I went to a discussion recently about how we Christians ought to behave in regards to poverty. While I did not come away with some great step-by-step action plan for eliminating poverty, I did come away with a shift in perspective, allowing me to reconcile tithing and generosity. I had been struggling to sort out whether the acts of generosity I engage in ought to count as part of my tithe.
I have been living just above the poverty level for a while now, and when I stopped tithing, I was suddenly able to afford food. (Imagine that!) So I haven’t been tithing for some time. When our financial situation improved a bit, my husband decided that he wanted to tithe, not by giving money to the church, but rather by sending money to his impoverished family in Mexico. When I joined my current (very rich, very ritzy church), I therefore didn’t feel any great pressure to contribute financially. This is because I had the three distinct disciplines of generosity, tithing, and defending the poor congealed into one in my mind.
Generosity is a selfish act; you give something you have to someone else so that you can feel good about yourself. Generosity is an unqualified act. It doesn’t matter whether the person you are giving to deserves the gift, nor whether they have earned it. Giving freely of your time, money, and other resources is generous. Giving to a wealthy person is just as generous as giving to a poor person. Refusing to give because the receiver may not do what you want with it is NOT generous. (One of my pet peeves is food banks that will only give food to people that they decided ‘qualify’ for the food. We’ll talk about that more in depth another day.) Refusing to give money to someone because they might spend it on drugs is contradictory to the discipline of generosity. We should actively give to our family, our friends, our acquaintances, our fellow Christians, and complete strangers with shocking regularity. It is good for our sense of well being, and it is good to live in a society full of generous people.
Tithing is the dues you pay to your church in the same way that you pay membership fees for joining almost any sort of organization. Our tithes give us a stake in how the organization is run, leading to an increased desire to participate. Tithing is a different sort of discipline than generosity. While tithing will probably lead to some of the same good feelings that generosity does, it is an insufficient form of generosity. It basically defers what is a very personal act to other people: ‘Here’s my money, go give it to some people.’
Tithing, however, is also a discipline of financial management. By taking a set portion of your income and allocating it to your church, you are making a conscientious budgeting act. Tithing for Christians is one part of a broader discipline of financial management, which in turn is one part of a broader discipline of resource management. By giving to God (through the church) first, we remind ourselves that everything we have is thanks to Him, and then we make better choices in how to allocate the rest of what we have.
Defending the Poor
Here is where things get tricky. Generosity and tithing are relatively simple disciplines to understand; when you’re doing them right, you know it. Defending the poor is much more complicated. You can pull an individual out of poverty with little difficulty, particularly if you have excess wealth. I would classify that as an extreme form of generosity. But defending the poor requires so much more than that. It requires addressing systemic oppression through political action. If you think that there is a separation between your political views on welfare and your religion, you are terribly mistaken.
So what specific actions should we take to defend the poor? That particular question does not have an easy answer, and it is one of the major themes that I intend to explore in this blog.
So, how have I altered my behavior? Well, I have been practicing generosity more frequently and with a softer heart. I have not started tithing quite yet as my financial situation is still a mess, but I continue to make progress. One thing that has helped me is letting go of the all or nothing approach, and instead starting small. By putting $1 a week in the offering basket, and then slowly increasing the amount, I can slowly work up to a proper tithe without feeling overwhelmed or guilty. As for defending the poor, I hope that the words I write in this blog will help to reveal the systemic injustices that we all play a part in.
What do you think? How do you experience generosity? Do you tithe? What actions do you take to defend the poor? (I really want to know, so leave some comments!)
Note: Since much of the material will be contentious, I think that it is very important to keep discourse civil, and to listen carefully to other points of view. The one thing that I will not tolerate, however, is a misconstruing of facts. If we cannot agree on the objective reality of a situation, then we cannot have productive discourse.