Generosity and Charity

If generosity is a Christian discipline marked by an open willingness to give, what is charity?

I’m reading Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, and I find myself disagreeing with much of what he says. Our disagreement stems from differing views on what generosity looks like, and how charity is defined. In fact, I think that Lupton lumps generosity and charity together, but are they really the same thing? I would argue that they are not.

Where I see generosity as an act with no stipulations about need and future use, charity is full of qualifications of neediness and stipulations about how gifts must be used. Where generosity requires giving AND receiving, charity is a one way street. Generosity lifts the spirits of the people involved, leaving everyone feeling good. Charity leaves the recipient feeling dirty, beggarly. In this way, I would argue that ALL charity is toxic, and that churches should restructure their charities to be avenues of generosity. Instead of sending people, money, or other resources out to help others, churches should use their leverage and dedicated volunteer base to create systems of mutual giving.

Let’s make an example. You and I are neighbors. I have a mansion and you have a cottage. You like your cottage quite well, and while you don’t really mind that I have a mansion, you don’t really feel a need to upgrade either. I, however, cannot imagine how someone would possibly be content to live in a cottage, and so I take pity on you. I start bringing you gifts so that you, too, can have a mansion like I do. I make the plans for the mansion, and I hire the construction company, and I let you stay in my mansion while yours is being constructed. You don’t get much say in the matter. Then, when the construction is complete, I say ‘Ok, time to go to your new home!’ ‘Where’s the furniture?’ you inquire. ‘Oh, well, you don’t really need furniture,’ I say. ‘You have a mansion, that’s all you really need.’ You’d be pissed, and rightly so. What you really needed wasn’t a mansion, it was furniture for the cottage you already had. But instead of asking you what you need, or what you want, I made these decisions for you. This is charity, and this is how people receiving charity feel about the things they receive.

So what would generosity look like? Well, first of all, I would have to leave my mansion and actually get to know you. I would enjoy the flowers growing around your cottage, and then you would invite me in for tea. I would notice that you don’t have any furniture, and I would casually offer you some of my furniture. You would take me on a tour of your house, detailing what furniture you would most like to have. I take your words and wishes in, finding the perfect pieces from my mansion to place in your cottage. I invite you for dinner later that week and show you the things I have that I think would meet your criteria. You say yes to some and no to others. We decide on a date for the furniture to be moved. When all is said and done, you have a beautifully furnished cottage. I continue to visit for tea. You bring flowers to my famous dinner parties. Everyone has given, everyone has received, and everyone is content. See the difference?

Generosity, Tithing, and Defending the Poor

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

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

What Comes After Patriarchy?

The feminist movement preaches that Patriarchy is the root of all that is wrong with the world, and that we should work to eliminate it. But I have not seen anyone really discussing what society looks like after Patriarchy is defeated. A common theme in feminism is equality, so let’s take the stance that equality is what we are working towards. But now we beg the question, “What does equality look like?” If we are striving for a society that is devoid of hierarchy, then we are on a fools errand. Society needs hierarchy in order to function. Take a society without hierarchy to its extreme: Do you want a 5 year old running a nuclear power plant? Should an illiterate person be a teacher? Wait, how can we have teachers if we don’t have hierarchy? Nonsense and anarchy ensue.

How else might we view equality? Perhaps we could see equality as valuing people equally, no matter their contribution to society. In a way, this is what communism was trying to achieve. A janitor receives the same compensation as a physicist, since clean floors are just as important as new lasers. Part of me likes this view of equality, and it is a useful lens to look through, but it fails to account for some basic human truths. People are motivated by power and wealth, and we are competitive. We need hierarchy to function, beginning with the basic hierarchy of parent > child, and continuing into senior worker > junior worker. So people at better positions in the hierarchy have greater power and wealth. Through competition, the most fit individual is the one who is able to move to higher and higher positions in the hierarchy. Communism failed before it was ever achieved, because it is impossible to eliminate hierarchy from human society.

So what are we left with? How can we reconcile equality with hierarchy? First, by not relegating entire groups of people to the bottom rungs of the hierarchy based on entirely superficial grounds, such as

  • male > female
  • white > black
  • Anglo > everyone else

Second, by giving every person the same opportunities to climb the hierarchy. Every child would have the same educational opportunities, the same financial supports, the same early work opportunities. Advancement through the hierarchy would be entirely based on personal qualifications, skills, and abilities. (Some people live in the delusion that society in the U.S. already looks like this, but any critical reading of recent sociological literature will rapidly paint a very different picture.)

While striving against the Patriarchy sounds nifty, it is generally more productive to work towards something than away from something. So I will strive towards Meritocracy.

What do you think? What characteristics define equality in society for you?