MASS REPEAL: Calls for the dismantling of President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation have gone into overdrive since the Supreme Court ruled the law as constitutional last month. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
The federal government has not taken over health care. The federal government has taken over access to health care. There is a difference.
When I was a student at Morehouse College in the early 1970s, activists launched a campaign to address the shortage of African American doctors in the state of Georgia. They produced bumper stickers that asked “Only 100 Black doctors in Georgia?” with a map of the state’s 139 counties in the background. With many of those 100 doctors concentrated in urban areas such as Atlanta, people voiced clear concern over access to health care for thousands of African Americans in rural, poor and remote areas. Morehouse College President Hugh Gloster responded to this concern by founding the Morehouse School of Medicine, which joined Howard University Medical School, Meharry Medical College and the Charles Drew School of Medicine (similarly founded to address access issues in the Los Angeles area) as the nation’s only predominantly Black medical schools.
Were the government to have taken over health care, the government would be proffering medical diagnoses, prescribing medicine, and performing surgery. This is not the case. What the Supreme Court’s ruling upheld on June 28 was not government-controlled health care, but a federal system that expands access to health care for millions of Americans, mostly poor and many people of color. In a country where national strength finds measure on barometers of military might and economic prosperity, Scripture connects a nation’s well being to its care for the poor. In the fifth chapter of the biblical book bearing his name, Jeremiah challenges his nation, saying:
5:26 For among my people are found wicked men: they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they set a trap, they catch men.
5:27 As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great, and waxen rich.
5:28 They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge.
5:29 Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?
And among the judgments God speaks through Ezekiel, health care stands prominently:
34:4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.
Interestingly, the arguments against the healthcare reform upheld by the Supreme Court do focus on the problem of systemic access, and the price to be paid for it — whether the price is monetary in the form of the penalty for failure to carry health insurance or individual liberty in the form of governmental coercion. Yet in both cases, the plight of the poor and needy, the sick and infirm, goes unaddressed. How to make health care accessible for those on the margins of society receives little attention from those who would dismantle “Obamacare.” Promises to repeal the legislation without offering a clear alternative for how we as a nation make health care available and accessible to all persons reduces “the least of these” to political pawns, whose lives represent fodder for a political machine designed to appeal to the self-interests of America’s middle class.
UPHOLDING THE LAW: Supporters of President Obama’s healthcare reform rallied outside the Supreme Court chambers prior to the Court’s historic ruling on June 28. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
Such a move must be resisted by President Obama and supporters of the legislation. The president campaigned for much of 2008 by appealing to that same middle class. He has lost some of their support with his championing of this version of reform, but that is precisely because our electoral system makes it difficult to appeal to a moral high ground as a strategy for garnering support (unless the issues revolve around sexuality and/or abortion). Some who have been disappointed by the president but still support him for reelection need to become more vocal in raising this issue above individual self interest to the moral high ground, much as Jim Wallis and Sojourners put forth the notion that poverty is a moral issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.
The question of access to health care ought matter significantly to people of faith. But it is easy to see how a church whose own theology promises personal prosperity apart from systemic issues of justice can miss the mark of its high calling to care for the poor. Indeed, it is as if a central claim of many messages draws directly from the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, better known as Reverend Ike: “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.”
Our ministry to the sick must move beyond prayer and visitation, and our work amongst the poor requires more than acts of charity. Justice questions continue to loom large in a nation with rampant inequality in quality of life, minimized access to maximal care, and economic stumbling blocks that tie the quality of health to possession of wealth. The spiritual gift of healing is not restricted to those in a specific economic category. If God’s divine, miraculous intervention to bring healing cannot be tied to social status, why should not a national healthcare philosophy be similarly non-discriminatory?
The Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act provides the opportunity for the various agencies: government, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and employers to move with plans for implementation. It is good news for many who currently have little if any access to health care.
While many decry the “intrusion of big government,” an unanswered question for Christians who have opposed healthcare reform is “how has the church mobilized on behalf of the sick and the poor?” In other words, could it be that the intrusion of “big government” in part reflects a gaping hole in our mission to care for the least of these through ministries of mercy, prayer for healing, and advocacy for the oppressed? Are we so busy with “destiny and prosperity” that our attentions have been taken from our responsibilities to fulfill Jesus mission in Luke 4 and Matthew 25?
HOTLANTA MESS: "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" is one of the Bravo networks top reality shows. The cast (from left) Kim Zolciak, NeNe Leakes, Phaedra Parks, Sheree Whitfield, Cynthia Bailey, Kandi Burruss. (Photo: Bravo)
Sex, scandal, soap operas, and reality TV …
Those were my thoughts while reading through the book of Samuel over the past few weeks. Samuel is a book filled with murder, rape, and incest. In it, we observe power plays, betrayal, and unceasing war.
The injustices against women are evident. Throughout the book, women are tossed around like property to be used and abused in whatever manner the men of power see fit. Consider King Saul’s daughter, Michal, for example. Saul gave her away to David, which was a good selection for her since the Bible reveals that she was in love with David. Saul, on the other hand, simply used her as a pawn in his endless pursuit to capture and kill David. (She was actually the second daughter Saul tried to pass off to David. Read 1 Samuel 18.)
Nevertheless, Michal married David and proved herself faithful to him. David was forced to flee from the hands of a jealous Saul. Saul takes David’s absence as an opportunity to marry Michal off to someone else (1 Sam 25:44). By this time, David had married two other women. Are the reality show themes setting in yet?
After Saul’s death on the battlefield, David demands that his wife, Michal, be returned to him. Therefore, his wife is taken and returned to David, as her second husband goes weeping behind her. Finally, her second husband is forced to return home to grieve his lost (2 Sam. 3:13-16). Don’t believe me? It’s in the book, and this is just one of many scandals recorded. The poor guy was probably Young and Restless; David was suffering through the Days of Our Lives, and Michal was probably no longer Bold and Beautiful.
Which made me think … King Solomon, David’s son, was right when he wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). Look how far we have fallen.
Then I wondered, “What is the difference between the life stories recorded in Samuel and those shown in our current reality series, say The Kardashians franchise shows, The Real Housewives of … wherever (though most of them aren’t even wives), or The Basketball Wives shows?”
Seriously, people watch these shows for their entertainment value, and Christians read the Bible for a much deeper purpose. But is that all there is to say? We could tie a nice theological bow on this, but that would not promote dialogue, would it?
This question is an important one concerning culture and the church, and maybe how we can reconcile the two. It may also lead to questions as to why it’s important to read the Old Testament. Why did God choose to include this historical book in the sacred text that is the Bible? What does he want us to learn? There are history lessons of course, worthy of the notable phrase “Those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it.” But what are the other purposes to consider? Finally, we must ask the “So what?” question.
Is our reading of the Bible too restrictive? Do we consign the Old Testament to the static role of exotic history book without considering its instructive aspects for today? Are there insights in the text to be found about responding to the hot messes in our own families and communities? What do these messes reveal about God? What do they teach us about ourselves?
Here’s to seeing God’s Word in a new light, and taking it at least as seriously as we do NeNe’s latest outburst or Kim K.’s 72-day nuptials.
CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.
Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.
The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment
An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.
Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.
The use of Scripture in political arguments
While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.
Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.
At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.
The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.
IRONY OF DEFEAT: LeBron James leaves the court after his Miami Heat's disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the deciding game of the NBA Finals. (Newscom photo)
In sports, as in life, there are often small ironies that signify larger truths. And In the celebrated NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, there was plenty of irony to go around.
For the uninitiated, the 2011 Finals, the league’s showcase playoff series, was a rematch of the 2006 series, which Miami won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Dallas. This year, Dallas won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Miami. The two biggest stars from that series, Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and Dwyane Wade of Miami, were again pitted against one another, and both of them put together another string of impressive performances. Whereas Wade had been the bigger star in 2006, Nowitzki’s star shone brighter in 2011.
But Miami had been heavily favored going in, because of last year’s offseason signing of megastar LeBron James, widely considered the best player in the NBA. The Heat’s “Big Three” of James, Wade, and power forward Chris Bosh was supposed to trump the Mavericks’ lone star Nowitzki in both talent and star power. Conventional thinking in the NBA says that when the stakes are highest, the margin between winning and losing is usually measured by great players imposing their will over good players.
Yet, the overwhelming story of the series, aside from the rich sense of redemption and quality team basketball shown by the Mavericks, was the virtual disappearance of the Heat’s supposedly best player, LeBron James. In the fourth quarters of close games, when his team needed him most, LeBron played his worst basketball. When the situation demanded greatness, he was hardly adequate.
As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.
The Misnomer of “The Decision”
With this latest loss, LeBron James has become the most criticized and scrutinized player not only in professional basketball, but in all of American sports. The waves of criticism and scrutiny James receives on a daily basis have, with this loss, been amplified into an exponential tsunami.
And most of the vitriol is tied to his decision last summer to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami, a process that resulted in a one-hour television special on ESPN entitled The Decision. It was a calculated attempt at warmth and authenticity that instead came off looking vain, self-promoting, and ungracious. While popular opinion was split about whether or not he should have stayed in Cleveland, almost everyone agrees that it wasn’t so much the fact that he left, but the way that he left that rubbed people the wrong way.
So perhaps the greatest irony here (besides Bill Simmons’ nugget about LeBron’s primary agent and marketing partner being named Maverick Carter) is this:
Despite the jeers he’s received over The Decision, LeBron James’ current predicament is not the result of one particular decision, but rather of many decisions over time.
Our decisions, over time, become our character. And LeBron’s biggest point of weakness is not in his strategy or physicality, but in his character. He has exhibited a significant deficit in the areas of self-awareness and humility. And if he wants to take his game to the next level, in addition to working on his post moves and shooting, he needs to make investments into his character.
If he were a believer in Christ, he might want to try looking in the Bible.
In particular, he might look at the story of Samson.
Chosen One, Choosing Badly
Samson was an absolute beast of a man. We see in Judges 13-16 that he was blessed with not only incredible physical strength and stature, but he also possessed considerable cunning, a combination that made him quite attractive to the opposite sex. And the circumstances surrounding his birth, combined with the ease with which he defeated legions of foes, were evidence that his physical prowess was sprinkled with divine favor. He was, quite literally, the chosen one.
Despite these obvious advantages, Samson had a problem: He did not make good decisions. He continually reacted in impulsive ways that resulted in unforeseen consequences, and often failed to learn from those consequences. He allowed the attention and adulation of others to distort his thinking and cloud his judgment. In so doing, he repeatedly put himself at risk by compromising the principles and directives that were put in place to protect him.
These are many of the same responses we’ve seen from LeBron James. When he and teammate Dwyane Wade were caught mocking their flu-stricken opponent Nowitzki by mimicking his cough, it seemed like the cocky taunt of a frontrunner—inexplicable considering they had just been beaten in Game 4. And after the series concluded, James’ postgame comments were anything but gracious. When asked how he should respond to people who rooted for his team to fail, he contrasts his celebrity with what he assumes to be his haters’ pitiful, miserable plebeian existence. His whole comeback amounted to, “I’m LeBron James, and you’re not.”
We Are All Witnesses
The truth is, LeBron isn’t the first NBA player whose struggles with insecurity affected his public perception. Many have preceded him, and many will follow.
As a Trail Blazers fan during their last great playoff runs in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I was a fan of swingman Bonzi Wells of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Or at least, I was a fan of his ability.
His antics were another story. Year after year, Bonzi’s reputation kept sinking lower and lower as a result of all his off-the-court controversy. Just when it seemed as though he’d figured out how to let his stellar play do the talking, he would flip-the-bird to a fan, or say he doesn’t care what fans think, or get into an altercation.
So I was grateful to run across this account of Wells’ new post-NBA life as an AAU coach, where he admits being humbled by many of his previous missteps. Even a knucklehead like Bonzi, given enough time and enough hard knocks, can finally get it. It’s nice to see people change for the better.
For Samson, it took losing his eyes and being paraded in front of his enemies before he had enough humility to call out to God in desperation. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say this, but I bet that Samson did some serious soul-searching after the Philistines had taken him hostage. And when he prayed to God for the strength for one final act, Samson wasn’t driven only by a blood vendetta, but by a sense of holy honor to avenge those who had dishonored the Lord.
(So it’s not turning the other cheek, but we’re talking about the Old Testament here. Work with me.)
Signs of Hope
I think I speak for most casual NBA fans when I say that’s what we all want for LeBron—for the young man to finally get it. When facing defeat, to humbly admit his shortcomings, and vow to do better if given a chance.
That is the kind of humility on display that team officials crave from their star players, and the kind of example we all can learn from. I know that if I had to endure the same level of scrutiny and criticism that LeBron endures every day, I would have a much harder time taking the high road all the time.
But if there’s one thing LeBron can learn from Samson, it’s that it’s never too late to be humbled. If he can learn how to operate with humility, and the early indications are that he’s making a little progress, it won’t be long before he’ll be rising up in big moments instead of shrinking back. Instead of being the most hated athlete, he’ll be among the most celebrated. After all, everyone loves a good comeback story.
And just like Samson, he’ll be able to finally leave the stage a winner.
I just hope he doesn’t do it against my Trail Blazers, because then I’ll have to start hating him all over again.
What is tithing? And do most Christians practice it in the correct way? Journalist Douglas LeBlanc traveled across the country to speak to people about the spiritual discipline of financial giving, and how today’s churches get it right — and wrong.
Churchgoers know it’s time to dig a little deeper into their pockets when the pastor announces his annual series on stewardship or starts to extend his offertory prayers. The “offering” has become an important part of Christian worship, but many of us don’t understand the difference between tithing and charitable giving. In his new book, Tithing: Test Me in This, journalist Douglas LeBlanc sheds light on the ancient practice of Christian giving by taking readers on a pilgrimage across the United States to meet a variety of people who have made tithing an central part of their spiritual lives. Though some debate the validity of the concept of tithing, and whether it was strictly an Old Testament practice, LeBlanc was more interested in showing how this spiritual discipline of deliberate giving can transform ordinary lives. He recently spoke to UrbanFaith about the subject of his book.
URBAN FAITH: Very simply, what is tithing?
DOUGLAS LEBLANC: To my mind, tithing is giving 10 percent of your income to the church where you worship God week after week. Some people like to count donations to all nonprofits as part of their tithe. That’s a more easily achievable definition of tithing, but it’s better than not giving away 10 percent of your income. The one thing I resist strenuously is referring to anything other than giving 10 percent as tithing: “I’m tithing 4 percent of my income this year.” Words matter, and that’s an abuse of a perfectly clear word.
Does what we do in our churches each week during offering time resemble anything that happened in the early church? How has the practice of corporate giving evolved through the years?
I’m afraid my book does not explore the evolution of giving, other than through a few quotations from the early church. Consider this from the Didache, which may have been written before A.D. 150 and is quoted by leaders in the fourth century:
Do not be one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving. If you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins. You shall not hesitate to give, nor shall you grumble when giving, for you will know who is the good paymaster of the reward.
What we have in most churches today is a formal opportunity to give. Some pastors whom I spoke to for the book, such as Jerald January of Vernon Park Church of God on the South Side of Chicago, have done away with a designated time for collecting offerings. I think it’s outstanding if a congregation supports the church without a formal offering, but I am not bothered by churches that collect the offering with more ritual. In my church, the choir sings some of its loveliest hymns during the offertory.
What are some of the most fascinating stats or findings about tithing in American churches that you discovered during your research?
What’s most fascinating to me is how low the level of giving is. Read any of the annual surveys by empty tomb, inc., and you’ll have to fight away sadness with a baseball bat. The founders of empty tomb, inc., John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, drove it home for me when I visited them in Champaign, Illinois. John Ronsvalle has calculated that a serious work of world evangelism would cost $182 million, which translates to about 2 cents per day from churches that clearly identify themselves as evangelical. Are we anywhere near achieving that goal? No.
I once heard a youth leader point out that the average congregation spends more on air conditioning than on youth ministry. I think you could replace “youth ministry” with any number of categories and still make that statement. I love air conditioning as much as the next guy — probably more, being a son of southern Louisiana — but surely we can do better than this in our church budgets.
More personally, when I take an honest look at what I spend on cable TV, books, broadband access, magazines, two pet cats, travel, and computers, my stewardship begins to look paltry. I try to remind myself regularly that, by the terms of history or the terms of how most people live in this world, I am among the remarkably wealthy by virtue of living in the United States. I try to let that inspire more generosity rather than guilt and self-loathing.
You interviewed various pastors and Christian leaders regarding the practices of tithing and giving. What were the most surprising things that you discovered as you spoke to different people?
What I greatly enjoyed was meeting several people on the Christian left who tithe. I’ve been a cultural and theological conservative for most of my adult life, and I’ll admit to making many glib assumptions about people on the other side of the aisle. As I traveled to various states to interview people, I saw just how much the basic discipline of tithing transcends so many political differences. Tithing even cuts across vast differences in theology. Tithing becomes a quiet rallying point for people who realize that serious Christian faith makes demands of you. Jesus does not settle for whatever kindness that comes naturally to us.
I also loved the drama of interviewing Randy Alcorn, who considers tithing as the training wheels one uses on the way toward real giving. Randy is a full-throttle Christian, and I find it humbling to spend time with people who submit so much more of their lives to God than I manage on so many days.
What is typically the trend with giving in the church during tough economic periods like the one we’re currently experiencing? Have you observed anything unique about this latest economic crisis?
Based only on my own observations, I believe many of us see giving to our church as part of our discretionary income, something that we would cut sooner than other outlets of discretionary income, such as dining out, entertainment, or vacations. I am horrified, more often than not, at how self-indulgent I can be on any given day, so I’m not arguing that tithing is the line of demarcation between holiness and sin. For those of us who do not struggle with much economic uncertainty, tithing is the beginning of Christian stewardship, rather than some Mt. Everest that only a select few would think of scaling.
Still, I also strive to remember the deeply pastoral perspective I heard from Ron and Arbutus Sider, two of the great champions of living more simply. “It’s an Old Testament principle that makes enormous sense, and it’s a great starting point,” Ron told me. “I wouldn’t say to a desperately poor single mom, ‘You’ve got to tithe or you’re disobeying God.'” Arbutus added: “It’s perfectly fine for impoverished people to give 2 or 3 or 5 percent.”
A recurring question that you hear a lot about tithing is whether it’s 10 percent off your gross or net income. What have you come to believe about that one?
I like the cleanness of tithing off my gross income, because income is income, even if it is taxed or allotted to a medical savings account before I receive a pay stub. Still, a tithe from a net income is better than no tithe at all. I think the biblical principle of giving with a cheerful heart should inform that choice.
There are so many perspectives and theologies out there about Christian giving, everything from prosperity teaching to pooling your resources and living in an intentional community.
I consider prosperity theology entirely bad news. It helps us confuse what we need and what we want. Worse, it tries to conceal carnal materialism in pious clothing. It turns prosperity into a sick measure of God’s favor, or of the authenticity of a person’s Christian faith.
Of course God does not want people living in poverty, but throughout Scripture the emphasis is not on blaming people for their afflictions. If anything, Scripture indicts those of us who are healthy and wealthy if we do not try to share what we have with those who have less. If a prosperity theologian had told Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man would rebuke Lazarus for not having sufficient faith to claim the riches that are his as a King’s Kid.
Living in an intentional community is a noble sacrifice, and I have great affection for people who do it, especially long term. One thing is also clear: Living in community is exceptionally difficult, and many communities simply fall apart over time because they cannot resolve the conflicts that arise when people live in that sort of emotional and spiritual hothouse. Few people are truly called to that life, and still fewer can make it work over many years. God bless those who can do it. Those few who argue that all true Christians should live such a life will soon enough find their idealism challenged by hard experience.
So, what do you think is the most biblical approach for Christians to take?
I consider the tithe my starting point. After that, there’s no shortage of other opportunities to give: natural disasters in impoverished nations; a friend or relative in an emergency; sponsoring a child through a relief and development agency; volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. As a shy person, I find it too easy to write a check rather than making myself vulnerable among the poor. I struggle against that, though, and when I relax enough, God sends moments of grace.
I once encountered a poor woman in Minneapolis and we spent about an hour together, talking and walking on a chilly day. She told me about being kicked out of her house by a heartless son. I bought her coffee and a piece of pie. She helped me find a better corner for catching a taxi to the airport. I prayed with her before we separated. I told her that our encounter reminded me of Hebrews 13 (“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it”). As I paraphrased it, she completed the sentence with me. It was eerie and I spent the rest of the trip home feeling unduly blessed.
I don’t see any one perspective on giving as the most biblical, except perhaps that Jesus calls us to be generous because generosity is at the heart of the Holy Trinity. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the most extravagant act of generosity in all of history.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that American Christians have about giving?
Many Americans seem to believe we are somehow doing God a favor by giving even token money to the church by tossing $5 or $10 into the collection plate every week or two. God does not need our money, but he wants our hearts and souls. If our love for God does not lead us to a greater generosity with our time, talent and treasure, perhaps it’s time to stoke the fires of that love again.
And what are we generally doing right?
My sense, and perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part, is that thousands of churches are doing exceptionally creative works of mercy and hospitality with the resources they have, whether they’re storefronts or megachurches. It’s easy to take shots at Willow Creek or Saddleback, but both of those churches are deliberate about helping struggling people, whether they’re on the West Side of Chicago or across the world in Rwanda.
One of the sweetest films I’ve ever seen is a PBS documentary, Let the Church Say Amen, which depicts the small, struggling World Missions for Christ in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of this church before, and I doubt that it ever will be known widely. The film left me with an abiding sense of God’s presence, because Pastor Bobby Perkins Sr. was there to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. I expect there are far more churches like that throughout the country, both in inner cities and in tiny towns.