That Darn Camel: Choosing Where to Give (and a Plug for the World Food Program)

This is the final post in a series of five posts exploring money and faith. The series title comes from this scripture verse: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23 – 25)

On Monday, I wrote about my ongoing struggle with tithing. Another big question around tithing is where to give? At the DC church that I attended in my 20s, where a 10 percent tithe was a minimum requirement, all of my contributions went directly to the church. I struggled with that. Our church occupied a coffee house space that was open for lunch on weekdays and for music and poetry on Friday nights. It also housed a Christian bookstore. While there was much about the coffee house ministry that I loved, I wasn’t sure I wanted to give sacrificially mostly to keep the doors of a struggling coffee house open, particularly given the raw human need that was evident any time I walked through the neighborhood in which the coffee house was located, and that financial management was not our church’s strong suit.

Now I worship in a traditional mainline church, so I can at least rest assured that the money I give to the church not only supports the church itself, but also supports our diverse outreach ministries, including a school in Haiti, a local feeding program, and regular contributions to various social service organizations. There is an additional spiritual benefit of tithing primarily to one’s worshipping community, as we give up control over our money and hand it over to a community of people whom we trust.

That said, however, I also like to give to other nonprofit organizations. I need to feel that our family is doing something, no matter how small, to combat the misery that stares out from the New York Times front page every weekend. But to whom should we give? Despite my efforts to keep us off of mailing lists, we still receive solicitations from about a dozen different groups—all worthy, all in need of our support.

This is the system I’ve worked out, which is far from perfect but works well enough. We pledge to our church, with the goal of giving higher and higher percentages of our income each year. In addition, I’ve chosen a single organization—the World Food Program (USA)—to receive an additional monthly pledge. Beyond that, I try to give a couple of times a year to three or four organizations that we either have a personal connection to or whose mission is particularly compelling, including our alma maters, the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and the Carter Center.

Why the World Food Program for our secondary monthly pledge?

Because few things scare me more than the idea of being unable to feed my children when they are hungry.

It can be easy for moms like me to forget what a privilege it is to be able to feed our kids. Feeding my kids actually becomes an annoyance to me much of the time. I get so tired of the constant requests for snacks, of how the kids and their neighborhood playmates hang around the kitchen, preparing to decimate the grocery haul that I’ve just spent several hours purchasing, of their rejection of perfectly normal foods like eggs and steak. Plus I feel like this:

Food can be such a focus of angst and even anger in wealthy families like ours, where we have more than enough and we all, adults and kids, become far too used to such abundance. But then I imagine how it would feel to have one of my kids say, “Mom, I’m hungry!” and have nothing to give in response. Nothing. How do moms stand it? Their hearts must be crazed with cracks, a new one appearing each time they have to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything for you.”

So I give monthly to the United Nations’ World Food Program (via the World Food Program USA). The World Food Program is the largest humanitarian agency addressing hunger worldwide. In addition to providing emergency food for areas facing famine, the WFP has special programs to address long-term hunger and malnutrition, including school feeding and women’s initiatives. And they make it easy for me to give regularly by setting up monthly deductions from my bank account, and providing excellent year-end records of all gifts. Having my gifts happen automatically has that same spiritual benefit of my having to give up some control over my money—my gift goes to WFP every month, no matter what, whether we have extra Christmas or vacation expenses or not.

If you’re looking for a place that makes it easy for you to give regularly to people in need, I recommend the WFP. Also, this week fellow Christian blogger Alise Wright is hosting a month-long birthday celebration for herself, which is not nearly as self-serving as it sounds, because her celebration consists of matching donations that readers make to Nuru International, a group that gives micro-loans to people living in extreme poverty. Go check out Alise’s blog, wish her happy birthday, and make a donation to Nuru while you’re at it.

And if you have anything to add to this conversation—about tithing, charitable giving, or your family’s annoying need to insist on dinner every night—please chime in!

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • John Kelly

    Although charitable giving is promoted and blessed in Scripture, it was not the original or Scriptural purpose of the tithe. Almsgiving was outside the tithe. The tithe was a land rent, paid because the ancient Israelites were given possession, but never ownership, of God’s land. The tithe was part of their legal obligation; it was never optional. But the basic point for us, on the giving side, is that it was never an income tax. Taxes on labor, whether through forced labor (as Solomon and later kings would impose) or a garnishment of wages, were clearly noted as illegal under Moses’ Law and later interpretations, especially those of the more angry prophets.

    As to the uses of the tithe, Scripture says that the best 10% of the tithe was to be given over to the Clan of Aaron. That tenth of a tenth supported the religious establishment of the nation. Perhaps another 10% or so supported those non-priest Levites during their duty week (all the Levites were divided into twenty-four groups, each group serving at the site of the Ark for one week out of every twenty-four). The other 80% or so of the tithe was not directed to religious purposes. Instead it took care of the rest of the community’s needs – what we would today call civil government. That 80% repaired the roads, stocked the armories, built and maintained the irrigation systems, etc.

    In other words, the tithe, a land rent, took care of all community needs. It and the seldom-used head tax were the only legal sources of public revenue. If I was a wheelwright or a carpenter or a metalsmith, I paid no tithe or tax on my earnings. If I possessed some of God’s land, I paid rent for that privilege.

    God set this up. In doing so, He implied that it would be sufficient, and, of course, it was.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Interesting. I’m wondering what you see as the practical implications of this for us, as we figure out giving (to both our religious communities and to charitable organizations) in light of paying taxes on our income as well?

      • John Kelly

        Ellen -
        I think God is practical. And of course ethical. If He says that the rent of land will provide sufficient funding for all community endeavors, including the Church, my first thought is to believe Him. When He says that taking people’s labor through the legalistic force that the state can impose is not consistent with His Law and is also immoral, I have to believe that too. But as I reflect on these items, I don’t see any downside. Land, especially in cities, would be more productively used, and we’d have more demand for employment. Employment would be less penalized, so more of it would appear from the supply side as well. As a quick and easy-to-see result of these changes, we’d see healthier cities and higher employment. The demands for charitable interventions would be lessened.
        God made us. He knows how we work. He also made the creation and knows how it works. I think we should embark on these policy discussions in a serious way. Much of the “good” that we do with our wonderful charities consists of trying to fill in the gaps that we have created by not following His very explicit Law. We just wave it off as if it’s just one more Biblical irrelevancy. If God gave us these rules and reiterated them over and over again, maybe we should pay attention.
        Ellen, I’ve written a book on the subject. It’s called “The Other Law of Moses.” It’s on Amazon. I believe it tells a story that is, for the most part, unknown, yet critical to God’s wishes for us.
        Thanks for answering my post. And have a blessed day.

      • John Kelly

        Ellen -
        One more thing. The “eye of the needle” saying, which follows and reinforces the story of the rich young man, is speaking to the only way one could get rich in first century Palestine – government grants of unearned privilege. In my opinion, it is not speaking of being rich, per se, but rather of the privilege granted to certain favored individuals by the government. This was immoral, as it transfered wealth from those who created it (almost everyone in the society) to one person, just because that person had some sort of “in” with the government.
        Consider your gut feel about a very rich person in America versus a very rich person in Haiti. If you’re like most of us, we have to really scratch our heads to discover the basic immorality of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett. But it’s pretty easy for us to assume a a rich person in Haiti did not earn his wealth, that it was given to him through some grant of privilege from the government.
        Such grants were the only way a person could be rich in first century Palestine. Jesus’ followers knew what he meant when he said those things. We do not.

      • John Kelly

        Ellen, as I re-read you question,I realize I did not answer it. Just too wrapped up in my own musings, I suspect. I believe we have an obligation to give alms, regardless of whether our system follows God’s laws. As a matter of fact, since we ignore so much of God’s economic law, there becomes more economic distress, and so the need increases.
        In Jesus’ time, God’s economic laws were not being followed, yet he did not suggest a general almsgiving exemption because of it. So I think we must continue to give, even though we have a strong insight into the causes of the distress.

  • http://keriwyattkent.com/soul/?p=1161 Tim

    Great points, Ellen, and nice job tying in your personal affinity to the World Food Program as a regular recipient of your giving. We make our giving decisions much the same way; whether regular gifts or one time donations, typically it is a place, person or organization we have a connection to.

    As for the tithe, I think that is completely Old Covenant. The model we follow is 2 Corinthians 9:7 instead. Others disagree with me and insist that the tithe and Malachi 3:8-12 apply to us under the New Convenant. I don’t see it, but it shouldn’t be an issue of fellowship among members of Christ’s family.

    Thanks for allowing me to be part of this week’s series, Ellen. I feel very priveleged to have been asked to join you and Jennifer and Connie.

    Tim


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