A Theology/Philosophy of Giving

I’m not going to church today, in part because I happen to be feeling ill. A bit of nasal congestion hit me out of the blue this weekend as the graduation parties were just getting started, and yesterday evening it blossomed into a full spring flu for me. Such is life.

But I was a bit uncertain about the matter already last Sunday. I’ve been attending semi-regularly at a small independent “community church” that is affiliated with a major international inter-denominational missionary organization, and that may be as good a fit for me these days as any, but as with all such organizations there comes a question at some point of where the money comes from. The functional assumption is that to some extent it operates on the CCR “Willie and the Poor Boys” principle: “It don’t cost you nothing just to hang around, but if you have a nickel won’t you lay your money down.” The problem is, that doesn’t make for a particularly stable economic base for church operations, particularly in a student community. So last week the leader of this group preached what he announced would be the first of a three-part series of sermons on “biblical principles of giving.” As much as I respect this guy’s sincerity and sense of mission, and as much as I recognize the logistical challenges of running his sort of operation, I found myself in such complete disagreement with everything he said in this particular sermon that I decided that I wouldn’t bother to sit there and mentally argue with him for the next two parts of the series.

Not that I consider Finland’s Lutheran alternative to be inherently more honorable. There too there are people that I personally respect as honorable and driven by a sincere sense of mission, trying to make the best possible use of the resources they have in terms of “doing God’s work” as they see it. They are not in any functional money shortage though, since in exchange for various minimal “faith-based services” –– primarily cemetery maintenance these days –– the government helps collect a certain surtax from church members and businesses operating among church members. Effectively this means that Finland’s Lutheran church receives approximately 1% of the country’s GDP just for being there. Given the minimal expectations that the average Finn has of their church (attendance statistics running something in the neighborhood of 1.3 visits to a church per year per paying member) this gives them plenty of money to play with. Thus I have never heard a Finnish Lutheran priest offer a sermon on the importance of giving. They do pass a collection plate (bag actually) every Sunday, but that is not so much to cover practical expenses, but to give people the opportunity to participate in various missionary enterprises just for the joy of feeling that they’re doing something good.

The whole philosophy and theology of how these things are “supposed to work” is a rather abstract matter. In many ways it is analogous to –– and in some respects historically tied to –– the economics of the music industry, and “arts and letters” in general. When someone writes poems and songs, gives public performances, expresses the basic feelings associated with the human condition of the age and brings people together through a sense of shared belonging, who is responsible to pay for that, how much, and through what mechanisms? There aren’t really any stable on-going cultural models to answer this question, to say nothing of eternal principles to appeal to. Rapid technological changes have enabled various performers (or their handlers) to suddenly get fabulously rich, and then suddenly discover that still newer technologies have suddenly caused their marvelous sources of income to dry up, making them feel like they’d been somehow cosmically cheated out of what they rightfully had coming to them. I find it frustrating that recording industry executives and various church leaders pretend that they have an eternal basis in justice for the financial demands they make on people. I recognize that there needs to be some functional mechanism by which this important work keeps getting done and paid for, but to claim that any given mechanism in this regard is anything more than an ad hoc formulation for the time being –– each with plenty of little economic leaches attached, sucking out most of the vital resources that are actually being contributed to the work –– is patently dishonest.

This guy puts on a pretty good show, but who is responsible to pay for it?

This guy puts on a pretty good show, but who is responsible to pay for it?

There are at least four primary models for the financing of such “public goods”: taxation, sale of access to the goods themselves, sale of rights to be associated with the church/artist in question, and the free contribution principle. Almost always these are used in combination with each other in some way. None of them are inherently immoral. All of them are subject to abuse. All of them create certain temptations to “cheat the system.” Finding a functional balance between them is easier said than done.

The taxation system goes back to the earliest roots of human government, and within the Abrahamic religions it goes back at least as far as the writings of Moses. Basically in the days of Israel’s most simplified tribal theocracy they had a flat rate income tax of 10%, with no deductibles, covering mostly cultural and ceremonial expenses, but with a bit of military and welfare also covered as part of the package. Discussion of this matter starts in Leviticus 27 and ends in Malachi 3, with few enough references in between to the principle where you can count them on your fingers. This was how the great ceremonial building and rebuilding projects in Jerusalem were financed, and how the writers of the Psalms and the books of history in the Old Testament were able to keep their families fed.

There are a number of Protestant theologians who firmly believe that this teaching should be maintained in the church today; that Christian believers should be setting aside one tenth of their income as a minimum to give to those who claim to be God’s representatives in their local community, and not to do so is to cheat God of what is rightfully his. That’s one way to keep the bills paid, but as a biblical ethical mandate it’s pretty weak. It’s based on a selective reading of the last book of the Old Testament: Malachi. Malachi was talking about covenant or contract theology between God and the nation of Israel as a nation. He was saying that the nation couldn’t succeed if it didn’t live up to its end of the bargain with God, which included the maintenance of reserves for those who had nothing of their own: widows, orphans and Levites –– the ones who had no land or productive function in society so they could specialize in some combination of bureaucracy and the arts. Contrary to common belief, nowhere does the New Testament transfer the rights of the Levites within the ancient Israeli order to the Christian clergy, nor establish tithing as the basis of church finance. The closest thing to an endorsement given to the system is in Luke 11:42, where Jesus ridicules the Pharisees by saying that they file their tax statements in the most minute detail possible –– which in itself is a good thing –– while still ignoring the most important part of Moses’ law: caring for those in need. So the basic message of this verse is twisted to say, “See, Jesus endorsed tithing!”

Not that taxation is a bad system for financing important causes, particularly when it is done openly and responsibly by those in power, where people can see what their tax money is being spent on and where social solidarity is built on such a basis. I believe that having a poet laureate receiving government support is a good thing. I believe there can be many positive variations on that principle. Within such a system, however, rather than supporting a flat tax rate I see Jesus’ teachings as emphasizing the distinction between taxing sustenance and taxing surplus income (Mark 12:41-44). But there has only been one phase in history during which the church has been powerful enough to impose its own systems of taxation on the society: the Medieval Period. That was hardly a utopian system. Overall there is little biblical justification for preaching that God expects us to give a certain part of our money to particular churches as His rightful share of the blessings He has given to us.

The next way of trying to arrange things is so that only those who pay get the goods: Only those who buy the records or concert tickets get to hear the music or see the show. Only those who buy the books get to read them. Only those who financially support the religious institutions get their sins forgiven… In some ways that seems fair; in other ways it seems hopelessly crude. Holding back the knowledge and cultural experiences that are “out there” already from those who cannot pay as much might not only be bad for social solidarity; it might be bad for the advancement of the arts in question. If religion or the arts only reflect the needs, interests and experiences of the wealthy who can pay the most, the arts fail to accomplish the most important part of their purpose: showing us something of the shared human experience. The fact that making contact with God more easily available for the rich than for the poor is the direct antithesis of the teachings of Jesus, in whose name much of this trade has been done, seems to be rather beside the point.

A more modern way of working out the finances of worship and the arts is to have people pay not for the consumption of the cultural product, but for association with the cultural product. The concert is free, but you pay $50 for the t-shirt. Or more commonly, some “refreshment” manufacturer pays for the show in return for having the band wear their logo on stage. There are thousands of variations on the principle, all of which come down to the artists or the religious leaders allowing their image to be exploited by those who gain some social capital from being associated with them in exchange for some direct financial sponsorship. This limits the ticket prices and the public support needed through taxation to keep the show going, but it also puts a bit of a ding in the integrity of the artist or religious leader in question.

Hardly any churches will be so crass as to allow fast food restaurants to advertise in their chapels, but they do publically thank them for their support and announce that the youth group will meet there on Wednesday, for instance. Or a particularly shady businessman can shore up his reputation in the community by hanging around with high ranking clergymen. In fact the basis of the state church system in Europe and many other parts of the world has been for the local royalty to sponsor the church financially in exchange for the church telling the peasants that God wants them to obey the royalty: a crude early form of image advertising that has done lasting damage to the integrity of the churches in question, which endures to this day.

The only real way around these problems is for religious leaders, and the most spiritually significant of artists, to make their goods freely available to the public, relying on the Aristotelian principle that honorable people will provide some form of good in return for what good they receive. If someone does good to me it is a matter of basic human honor that I should repay kindness with kindness. Beyond that there is the explicitly Christian teaching that when others fail to live up to this standard the believer and the Christian leader who keep doing good for others anyway are doing this favor directly for God, that following the example of the “Good Samaritan” we should practically contribute more that we can expect to be repaid for, and that in doing so we reveal the only true unique value of our faith.

Giving to help those who help others, whether or not you are personally among those being helped in any given case, done freely and privately to the extent that there is no potential reputation boost involved, is the most honorable way to return the favor of being cared for by those who give to others in a genuinely spiritual way. Other than that there is the principle that a community based on freely given and received kindnesses will have greater strength and resilience than one based on grudgingly honoring obligations which have been established on a competitive bargaining basis. The problem is that we have largely forgotten how to care for those who closest to us in non-competitive ways. We see everyone not as a fellow recipient of God’s bounteous gifts, but as a competitor for what scarce resources there are available. Thus churches resort to variations of taxation, ticket selling and advertising revenue strategies in order to maintain their operations –– in order to better compete with the other churches in town.

I’m not in a position to condemn any church for the way they manage their finances. I haven’t established any sort of spiritual community where people are ready to make donations to keep it going. In fact one of my greatest weaknesses as a theologian is finding ways of convincing people to pay me to keep doing it. I can only say that I seek to live at peace with those who are genuinely interested in working for peace and helping others, regardless of my personal reservations about their financial strategies. But when the marketing propaganda starts to get intense I hope they can forgive me for keeping my distance.

Now to get back to writing things I might hope to get paid for…

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1 Comment

Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality

One response to “A Theology/Philosophy of Giving

  1. Deborah Alame-Jones

    Thank you David. I thought that a well written and well thought out piece. Date: Sun, 2 Jun 2013 19:35:41 +0000 To: debbiealame@live.co.uk

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