Thursday, October 17, 2013

Under which do the poor give more?

I had a thought experiment that occurred to me recently, showing how silly our insistance on rules can be.  Before I get to the thought experiment- lets cover a little bit of definition grounds.  In the LDS church there have been two systems of financially giving to the church.  There is tithing where you give 10% of, well, nobody really wants to define it.  The word is increase, but whether that means of gross or net, gross receipts or net revenue, or simply cash flow is at times left to the individual sometimes to the over anxious leader.  All those definitions of increase are ones I have heard people use and which definition is in vouge sometimes just depends on which general authorities are around.  But the one thing everyone agrees on is you give 10% and that you give it before you feed yourself or your children and before you keep a shelter over your head.  If paying it makes your children go without necessary nutrition its praised in meetings as if you did something really awesome.  We are taught that this really is a lower law.

The higher law and second form of financial giving to the church is the law of consecration.  It has been suggested that we still live this by creating so much work for ourselves through callings etc that we are essentially giving all of our time to the church.  I've even heard a quote from an Apostle suggesting that members who really want to live this law should donate all their excess cash to the fast offering fund.  Sometimes it is taught that we simply don't live this law in practice right now, but will again later.  But the basic point of this law is that everyone only keeps private ownership of what is directly within their immediate use and that all other excess financial resources should go to a general fund to evenly provide for the need of all members less fortunate.  If I recall later in church history this was expanded into a drive for total community efficiency with communal ownership and production of as much as was possible.  Perhaps it could be argued that this didn't have as much to do with "consecration" per se, but was simply a form of economic/cultural isolationism and independence.  But whatever it was at different times, it is supposed to be higher than tithing.

The though experiment is this, under which system would an impoverished member of the LDS church in Africa give more to the church?  Tithing, or consecration?

Under tithing, whatever that family earns, however they calculate it, is given to the church and under current teachings if that means that their children are perpetually going to bed without food that is a noble sacrifice for the Lord which we should all look up to as an example of exemplary righteousness.  I'm not joking about that there was a conference talk within the last few years that praised just such an example.

But say things switched up to being the law of consecration.  This poor family that can hardly afford food even without paying tithing is now part of a big "take care of your neighbor" process by which their personal finances and way of life are supposed to be equalized with the way of life of the wealthiest church members.  So instead of giving anything, a huge amount of foreign aid comes into her land from church members who might make a lot of money but are spending their money at a rate which makes them look impoverished by local standards in Europe or North America.  We can't just give individual church members clean water and food without fixing entire communities, so suddenly entire communities are given clean water and money starts flowing to be able to buy more expensive food in the community.  The African saints are blessed by an enormous influx in their standard of living as circumstances permit.  Chances are they don't give anything to the church at all, but maybe later in life when they've put their kids through college and they have jobs, maybe they will.  Under the lower law of tithing they make sacrifices far in excess of what should happen under the higher law.

But what about the general authorities of the church some might ask?  Obviously they live the law of consecration yet don't live in hovels while they donate their excess money to poor starving Africans. Ok, so maybe the church will give up on the idea of economic inequality meaning that the whole world is groaning in sin.  We can disregard that part of the D&C.  Maybe the law of consecration only should apply within national boundaries and not across them.  This doesn't really change the terms of the thought experiment, it just shifts it to a different places within each country.

So imagine back here in the US say you have a poor member who is having trouble affording their mortgate on their tiny home because they just lost one of their two jobs and things are about to fall apart for them?  How much do they give vs receive under tithing vs the law of consecration?  Under tithing they keep paying their tithing till their house is repossessed by the bank and they go into a homeless shelter.  Maybe their bishop helps them out, maybe not.  If things are really this bad for them there is a strong chance they work Sunday's and the bishop is under some kind of injunction not to give them financial assistance because they don't attend church.  Its possible that isn't really the way it works, but I've heard lots of people who are pretty sure that is how it works because they are full of stories about the unworthy poor who attend church the minimum necessary to get their church welfare money from the bishop.  In any case, they might or might not get church welfare based on the the rules that administer that program.  Even if they are eligible it might not be enough to save their house.  So under tithing they stand a very strong chance of losing their house.

Take that same family living in that tiny house where dad just lost his second job.  Under consecration adjusted to only withing national boundaries, Dad probably only works one job and is probably getting church financial assistance not only to help make ends meet but also financial assistance completing his degree so that he can get a better job and be more independent and give back to the community.  Or maybe if he's permanently disabled the church might give him money to make sure he doesn't live with any less conveniences than any other member of his nation in his church.

No matter how you define tithing or consecration, the basic point is that under the lower law the poor are requested to make much larger sacrifices than they are under consecration.  Under consecration the poor receive an abundance of help and there is no thought that they will need to contribute under after they've gotten back on their feet.  If they never do get back on their feet they may never have to financially contribute to the church again.  They might still donate their time and talents, but no money.  Under tithing the poor are expected to pay tithing even if it means not feeding their family or keeping their house or paying other honest and legal obligations.

This focus on a legalistic interpretation of 10% that intensifies the pain of poverty instead of alleviates it brings to mind Matthew 23:23-

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Also Matthew 23:17

 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

 Note that Christ didn't say that tithing shouldn't be done, but said that if focusing on tithing eclipsed things like mercy then it becomes just hypocrisy.  The glory of God isn't made up of the money we give to the church.  Our love of God isn't made up of the money we give.  Our love of God and each other is what makes us disciples.  As lovers of God it makes sense to give as we can to build up our community of worship by tithing.  But the money we give isn't really the point, its the sacred spaces created by our mutual support that allow for greater and more joyful worship.  If we build up temples by demanding sacrifices whereby the poorest are denied food and shelter, I propose that this is guilt money.  Even the Pharisee's understood that the money paid to Judas to allow Jesus to be killed was unworthy of the temple.  Similarly, food taken out of the mouth of a malnourished child in Africa is not fit to be given to God.  I think this is one place where LDS church leaders have made a well intentioned mistake.  We should take instruction from the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 4:26-27 where we are commanded to give to the poor, but not faster than we have strength.  In Mosiah 2:17 we are taught that "... that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God."  Since serving our fellowman is serving God, then the same principles should apply to each, and to neither should we sacrifice so much that we "run faster than we have strength."  If we are truly striving to live closer to the highest laws of heaven, then our understanding of tithing needs to be subject to the weightier matters of the Law.  The widows mite may have been more than all the donations of the rich, but our merciful God would not have demanded the woman to neglect feeding her children to give it.


Brian said...

I have never heard of excess as a standard to define the law of consecration. Maybe that is a Utah thing. As far as I was concerned, the law of consecration meant giving everything before you met your needs, and having faith that the Lord would provide, particularly by the Church giving back.

CrouchingOwl said...

The exact definitions are hard to work with, since the social expression of the law was different from place to place. The giving back of what ever you don't need is so inherently fuzzy in application. In a living social body like the church I can expect that local economic circumstances would probably cause dramatic swings in personal and institutional interpretation. The logistics of how to determine what poor people in other countries "need" compared to what middle class white people "need" would be extremely hard and potentially lead to a lot of hard feelings. It would expose a lot of people's prejudice. I once heard it directly stated in a Sunday school class by a participant that poor people in 3rd world countries didn't need our standard of living because since they didn't know anything better they could achieve perfect happiness without modern conveniences. Granted, people can learn contentment with just about anything given a good reason to expect that what they are doing is for a good reason or unavoidable. But to expect that poor people through the world over have no concept that they lack anything when their children die of lack of medical care and their wives die in childbirth and many die of simple starvation... is just crazy. When it comes down to it we don't really need our modern conveniences if we accept death as an acceptable alternative. Nobody needs anything if death is an acceptable alternative. But if needless death and suffering isn't an acceptable alternative, how would the law of consecration in modern times deal with cross national social inequalities?

I think the church interprets the widows mite story to simply mean that we should appreciate that for many tithing is a sacrifice to pay and therefore the institution should fight misuse and embezzlement. They view Christ's pronouncement of blessedness on the widow as meaning that if other people are in a position to give their all to just to meet their tithing payment then they should give their all and more so that they can be just as blessed as the widow.

I think a better interpretation is that Jesus didn't say that the woman had to give that much, didn't praise her for having given exactly a certain percentage no more no less. He just said that since her gift was a greater personal sacrifice for her to make since it was all the spare cash she could muster it was spiritually worth more than the giving of lots of money by those who could afford it. Christ didn't say that the wealthy should donate all that they possessed or all the spare cash they had. He just observed that their physical sacrifice is less and therefore spiritually of less significance.

To put it in terms of time instead of money, someone who is retired and has a lot of spare time can donate hours of service in callings etc without it being as much of a sacrifice compared to a guy who works two jobs and maybe can spend an hour a week at church. The guy who spends only an hour a week at church because that is literally all he can give actually donating all the spare time he had and therefore should be considered more blessed than the retiree who attends all of his church meetings and has time consuming callings on top of it. There should be no rule that the person who can only afford to spend one hour a week at church is spiritually inferior because he or she donated less time or a lesser percent of his total time. The point should be that he donated a large sacrifice of what he had available.

The same should be true of money. When someone due to poverty cannot afford to pay their tithing without serious consequences like being unable to pay for food on a regular basis or the loss of a house or bankruptcy, we should appreciate the sacrifices of what they can pay without judging them based on the part that they could not.