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Charitable giving: what’s in it for me?

Charitable giving: what’s in it for me?

by Maria L. Evans

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. –Hebrews 13:16 (NRSV)

Normally, I don’t read the comments with articles, but the comments I found in this one, about “redefining charity,” as brutal as some of them were, reminded me of a place where we in the church are still horribly snarled up in empire–the charitable contribution as tax deduction. I thought about this in light of a recent article from Atlantic Monthly that brought up some very sobering research–that people in the lowest 20 percent of income levels give a larger percentage of their money to charity than the upper 20 percent.

In other words, the people who are least likely to benefit from the charitable tax deduction are the people who financially give a greater piece of themselves.

I don’t doubt this research simply because of an observation I’ve noticed from almost a quarter century of working around hospitals–it’s the families who can least afford to take off work that rally around patients’ bedsides in the ICU, or when someone’s going to be told a grave diagnosis. If they are that generous with their time, my hunch is that they are that generous with their money, too.

When I was in Lui, and some of our mission team visited the village of Mediba, the gift of our time and a few items for Sunday School give-aways resulted in Father Francis returning the favor with a gift of a live chicken–generosity that folks in constantly protein-malnourished South Sudan can’t afford. When I have spent time at the Cheyenne River Lakota reservation in South Dakota, I am extremely careful not to compliment someone’s necklace by saying, “I like that”–or else it will end up around MY neck.

Yet our American way of life ties generosity with empire in the charitable tax deduction so that those blessed with a certain level of financial abundance have a “reason to give.” We have moved towards a culture where we lump “charitable loaning” into the same category as “charitable giving.”

To bring this down to the level of Father Francis’ chicken, it would be like saying, “Here’s a chicken. I’ll give it to you if you give me two chickens back next year.”

Don’t get me wrong–there’s a wisdom in that. Collectively, everyone stands to benefit. I’m all for charitable giving to create opportunities for micro-loans for people in developing countries and people in transition from one way of life to another. It certainly does qualify for a good work. But I think it’s a mistake when we believe it to be the equivalent of “charity.”

True Biblical charity, I believe, has a transformational aspect, and one that will never make sense to our friends, family, or accountant. The only way this can be understood is by doing it. True Biblical charity involves allowing one’s self to be in a situation where the giver is changed as much or more as the people we presume to “help.” It means we do what we do with no expectation of gratitude or perhaps even acknowledgement in the way we think we deserve. We do it because it is the right thing to do, and we prayerfully wait to see what the answer is, as evidenced by a change in ourselves that we will not know the nature of until some time after we’ve done it.

Our culture, however, is steeped in the notion that giving preserves a top-down benefit. Unfortunately, I believe it encourages us to hang on to those little thoughts of “What’s in it for me?” To take on the task of being “poor in spirit” in a Beatitudinal sort of way demands each of us to answer that question within ourselves with “Maybe nothing, on the surface–but I’ll have to wait and see that answer over time.”

As we begin to gear up to that annual event in our churches called Stewardship Season, perhaps each of us needs to ask ourselves the crucial question–“What holds me back from being as generous with my clock, my cleverness, and my checkbook as Father Francis was with his chicken?”

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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Rob K

There was an article in the NYT a few weeks ago by warren buffets son about how giving by the wealthy seems to be a form of “conscious laundering.” It makes people feel better about such wealth inequality and does nothing to address the system that allows this inequality to thrive.

Also, In our theology on tap monthly book club last week Laura Walsh mentioned a Zen story about how a rich man came to the monetary and told the head monk how he wanted to become a zen monk and had given half his money to the orphanage and the other half to the monastery. The head monk told him if he really wanted to become a zen monk he should have just thrown his money over the bridge.

[RobK – please sign you name when you comment – your comments will not be approved without your name. We appreciate your participation — editor]

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