Monday, September 12, 2011

God or Godfather? When did giving become a protection racket?

You moved into the neighborhood, got settled in, and were enjoying the wonderful neighbors, beautiful scenery, and perfect amenities. One day, you answer your door to find a well-dressed, grim-faced man standeing before you, holding a book. Before you can ask him the nature of his business, he informs you, "I serve the God-father. I am here to inform you that your continued peace and tranquility can only be maintained by paying a small protection fee. I will collect this fee on a weekly, by-weekly, or monthly basis. The fee is 10% of your income."

Startled, you look at this man for a trace of a chuckle, then over his shoulder in hopes of seeing a video camera indicating that this is an elaborate prank. His lips never curl, and he begins inventorying your possessions, noting that "it would be a shame to lose all these nice things. You never know when something bad could happen. Protection is a lot cheaper than replacement." After a few minutes, he leaves, promising to return in a week, and hoping that you make the right decision before "something unfortunate happens..."

A recent discussion on tithing got me thinking about how much of what passes for teaching about giving/tithe paying sounds like a thinly-veiled threat from Don Corleone. Instead of a dead horse in your bed, dire threats of unemployment, sickness, or misfortune are presented to you as the consequence of failing to maintain timely payments to the local representative of the "God-Father." Not wanting to risk it, you pay, or, not wanting to roll over, you protest. If you do the former, you are praised for being wise enough to trust in the protection of the God-Father, but if you do the latter, your name is bandied about the neighborhood as a selfish, money-grubbing parasite who wants to live in the neighborhood but doesn't want to support it. Of course, no one told you about this requirement when you accepted the invitation to move in, but now the representatives tell you that it was right there in the contract.

I know that "tithe" means "tenth." I also know that there are no passsages of Scripture where that tenth was made of a person's silver or gold, but rather as I once read in an email on the subject, "tithes were counted from a family's assets, not from their income." In other words, you tithed from your cattle, flocks, and crops, not from any income that you might have derived from them.

This is a simple proposition, one that, if I am wrong, I should have been shown such long ago. Instead, I get mocked, accused of having poor theology, or threatened with dire calamity for daring to speak against what I see as an extortion scheme. Perhaps there is no way to prove me wrong, because the words that would do so were never written in Scripture. The expectation that Christians will be generous with their resources is found in Scripture, along with promises that this generosity will not go unnoticed by the generous Savior. This call to generosity for others, especially other Christians, is different from the demand for payment made based on Malachi 3:9-10, which, if it were admitted, was not written to a single Christian, but at the most, to the nation of Israel, and, according to some, specifically to the very Levites who were beneficiaries of the Holy Tithe which consisted of flocks, herds, and crops produced within the land of Israel.

To me, the image of a generous Christian community is far more consistent with the message of the New Testament than is the image of a taxed community, forking over 10% of their income in order to have a comfortable life protected from the vagaries of living. Do tithe payers really manage to avoid such things as sickness, car accidents, getting traffic tickets for speeding, and I.R.S. audits? I wonder. Last time I checked, even Rev. Fred K.C. Price had to pay the hospital bills that his wife incurred when fighting cancer. They didn't magically vanish simply because he paid himself 10% of the money that was given to him by his congregation in hopes that they would be spared the bumps and bruises of life. I've known of rich tithe payers, and poor tithe payers, and I've known of rich non-payers, and poor non-payers. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between an individual's willingness to pay and their possession of wealth.

Of course, as I once said when I first began studying this issue, I would love to be wrong. After all, if a small investment of 10% of my income would open the doors to fantastic wealth, I would be a fool not to fork it over! That would certainly be no more than the various multilevel promoters have sought to separate from me in recent years, with some slight degree of success. Unfortunately, I have had as much success handing over my payment as I have after purchasing the latest book. If godliness were a means of gain, then I must have somehow failed to get my payments properly credited.

More to the point, I think that, again, the Christian model of giving is the generosity desplayed by our Lord, who, seeing that we needed someone to save us, provided the exact resources that could meet our dire need - His life and blood. He purchased our redemption with his blood, and when our brother or sister is hungry, without shelter, in need of aid, or struggling, we can also be generous in finding and supplying the resources that will meet their needs. The God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is not the Godfather Don Corleone, He is not a mobster, and we are not buying protection under the guise of giving.