One Sunday last month, I visited the Messiah Baptist Church in East Orange, N.J. I always feel comfortable in church, especially so in an African-American Baptist church. This is the tradition that nourished me, that helped teach and to train my intellect and told me -in the face of sexism and racism–that I was a child of the King. I believed the saints who told me this, and I took a firm hold on my own nobility and on my own possibilities. The black church taught me an ethic of cosmic responsibility. We are not our own, rather we belong to God, and we owe God our all. We owe God our best.
Over time, I have become more and more grateful for the poetry and the elemental wisdom of the deacons praying their public prayers of intercession. (I recognize there is much to critique, but that is a different essay.) Phrases from their prayers have stayed with me over the course of my lifetime: “We thank you Lord that we woke up this morning clothed in our right mind. “
This particular Sunday at Messiah Baptist Church, the task of speaking to the congregation about the tithe fell to one of the deacons.
We all hear what we are hearing within the context of what we have already heard, even if what we have heard is the soundless sound of our own mind thinking. I have been thinking about the income disparity in the world. The United Nations estimates that in 2005, 1.4 billion people on earth lived in extreme poverty. These numbers are an improvement since 1990, but the decline in extreme poverty is uneven. China’s thriving economy is raising many of its poor above the $1.25 per day poverty line, but the poverty rate is rising in most other developing regions. And the news today is that 700,000 children in the United States go to bed hungry. Yet there are people in the world living large even within a global economic crisis. Further, when we understand that, according to the World Health Organization, violence may be understood as a health issue with risk and preventive factors, and that one risk factor for violence is not poverty but income disparity, the work to address this problem becomes imperative for the health of the world.
I have been thinking about libertarian and communitarian solutions to the problem. What could individuals do of their own free will to solve this problem in their communities? What could religious communities do? I have been thinking about whether the logic of the tithe could apply to nations giving development assistance to poor nations. The issue is complicated: transparency, grants or loans, how to avoid creating dependency, how to avoid creating kleptocracies. Moreover, how could one even make an argument for giving one tenth of a nation’s budget away when now it gives less than one percent, when the budget is strained to provide the entitlements already promised to its own citizens? And then there is the current economic crisis. The nation is trillions of dollars in debt, and the bailout requests just keep coming.
Yet, the logic of the tithe is that if one gives the ten percent that the windows of heaven will open and pour out an overflowing blessing. This is the portion of the prophetic promise that most preachers preach when they stand up to speak about the tithe. It is standard prosperity theology. Give so God will give back to you. Thankfully, this was not the argument this deacon made at the Messiah Baptist Church on this particular Sunday. His admonition was simple, uncluttered, uncomplicated, elegant and true. “When people come here for help,” he said. “We have to have something to give them.”
This basic wisdom startled me. It was a perfect summary of biblical history, liberation theology and ethics. The tithe comes from that moment in biblical time when God required God’s people to give a tenth of their crops for the care of priests, widows, orphans and strangers in the land. There was to be food in God’s house so the hungry could come there to eat. Liberation theology– Black, Latin American and Womanist/Feminist– understands that God requires distributive justice, that God is located with the weak and with the vulnerable, the last and the least. Liberation theology reaches beyond these penultimate identities to speak a prophetic word for the care of all of the world’s poor from Appalachia to Afghanistan, from West Virginia to West Africa.
The logic of the tithe, the ethics of the tithe, constructs a value system of generosity and a more just distribution of wealth. As we decompress from a campaign that made the notion of spreading the wealth sound as if it were treason, it is important to remember that all religions require care of the poor. The separation of church and state does not allow religious laws to necessarily become the laws of the state, However, our religious understandings provide a guide for our moral reasoning, and the moral guide in this instance says the primary responsibility of societies is the care of its poorest members. Similarly, it would require the society of nations to care for its poorest members.
“When people come here for help, we have to have something to give them.” This also means that we ought to be willing to give, not necessarily out or our abundance but in the midst of our own need, not only as individuals and as communities, but as a nation to ease the pain of poverty in the world.