The Common Good

Tithing: No Buts About It

Sojomail - March 15, 2012


“A huge problem is that the soldiers are not given time to heal before they are redeployed. It is a military-wide problem, and there is a lot of it going on at this base.” - Jorge Gonzalez, a veteran from Joint Base Lewis-McChord who served 15 months in Iraq and now is executive director of Coffee Strong, a coffee house and nonprofit resource center for soldiers. (Source: New York Times)

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Tithing: No Buts About It

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I’ve been lying about money.

No, I’m still lying about money. But, I’m getting better.

Couples fight, families fight, and our nation fights over what we do with our money (or lack thereof). Take a look at the presidential primaries so far. Story after story has been written about who gives, who doesn’t, and whether it matters.

What role charitable giving has to play in the qualifications of politicians is an open question. But, I’d like to take a moment, and as many of us church folks like to say — testify.

Not long ago, I was a poor college student. Throughout my years at university, I always had at least two, if not three, part time jobs. For a while, I would sell plasma twice a week at the local blood bank. I soon realized that the double benefit of selling your own blood for beer money is that if you’re a few quarts low all it takes is a pint.

After I graduated, I was a poor non-profit worker. I lived relatively simply in a rough neighborhood in Chicago. I didn't buy a TV or stereo for my first apartment. My living room was bare except for a recliner I got an estate sale and my bed was reclaimed from the alley behind my apartment building. The good Lord had mercy on me and somehow that twin mattress was bed-bug free.

Then I came to the nation’s capital as a poor young professional. Washington, D.C., isn’t a cheap place to live and work. And despite what you might be thinking, working as Jim Wallis’ special assistant, my role at the time, isn’t the best way to make your fortune.

While other friends flew as they desired to hot spots for vacations, never worrying about paying full price for a drink at the bar, I dutifully took Southwest flights back to my parent’s farm in New Hampshire when I needed a break and knew the times and locations of the best happy hour deals by heart.

Throughout my salad years, I gave as I could — probably somewhere around the national average. But that was the problem.

I gave as I could, but never as I was called to do. By God.

I realized that I had been lying to both myself and God. I was never a “poor” college student. I was never a “poor” non-profit worker. I was never a “poor” young professional in D.C.

When I was in school, with very little expendable income, I still received a quality education, had consistent access to food, my housing was stable, and I had health insurance. My starting salary after college put me above the national poverty threshold (about $24,000 a year… for a family of four).

Then I took a look at the Global Rich List, which calculates your income compared to the global population. I realized I was quickly approaching the 1 percent. That’s right. In global terms, I wasn’t there yet, but I was well on my way to becoming a card-carrying member of the global elite — the dreaded 1 percenters.

Yup, all it takes to hit the top 1 percent of global income earners is to make $47,500 a year.

Sojourners doesn’t pay as much as a lot of other non-profits of similar size. But, D.C. is one of the more expensive cities in the county to live in and that ranking doesn’t take into account cost of living.

But, I have student loans.

But, I don’t own a television, a stereo, or a car.

But, but, but I live so simply!

But, basically I was full of… well, I’m not sure if I should use the theologically accurate, technical term for what I was full of, but it rhymes with "knit."

I had loads of excuses, most of them good ones. And yet, the reality is I wasn’t giving anywhere near the minimum of what I could and should. About two years ago, I started the process of correcting that.

Now, there are a lot of folks out there who are a little farther along in life than I am and have a lot of fixed costs. They might include kids, tuition, mortgages, or maybe even dependent parents. Your financial situations are more complicated than mine. But ... that doesn’t mean what I have to say is irrelevant.

I’d like to direct my next word to the folks in my demographic:

If you are young, college-educated, have an income above the poverty line (that’s about $14,000 annually for all those who are single), and care about justice — you can afford to give away 10 percent of your income to charity.

If you say otherwise, you are lying.

Maybe you don’t want to, maybe you don’t feel called to, or maybe you aren’t ready to give away that much money. But don’t say it’s because you can’t afford to because that probably isn’t true.

It’s entirely possible that I’ll get a few emails from peers out there who have some legitimate reasons about why this isn’t true for them. Great. I welcome them.

Just, before you hit "send," think about what I’ve said. Take a look at your spending, compare your income to both national and global poverty statistics.

If you still feel I’m completely off base, fire away. I deserve it.

Tim King is communications director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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