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.
Thanks for starting a conversation on tithing. It’s hard but necessary. And yet, when I saw the title of your post, I didn’t want to read it right away, even though I made a very similar argument in my last book. Behind my reluctance to revisit this issue is the reality that our family isn’t tithing or even giving a substantial amount away this year. High school and college tuition are making it very difficult for us to give what we would like to, even though we still try to live simply (as you suggest in #2). We will be in this position for another 6 years (as long as we avoid going into debt for college). And we feel guilty about all the financial aid we receive, and wonder whether anything extra should go to the schools that have been so generous to us.
Most people do think Sider is crazy. I happen think he’s right. When our kids were little, simplicity seemed do-able. Now I’m at a point where I can’t figure out how to reconcile what I think is ideal with the education I think my kids should have. I know Sider makes an exception for education, but I wonder if educations with 50-60k price tags were what we had in mind.
We read your chapter on tithing for my class before Sider (and my students think you take an extreme approach which just amazes me)! I like your chapter and see it exemplary of principled prudence when it comes to finances. I agree with you that you have to reevaluate priorities as kids get older. Sider does the same thing, as you note. When his kids got to high school and college, he decided that a private Christian education was important. That really elevated his base income a lot (which some criticize him for). I think his and your choices in this case are totally understandable. Education is your children’s most important asset and quite frankly, public school often doesn’t cut it.
The key, I think, and realize I am not judging you since I don’t know what it is like to have teenagers, is to make appropriate cuts when spending in other areas has to increase. This might mean doing simple rice and beans meals 5 days a week as opposed to two, or placing a moratorium on buying clothes for a certain period, or whatever else it is that eats up our money. But my concern is that there is always an excuse to not give 10% (or anywhere even close). At the end of the day, there are always going to be things that seem more important than the tithe. I’m just not convinced that for most of us in the middle class, there isn’t something we can forego in order to give more. But it is tricky to talk about such topics since they are so personal and like I said, I really don’t know what it is like to have teenagers.
I do know what it is like to live on one income and still meet the minimum 10%. My husband and I have had to commit to a lot of simplicity in order to both have money for savings and for tithing. For example, we live in a one bedroom with our toddler and another baby on the way. It’s a bit cramped, and it won’t last forever, but for now, it affords us the opportunity to use our money for things we think more worthwhile. But with this next baby (and the next and the next) we’ll have to see what new challenges we face. Like you said, it is easy when the kids are little . . .
I really appreciate your response and I think you’re right: there’s always something that seems more important and keeps those of us in the middle class from giving. The tricky part for families with older kids especially is that these things don’t look like luxuries (for example, this month we’re spending extra money on attending end of the season parties for two of our kids’ sports teams, college applications, making small donations to one kid’s private school instead of attending their pricey auction, buying two turkeys for the 40+ people who will be at our house for Thanksgiving, and replacing some worn-out equipment for a team sport for one kid). I would love to see less focus on sports, more potlucks, less meat, etc., but I can’t change everything all at once and the things that are important to kids (and make them feel loved) tend to cost a little more when they’re older.
The key, I think, is to have conversations like these where we’re holding each other accountable in community, not judging but gently challenging each other to do better. I’m inspired by the sacrifices you’re making and that helps me to think about ways we can move beyond the 2% we’re currently giving. And I hope that in 6 years, we can take most of 1/3 of our take-home income that currently goes to tuition and give it away.
I have thought about the time/talent/treasure triad for many years and have observed that I have a tendency to be strident on one of those areas when I am doing a good job at it, and more rationalizing when I perceive myself falling short. Eventually I came to the conclusion that there are “seasons” of life when we are able to contribute strongly in one or more areas, and other seasons where our resources are justifiably directed in other ways. The key, I think, is to aim for a pattern of generosity over a lifetime and not get too hung up on the particular benchmarks at any given point in time. Sometimes the way we measure or gauge things doesn’t always tell the full story.
A quick example of what I mean. Through the years I have given a fair amount of money to support children in various kinds of distress. Then eight years ago my wife and I adopted a child who was in distress. We did this not because of fertility issues, but because it was a child who needed a family. We now spend quite a bit to support her, yet most people wouldn’t place these expenditures in the tithing column. And maybe they shouldn’t be. But I’m not going to get hung up on how I calculate my tithing total. I am going to try to live as generously as I can. Sometimes that generosity takes the form of dollars given to a cause, sometimes it is with extra time spent with someone who needs it, sometimes it means doing without, and sometimes it might even mean treating myself.
I do agree that we need to talk more about topics like tithing more regularly; that gentle encouragement to go further can be useful; that accountability mechanisms (like a 10% “rule”) can be helpful; that we have to be careful about getting overly absorbed in our family responsibilities; and that it’s easy for us to classify wants as needs. My point is that we can give in different ways at different times in our lives, and that it’s important to take the long view. And it’s sure helpful to have a community to call forth your best self.