In one of my classes today, I had the opportunity to discuss and debate Ron Sider’s graduated tithe proposal with my students. For those who are unfamiliar, Ron Sider relates his own family’s experience with giving (which he does not think the only means of giving nor does he think it ought to be legalistically applied) which involves identifying a base income from which to tithe 10% and then increasing the percentage of giving on each increment of income (say every $10000 or so) above the base income. He takes as a starting point the federal poverty level (which is $23,550 for a family of four) for determining base income and then adds taxes, emergency money, and other expenditures like private school fees or other essential costs for the family culture (say, for example, travel costs if your family lives far from relatives). The base income is the income that the family lives on, and that base income gets tithed 10%. Say, for our example, the base income is $30,000 for a family of four (which is generous for Sider’s plan). According to the proposed graduated tithe, I would tithe $3000 of that $30,000. Then, if I earned $60,000, I would tithe an extra 10% say, of every $10,000 I earned above my base.
Sider calls his plan modest but most people I talk to about this plan couldn’t disagree more. The idea of a graduated tithe is so far beyond our idea of reasonable that it seems almost ludicrous. But even the idea of a 10% tithe, which is often held up as the Biblical example, strikes most as unreasonable. We give about 2% of our income on average away to charity in this country. Surprised? Thought we were a lot more generous? In light of this, I thought the main objections that hear to at least a 10% tithe deserve response:
1. A 10% tithe is legalistic. It makes giving routine rather than a matter of heart-felt charity.
As a virtue ethicist, I am sensitive to this argument. Of course, the ideal is to do the good thing not because there is a rule or other form of coercion but because you simply are the sort of person that does good things. But virtue ethicists like myself still love rules and see them as having a rightful place in the moral life. First, rules are pedagogues. They teach us virtues like generosity. Eventually, when we develop the appropriate virtues, we no longer need the rules to know the right thing to do, but we do the right thing as a habit of our character. I doubt a person with the virtue of generosity is really going to quibble over a 10% tithe.
But rules are also necessary coercive elements in light of fallen human nature and the reality that most people are not yet fully virtuous. The fact that we in the US give so little of our income away is indicative of the fact that we need an extra motivation outside of our own virtue or lack thereof. A self-imposed 10% tithe is a good place to start. Better still would be if churches could create a culture of coercion to support the 10% tithe. Not only would such a rule, though coercive, improve the quality of our giving; it would also help form in us the virtue that would put the 10% into proper perspective. And this brings me to my next argument:
2. 10% is too much! I’m poor. I don’t have that sort of money to throw around.
The problem of perception is, I think, the greatest strength of Sider’s chapter on the graduated tithe. Sider is concerned that as our income goes up, our perceived needs go up (while our overall giving never does). His chapter begins with an anecdote:
A state senator form Pennsylvania once argued that his constituents were so poor that they simply could not afford to pay another cent in taxes. He cited a letter from an irate voter as proof. This good person had written him announcing that her family could not possibly pay any more taxes. Why, she said, they already paid the government income taxes and sales taxes–and besides that they bought a license for their two cars, summer camper, houseboat, and motorboat!
This is an extreme example of self-deception which is easy for most of us to write off. After all, we don’t have a house boat! But most of us really do live lives of relative luxury. We want for little. When we need a cup of coffee, we swing by Starbucks. When it is too late to make dinner, we get take-out. When we’re bored, we go see a movie. When we get a job, we buy a house. When we have a baby, we buy a second car. When the neighborhood gets bad, we move to a new one.
Now, our own David Cloutier is really the go-to man when it comes to luxury. What I am interested in is self-deception and the ways in which we convince ourselves that despite our comfortable middle-class ways, we really don’t have spare money to give. This is where I am happy to be a Catholic. The rhythm of the liturgical calendar provides opportunities to fast (and feast!) as a way of pricking our moral conscience to the abundance in our own lives. Simple soup or lentil suppers for Fridays in Lent awaken our appetite to a simpler diet and place us in solidarity with the poor, who eat like that on a more regular basis. Advent, a season of preparation and waiting, silences us to the surrounding consumerism as Christmas approaches. Even Fridays in ordinary time are opportunities to give up some of our pleasures.
But even outside of the liturgical calendar, there are practices we can all adopt to make us a little less self-deceived concerning our abundance. Here are some from Sider’s chapter:
–distinguish talents and hobbies from a curious interest in current fads. Allow expenditures that will develop talents and hobbies, but don’t indulge in all the latest recreational equipment simply because it is popular with those who seem “successful.”
–Distinguish between occasional celebration and normal day-to-day indulgence. A turkey feast with all the trimmings at Thanksgiving to celebrate the good gift is biblical (Deut. 14:22-27). Unfortunately, many of us overeat every day, and that is sin.
–Resist buying things just because we can afford them. The amount we earn has nothing to do with what we need (192).
Other, more specific recommendations might include making it a practice to eat non-meat proteins during the majority of the week (which is the way most of the world eats), keeping the heat a little lower than comfortable and dressing more warmly inside, borrowing rather than buying whenever possible, buying thrift clothes rather than new clothes, or better yet, placing a moratorium on buying new clothes at all for a given period. These are just a few examples of practices that help us realize just how blessed we are, and subsequently, how much we really do have to give without living meanly as a result. When we adopt a few practices of simplicity, I think we will begin to discover that 10% is nothing.
3. I don’t like giving money because I don’t know how it is going to be used. I do service instead.
Service should always be considered a separate practice from tithing (or almsgiving). Giving one’s time and talents is critical to supporting the common good. But wealth redistribution is also necessary. There are so many needs in our local and global communities that cannot be met through service alone: providing health care for illegal immigrants, supporting a pregnant teenager through a crisis pregnancy, making affordable housing available for the homeless, etc.
It is true that we cannot control how the money that we give is used, but we can prudentially choose organizations whose operations are transparent and whose mission is consistent with our Catholic values.
At the end of the day, I look forward to a day when Christians criticize a 10% tithe as too lenient. In the meantime, a self-imposed 10% tithe is a good place to start.