mainstream Confucianism teaches a doctrine of love and generosity based on familial relationships. It teaches that people should respect the seniors in their own family first, then extend this respect to other seniors in their community or society; the same principle is applied to the love for children. One may consider this traditional Chinese doctrine on generosity as akin to the Western saying “Charity begins at home.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus defines what it is to be a neighbor. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is equally applied to everyone, regardless of relationship, tribe, or territorial scope. Jesus’ definition of neighbor actually hinders the Chinese from developing a more selfless sense of generosity. Alternatively, Chinese folk culture has a common saying: “All men are brothers.” This does not mean that the Chinese are less generous, but it is deeply rooted in the collective mindset of Chinese culture that, in charity, generosity extends to those who are closer to me more than to those who are further away from me, in terms of familial relationships. In this sense, it becomes clear that God is the center of Christian virtue, while self is the center of Chinese virtue.

The generosity of Chinese parishioners at Church of Our Saviour is shaped by the society and culture in which they grew up, as well as what they learn in their new home and the culture here in the United States. It is not uncommon for Chinese parishioners who have not been living in this country for very long to think that Church of Our Saviour is financially supported by the government, as many institutions are in China. It is a great surprise to them that our church relies on the pledges and contributions of our parishioners.

A collective society praises selflessness more than does an individualistic society. Communism and socialism place more of an emphasis on selflessness than capitalism does. Ironically, and because people in China live in a totalitarian society, they are less willing to help others or their community, because they think the government should take care of everyone. During last four decades, when China opened its doors to the West and became an increasingly capitalist country, Chinese society entered a time of upheaval: a traditional China collided with a westernized China, a socialist China conflicted with a capitalistic China, and a planned economy was challenged by a market economy.

Pledging is also a new concept for the Chinese population in general. Many Chinese regard their pledge as debts to the church; this perception makes them hesitant to pledge, as debt is highly disparaged within Chinese culture. It is for this reason that members of the Chinese congregation tend to make offerings instead of pledges. The English-speaking congregation may not be aware of how much time it takes to explain to our Chinese congregation on an ongoing basis that pledging is not about incurring debt, but is a spiritual practice that helps our church create a budget for the following year while enabling the church to continue to provide for the devotional and pastoral care needs of the community.

About ten years ago, I had a conversation with a retired priest of one of the oldest Chinese Episcopal Churches, who shared his experience of encouraging parishioners to pledge. He said that he made sure that all parishioners knew that a pledge was not a debt. He assured them that if anyone had any financial difficulties, they would not be obligated to pay the full amount of their pledge. He went even further, to tell his parishioners that if anything unfortunate or unforeseen happened to them, like losing a job, and they needed money to survive, the church would return their pledge contributions. He felt that by directly addressing the false concepts about debt, pledging, and the fear of being without a safety net, he would quell the worries new immigrants usually had while ensuring that the church remained financially stable.

New Chinese immigrants face many uncertainties upon arriving in the States. They constantly worry about their ability to obtain work, their immigration status, how to bring their spouse and children here, and so forth. It is hard for them to make a pledge for the following year when they are not even sure where they will be living in a few months. Generally speaking, the longer they live in the United States and come to church, the easier it is for them to understand what it means to pledge and in turn to be generous to our church’s ministries. As our Chinese family face ongoing challenges brought about by emigrating, many support our church generously by giving their time and talent.

Not long ago, I found myself in a situation where I was deeply touched by a parishioner’s generosity. She was a recent graduate who had found a job and moved into her first apartment. She invited friends over for dinner, of which I was one. Her dinner “table” consisted of four wooden pallets laid one on top of the other. That very Sunday, she put a check for $1,000.00 on the offering plate. I am pretty sure it was a big portion of her paycheck. She had made this contribution to the church before meeting her own needs for furniture for her new home.

Generosity is not inherent in our human nature. It is a virtue that needs to be nourished. A generous Christian community is the best place to nourish the universal virtue of generosity. Through Christian teaching, biblical studies, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the example of fellow church members, our Chinese members can break through their traditionally self-centered generosity of differentiation and adopt a God-centered universal generosity that encourages them to love their neighbors as Jesus defines.


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