For all that Christians disagree on these days (What is the meaning of baptism? Who should be President of the United States?), there seems to be overwhelming consensus on Operation Christmas Child, an enormously popular international mission project founded by the relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse.
Every year in early November churches across the theological, liturgical, and political spectra encourage their members to fill shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, hygiene products, and small personal items like socks and sunglasses. An efficient transport system insures that every box is delivered to a child in need by Christmas day.
Being against Operation Christmas Child is like being against puppies. So let me say (especially as a dog lover) that I’m not opposed to everything about this beloved holiday tradition; I’ve filled a few shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse in my day. But some things about the whole enterprise have always troubled me:
Exporting cheap consumerism. One of the reasons that Operation Christmas Child is so popular must surely be that we Americans (and Westerners, generally) love to shop. We associate Christmas with presents for children–lots of presents–so we fill those shoeboxes with lots of stuff, most of it purchased at discount stores. Which means it’s cheap stuff–cheaply made (though costly in countless hidden ways). Plastics that won’t disintegrate for millenia; trinkets and kitch we wouldn’t give our own children.
Exploiting (some) children in order to “help” (other) children. Most of the objects we put in the boxes are produced in places where labor is cheap, labor practices are often suspect, safety standards are routinely compromised, and environmental concerns ignored. That a young girl in a factory in China may have helped to make the cheap Barbie knockoff that will end up in a shoebox for another young girl offers no little irony.
Supporting some dubious practices at Samaritan’s Purse. Franklin Graham draws a full-time salary from Samaritan’s Purse while also receiving a full-time salary from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Two full-time jobs? Leading two organizations with hundreds of employees and multi-million dollar budgets? (Graham’s reported SP salary in 2010 was upwards of $530,000–a handsome “purse” indeed; the organization has 1700+ paid employees).
According to the Better Business Bureau and other ratings agencies, Samaritan’s Purse has a questionable record in terms of charity accoumtability: CEO Graham is also chair of the board of directors; financial statements and annual reports have omitted important, legally-required information (like total income).
Questions have also been raised about the proselytizing impulse of Samaritan’s Purse. It is an “evangelism organization,” after all, but it’s also a tax-exempt non-profit under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. But here’s the theological question: Should the shoeboxes be a means to making Christian converts (as Graham pretty much says they are) or ought they be gifts-in-themselves, unattached to any other agenda? (Graham’s public statements about Islam being a “very evil and wicked religion” make all of this even more unsettling).
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I suspect that even people who know some of this stuff about Samaritan’s Purse are still committed to Operation Christmas Child. They like to shop for and pack the shoeboxes. It feels good. They imagine (as I have myself) the look on a child’s face when their own carefully-considered box of goodies is opened. (That Samaritan’s Purse employees often redistribute the contents among the boxes is probably not welcome news).
But it’s still the kind of do-goodism-from-afar that appeases the consciences of hyperconsumers like ourselves. It keeps the “less fortunate” at the safe distance we like. It doesn’t really cost us anything–a few dollars for the box’s contents, 7 bucks for shipping. The problems of the third world are so overwhelming anyway–this small gesture is all we can manage, especially in this tight economy.
Comforting rationalizations — so there must be some very real dangers in all of them. God give us the grace (and the courage) to think — and to act — outside the shoebox.