Recently a YouTube content producer named Mr. Beast paid for the eye surgery of over 1,000 blind people so that they could see again, and then gave them a briefcase filled with $10,000 cash on top of it! All of this was filmed and condensed to a 8 minute video on YouTube, which has gained global attention. To date the video has over 84 million downloads after just 6 days of appearing on his channel.
If you don’t know who Mr. Beast is, he’s a 24 year old man from North Carolina, named Jimmy Donaldson, and of the most popular YouTube producers in the world, with over 130 million subscribers to his channels. On YouTube, Mr. Beast often engages in elaborate acts of charity that he records on video, and then publishes. His giveaways are the sort of thing Oprah used to do on her show, but even more elaborate.
Mr. Beast’s videos get hundreds of millions of views, and as a result, he’s estimated to have a net worth of over $100 million dollars as a result of the ad revenue and sponsorship deals he lands. And the more he makes, the bigger his performative acts of charity become.
What Mr. Beast is doing is pretty impressive. But it’s not exactly new. For decades performative acts of charity have existed, and entire TV shows have been built around it. Whether it was Oprah giving away cars to her audience, or Ty Pennington and his Extreme Makeover Home Edition show, there’s always been TV shows at which charity was done as a form of entertainment.
Corporations and local mom and pop businesses often engage in these sorta behaviors too, for some good PR. Whether it’s a bank donating millions to help fund housing for disabled veterans, a local roof company giving someone a free roof, or just a church handing some social organization a giant check for some greater cause, these acts are often accompanied with cameras rolling so that others can take note.
Heck, once I even remember seeing a documentary about North Korea, who invited the organization, Doctors Without Boarders, to come perform eye surgery for some blind people in their country. And they were sure to record the people crying once they realized they could see again, and those people then showing overwhelming gratitude to their “fearless leader” for healing their blindness.
As awesome as these things can be, there’s been some criticisms of Mr. Beast, and others who engage in such activities. Some call this behavior tacky and tasteless “charity porn,” and critique the exploitative nature of it all, where people like him (as well as corporations and mom and pop businesses) often make a profit from their acts of charity. While Mr. Beast has claimed to lose over a million bucks on each video he makes, that’s clearly some fuzzy math, and something of a lie, as the only people who can claim to lose millions of dollars on a regular basis are people who have made many millions more.
Others say that things like this are ultimately a good thing, as it raises social awareness to much larger problems, and how we need to cultivate larger systemic reforms in order to make such acts of charity unnecessary. Others simply dismiss the criticism as people being jealous “haters.” And let’s not ignore the fact that Mr. Beast (and others like him) are actually changing the lives of real people in very profound ways that will make a tangible difference in their lives.
Perhaps things like this are just a good way of doing charity. Turn charity into a profitable and sustainable business model that can keep changing folks lives. Maybe we shouldn’t hate the player, but maybe we should just hate the game? We live in a capitalist sorta based society, and if you can turn charity into a profitable venture, it seems hard to hate on something that’s producing tangible real world results within the economic system we have. Maybe guys like Mr. Beast aren’t exploiting people so much as the realities of the economic system we are all operating in?
After all, none of us would critique other YouTube stars and social media influencers who make millions from promoting nothing but stupid products and services they want to sell you, and then turning around and living the most crass lifestyle possible. Right? So, why critique a social media influencer who is using their fame for doing good and getting rich in the process? That seems infinitely better than what the Kardashians are doing with their fame.
But in saying a this, listening to both sides on this issue, I can’t help but hear the echoes of Jesus making their way into this phenomenon. It’s something I’ve heard time and time again from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus addresses this very sort of issue in a way that I think cuts through the messy arguments we often get in over the performative charity that many often engage in.
Jesus critiqued the religious leaders of his day for their performative charity. In part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-5) Jesus said:
1 Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.-Matthew 6:1-5 (NASB)
2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
3 “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
Jesus ultimately paints this performative charity gig as a trade off and an exposure of what our hearts are ultimately after. Sure, you can do these acts of charity for fame and fortune. But, you might be missing something more important. If you get rich in the process, that’s yours to make do with. But what is more important to you, to be rewarded by men for your charitable deeds, or to be rewarded by God? What’s your heart really after.
Because if you want the rewards of this world in full, Jesus says you can have them. But what is of greater importance to you? Man’s rewards or God’s?
Jesus said when help others, don’t put on a good show for it. It might be good for your reputation and your business. But true giving is sacrificial and silent. It doesn’t stick a camera in someone’s face, and it doesn’t toot its’ own horn for others to hear about. It’s done in such a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
And while you might actually do tangibly good things for the people you help in the process, Jesus sees something in performative charity that comes with a certain taint, and ultimately exposes something fundamentally broken about the orientation of our hearts in doing such.
So much so that it brings into question, in the mind of Christ, exactly how much good is really being done by people who exploit others to their own benefit, even when that good brings about some very tangible benefits to that person. And while it might in many ways be a net good for that person, something is ultimately something that is out of step with what Jesus is doing in the kingdom of God.
In conclusion, I feel it’s hard to be super black and white about the performative charity that guys like Mr. Beast perform in return for fame and fortune. There’s definitely some uncomfortable shades of grey we are dealing with here. And while I don’t think such actions in and of themselves are evil, and good is clearly being done that’s very difficult to seriously critique, I can’t help but escape the shots that Jesus fired, that calls such actions into serious question.