We are hypocrites when we judge how the rich live excessively and turn a blind eye to our own excess. There is a tendency to look at the extremely wealthy and assume they are greedy and self-seeking. In bold caricatures of powerful tycoons, we find a suitable enemy to despise—an enemy that we would possibly consider becoming if the funds fell into our laps. This is the stuff of movies that stirs a common sentiment towards the very rich.
But what if Bill Gates and Warren Buffet sat down for lunch and decided to give their wealth away to improve the condition of the world’s poor? Would we have to reclaim some of our commentary about the rich and famous? In fact, that is exactly what Bill and Warren did last year.
In news reports this past week they announced their campaign to persuade America’s wealthiest citizens to donate their fortunes to charity.[i] Their website www.givingpledge.org lists 40 billionaires and their commitment to give away most of their fortune to philanthropy and charitable organizations while they are still alive.
"We contacted between 70 and 80 people to get the 40. A few were unavailable. We don’t give up on them. Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future. We’ll keep on working," Buffett said.
The United States has roughly 400 billionaires — about 40 percent of the world's total — with a combined net worth of $1.2 trillion, according to Forbes. If they all took the pledge, that would amount to at least $600 billion for charity.
The 40 names that have pledged to date have a combined net worth surpassing $230 billion, according to Forbes. Several of them have said they plan to give away much more than 50 percent of their wealth. Buffett has promised to donate more than 99 percent of his wealth.
And of the billionaires contacted who didn't join the pledge?
"There were a few people who gave answers that indicated their various dissatisfaction with government," Buffett said. "A few had dynastic ideas about wealth … an intergenerational compact with family to keep that going. And there were others who said, 'I’ve got a plane to catch and I'll have to hang up.'"[ii]
I am struck by Warren Buffet’s words where he said, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future. We’ll keep on working.”
He is saying that anyone can become generous and make a difference that is measured spiritually. Saints started somewhere. Sinners can change and become saints.