Being Young and On the Front in the Nonprofit Sector

On August 5, 2009, the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal held a panel discussion centered around a story. In Henri Barbusse’s 1918 short story “The Eleventh,” a young administrator at a luxurious high-end sanitarium is given with its most honored charitable duty, admitting ten and only ten “vagabonds” off the streets to enjoy its lavish accommodations for thirty days. He must turn the eleventh away. Is this task charitable at all, or is it part of some “evil deed,” the young man asks himself. What is it like to be young and on the front in the nonprofit sector? What should this young man do? The inestimable Amy Kass, in whose anthology of philanthropic readings Barbusse’s story is included, invited me to contribute, and what follows are my remarks.

There is a reading of this story that is trying to get through the moral blocks that Barbusse puts on it. He presents us with a striking tale of an odious task: turning down requests for aid from exceedingly needy people. With a few exceptions, these supplicants have lost even their dignity as they implore the young man’s aid. Moreover, the master’s arbitrary rules—ten people only who can stay for one month only—are not exactly what most people would call philanthropic best practices. In fact, I don’t think any organization or watchdog group would endorse this sort of giving. The young man who is compelled to close the door in the face of the old, crippled, weary, bedraggled, deformed, and sick is a sympathetic character, and on first reading, I am inclined to confirm the young man’s sense that his work is an “abominable injustice” and applaud his request to be relieved of his assignment.

But on subsequent readings, a pertinent fact becomes clearer. The young man is not the philanthropist in the story. The young man argues that the eleventh person (and presumably all the other supplicants) “deserved” to come in as much as the first ten. While there is no reason to believe that the first ten supplicants had any more merit than the others, we must remember whose garden the young man thought they deserved to enter. It is the master’s garden. Is it not the master’s prerogative to determine its use? Who is this young man, and who am I, his counselor, to second-guess the master’s intentions?

Look at it from the master’s perspective: He operates a convalescence center for the wealthy. Perhaps more than ten “derelicts” would overwhelm the paying patients. Perhaps they would be too many for the sanitarium and its staff to handle. Perhaps the master can afford no more than ten, and decided that “first come, first served”—a long-established principle in providing services—is the fairest way to accommodate his quota.

The story is told with a focus on the eleventh. A more balanced assessment might include a closer look at the perspective of the ten, who enjoy the master’s largesse, freely given. The young man acknowledges early in the story that the master’s philanthropy is given with “no favors, no exceptions, no injustices; one rule only.” Regardless of the master’s intentions, they are his reasons, and the gift is his prerogative, not the young man’s. Does the philanthropist not have freedom to exercise his intent on his own terms and subject to his own limitations?

Now, consider a new gloss on this story—an allegorical interpretation that is not unreasonable. Barbusse himself sets up this interpretation by describing the master as a tall, old man with long white hair, and by setting the scene in a glistening white palace with a garden. Admittance to his private garden is given without respect for merit or righteousness (or a lack thereof) but simply according to what seems—to those who are not the master—to be an entirely arbitrary criterion.

So is the master an allegory for God?

It is perhaps worthwhile to quote John Calvin in this, the five hundredth year since his birth. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin argues for the doctrine of divine election. The source of election is in the entirely good judgments of an entirely good God. “The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet,” Calvin wrote. This reminds me of our young friend’s response in the story.

We can go back even further to see a defense of this divine prerogative in choice—to Augustine, who wrote, “Of course His purpose in acting is to heal all things; but He acts on His own judgment, and does not take His procedure in healing from the sick man.”

Barbusse has given us a transparent allegory or analogy for God, and, in the superficial response to the story through the moral laws that Barbusse has written it in, a testament to God’s arbitrariness and perhaps even cruelty. A second look, at an angle to Barbusse’s tone, may put the master in a better light and shift the focus from those who are excluded to those who are let in. A second look would also lead me to say to the young man: “If you cannot continue in the ‘series of errors,’ so be it, but don’t be so presumptuous as to declare the master’s philanthropy ‘evil.’”

Click here for a complete transcript of the panel discussion.