Baffled by Resistance, the Greedy and the Blessed, and That Time Jesus Said “You Tell Me.”

Most of you know that I wrote a piece last week about how the global Church could abolish extreme poverty to the ash bins of cosmic history if we only had the will.

Lots of people tweeted or liked or talked about or emailed me about that article, and I’ve been talking back to some of you on some rather personal levels.

In all of this, I think I’ll always be baffled by the Christians I know, rich by all global accounts, who refuse to do something as paltry as send a goat to Africa via WorldVision because they’re already giving to their local church and/or denomination. That’s like saying “I gave at the office,” isn’t it? Yes, yes it is.

If you had the means to buy one goat for one needy family or community for 70 dollars and you knew it could be done through a reputable, well-respected, transparent, Christian organization, why wouldn’t you do it, know matter how much you already gave at the office this week? Seriously. What’s the honest-to-God, good-enough-to-God answer?  There are none. And as long as we’re being honest, lets get real about some more numbers:  we all know a lot of people who could afford the $70 once or twice.  But if you’ve got the money, God has the crises.  Brings a new meaning to the old concept of  70 x 7, doesn’t it?

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

“Then Rich Christians came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how much shall I give in your name to feed and clothe and heal your children? Ten percent of of my income?’

Jesus pointed to the 17,000 children who die of hunger every day, to the billion without ready access to clean water, to the homeless, sick, and destitute. Then Jesus said ‘You tell me.’

Lord, help us.

Below is a follow-up post that should be going live on Huffington soon.

Rich, Greedy, and Blessed: God Wants to Save Us, Too
Christopher Cocca

Last week, I published a piece in this space called “Ending Poverty With Global Christianity’s Phantom Trillion,” in which I noted that the global annual income of Christians and Christian institutions worldwide exceeds $10 trillion and that a mere 10 percent of that, if given to the right kinds of direct action organizations (Christian or otherwise), could eradicate the most dangerous and preventable forms of poverty on the planet.

I’ve been very grateful for the responses I’ve received here, on Twitter and elsewhere. By and large, people in my age group (I was born in 1980) and younger are saying “amen” to idea that the time to fundamentally change the way Christians think about giving is long overdue. Folks from some of the amazing organizations I mentioned last week have tweeted or emailed their encouragement and the shared belief that we, the Church, could actually eradicate extreme global poverty if we simply had the will.

And the agreement doesn’t end with young Gen-Xers and our Gen-Y friends. Across generations, traditions, doctrinal and political differences, and other bogus barriers we so often use to keep ourselves from having to do the hard work of justice and reconciliation, many Christians understand that the time has simply come to get serious about curing the curable disease of gross inequity.

The time has simply come to say that clean water for everyone matters to us because everyone matters to God, that no child should die from mosquito bites that could have been prevented for the kind of money we don’t even bother pulling from our couches. The time has come to say that no matter what you tithe to your church or denomination, $60 to plant 10 fruit trees in a community that gravely needs them is a bargain, or that charity: water‘s $12 economic impact for every dollar given is the stuff of loaves and fishes here and now.

“But Jesus said the poor will always be with us.” I’ve heard this more than once this week. It’s one of the archetypical responses from people very much concerned with the “more spiritual” ends of the church and one of our classically tragic adventures in missing the point. I don’t believe for a second that Jesus wants anything less from us than a real commitment of our time, talent and treasure toward ending the immense human suffering and accompanying evil that gross inequality and extreme poverty breed. Do you? Is this not the same Jesus who told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give his proceeds to the poor? When will comfortable Christians realize that we’re all rich young rulers? Visit Compassion International’s Who Are The Joneses project if you don’t believe me when I say that if you can afford the device and the data plan you’re using to read this, you’re probably wealthier than at least 90 percent of the world.

“But I give through my church.” I gave at the office, too. But how good is your church or your denomination at getting money to where it’s needed most? How much of your church tithe goes to administrative expenses? How much of your special offerings for specific anti-poverty projects goes to administrative expenses? How efficient are the organs of your denomination? How much do they spend to raise every dollar? Find this information. Charity Navigator provides it for groups like World Vision (it costs them 7 cents to raise a dollar), Save The Children, Compassion International, charity: water, Children International and so on. Are your churches and your denominations more transparent and efficient than these organizations? Maybe they are, but my hunch is that they aren’t. Find out.

And look, I’m not saying stop giving money to your church. That’s important. I work in a church. I get all of that. But if you’re choosing between buying a dairy goat that might mean the difference between hunger and sustainable nourishment for a family in the Horn of Africa or the Parking Lot Fund at All Saints Mainline Evangelical Tabernacle House of God, well, the choice is clear, isn’t it? Is it? (Yes.)

The truth is that many Western Christians could give a full tithe to their churches and a full second tithe toward the eradication of extreme poverty in efficient, responsible ways without losing much of our lifestyle. Isn’t it something of a scandal that so many of us can even talk about lifestyle when so many more are barely clinging to life? (Yes.) If your tithe or double tithe knock you down a peg or two in the social strata, thank your Father in heaven for the opportunity to clothe and feed and save the lives of people you will never meet in places you will never visit with names you can’t pronounce. If bringing the Kingdom of God to earth in tangible ways isn’t a priority for wealthy Christians, what the hell is?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” That’s Jesus, not Karl Marx or Nancy Pelosi. In the larger context of this quote from from the Gospel of Matthew, these things aren’t options or good ideas or lofty works. They are the brick and mortar pieces of God’s Kingdom, here and now. They are what God requires, and it’s only when I begin to think about how little we do in response that the concept of hell makes any sense to me. And it’s then I also realize the real profundity of grace, that God, in God’s stubborn Godness, wants to save us, too.

And so we have an opportunity to change the world, and an obligation. Not just we the wealthy Church, but we the mingled body of marginalized and marginalizer, we the sinners and saints, we the poor and we the poor in spirit. In the sharing of our global wealth in a global context, we find a chance for our own healing, a test of our own faithfulness, and the promise of abounding grace in the lives we touch and the lives that touch us back.

It’s almost too much, isn’t it, this concept that we will be blessed by our giving? We should do the work we’re called to because we’re called to do it, yes, but on a more basic level, we should do it because it’s right. I’m almost ashamed to say that we the wealthy can find our own strains of redemption in the sharing of our wealth when our relative greed has rendered us so basically undeserving.

But powerful as we may be, we’re thankfully not the masters of God’s economy. In God’s stubborn system, God calls us from the brink with faithful service to the people God is most concerned with serving. It’s almost absurd, isn’t it, that this grace is there for we the wealthy, too? Absurd and foolish? Yes, the Gospel in a nutshell: radical grace, radical service, radical absurdity from the vantage of political, social and economic systems that keep failing. And a radical dependence on the terms of God’s radical provision.

Lord, help us.

Keith Olbermann Just Took Me To Church or The Phantom Trillion

In the 90’s, Keith Olbermann was part of a flawless thing called SportsCenter. Even though the political commentary and overall style he’s developed since then isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, this Special Comment from the July 11th edition of Countdown is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the justice issues tied to humanity’s basic failures of compassion, empathy, and care.

“Face it,” Oblermann says, “we do not take care of one another. Not we as in progressives, not we as in Americans, not we as in the West. We as in a species.”

If we’re being honest, we know that Olbermann is right. And even though he’s not saying anything particularly new, the bluntness of the charge is just a little jarring, even in the context of waning hope in hoped-for change. We, the People, do not take care of one another. It’s no wonder that They, our leaders, do no better.

And what about another set of “we’s?” We the stewards of the planet,we the image-bearers of God? What about we who believe loftly things about the the Holy? For Christians, what about that we called the Body of Christ? I read a ten-year old stat estimating the global income of organized Christianity (churches, denominations, and parachurch ministries) hovers around $270 billion annually. I’ve read elsewhere that the yearly global income for Christian individuals (the compensation they get from having jobs) is $10 trillion. Extend the tradition of a 10 percent tithe from each of these groups toward eradicating poverty, and you’d do it in a year. We’re talking about $1,027,000,000,000. Don’t know what $1 trillion can buy? Look here and here. One Trillion Dollars can purchase all the homes that foreclosed in 2007 and 2008 or pay the rent for every US renter for 3 years. Universal preschool for all American 3 and 4 year olds? No problem! That only costs $35 billion. American Christians could pay that themselves.

But my 1 trillion number (see Ron Sider’s Rich Christians In an Age of Hunger) represents a global tithe, so let’s consider global implications. According to VisualEconomics, access to clean water for everyone on the planet now without it only costs $8.84 billion. That’s with a B. Christendom has $1 trillion, with a T, to play with every year. Clean water, then? Fine. What, Christians? You want to sponsor a million kids through Children International for a year? That’s just south of $300 million (with an M). No problem, Church! One new home at $175,000 a pop for each one lost in Katrina? You’re thinking bigger, but that’s only $48 billion. You’ve got $1 trillion and change to spend every year (plus the other $9 trillion you’ll use for basic needs, creature comforts (in developed countries), and, in some contexts, unprincipled extravagance). You could feed everyone, clothe everyone, give everyone access to water, heal the land, clean the water, and clean the air in perpetuity. Talk about an endowment. Oh, and you could send kids to school, heal diseases, and bring animals back from the brink of extinction. You could (and would) eliminate the root causes of war. Or you could keep trusting the bulk of the money you give away (via taxes) to people who keep finding new reasons to make war so vital.

The Church could end poverty, scarcity, sickness, and famine without a dime from the rest of the world. Obviously, that doesn’t mean it should do so by some centralized economic fiat. The last thing anyone needs is a megalith, even one as diverse and nuanced the global church really is, setting this kind of agenda. Noting that the Church could foot the bill for the saving of the planet doesn’t mean that the Church is otherwise equipped to do so, and it doesn’t even mean that something called “the Church” exists in any sort of organizationally connected way across the world. We may (and I do) believe in the mystical Body of Christ, but can you imagine the impossibility of mobilizing every Christian group under some sort of prime directive?

Then again, that’s what Jesus did by giving the Great Commission and promising the Holy Spirit. Perhaps if all Christians understood the economic power they possess and the practical implications of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, this phantom trillion would find its way to points of need. Perhaps if the Church was busy consciously investing even 10 percent of its annual income to overcome the systems that breed injustice, hate, and other things we still call sin, Jesus’ talk of the Kingdom of God being here even now would make a hell of a lot more practical sense.

Brennan Manning has said that one of the biggest causes of atheism with reference to Christianity are “Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That,” Manning says, “is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” I’d go even further and suggest that the conformity of so many Christians to the status-values of consumption, possession, and unsustainability is also one of the biggest enablers of global scarcity and the atrocities that come with it. Faced with the kind of evil that flourishes where hope and charity do not, perhaps the oft-repeated “Where is God in this?” isn’t quite the question. Consider this instead: “Oh, God, where are the Christians? Where were the fraction of their resources that could have stopped this in the first place?”

Yes, I’m claiming scandal as a member of the movement. I’m appealing to classic Christian expectations of ourselves. I’m not saying the Church must act because all other faiths or governments have failed. I’m saying the Church must act because it has failed to be the Church. We’re good at giving time and talent, but what is it about the way we’ve spent our treasure that allows inequity and scarcity to run and reign so freely? Do we have a misplaced trust in the structures of church government and Christian organizations? Or are we, paraphrasing Jesus, seeing where our hearts don’t lie in the faces of all those who will die before this post is finished because we’ve finally let them?

Help us, Lord.

Yes, much of the phantom trillion gets used in responsible ways by good people towards precisely the things I’m talking about. But what if global Christianity were led from the margins (even as Jesus led)? What if we recast the idea of tithe as a fraction of our treasure given back to God in the world and not our institutions? What if we empowered charity: water to complete its mission? The enraging thing about that proposition is that we could really do it. And we aren’t. Not in intentional, global ways. Often not with the recognition that the outright care of other people is the Gospel. What if we helped WorldVision, Compassion International and other groups with scant administrative footprints put themselves out of business? Nothing would make them happier! What if we used our economic clout to be a global force against genocide in Darfur and Burma? What if we empowered local Christians and other people of good will already working in those places in system-changing ways? And what if the Holy Spirit helped us?
Even without a moratorium on traditional patterns of giving, and even recognizing that our poorest sisters and brothers can’t often give something as concrete as money, the rich Christians in the industrial world could raise a second trillion every year without denying themselves or their churches very much of anything. So far, we haven’t, and that’s the even greater greater scandal.

Help us, Lord.

Ash Wednesday and the Value of Tradition

painted cross on iron grate

Today marks the beginning of the forty-day Christian liturgical season known as Lent, a time of reflection, contemplation, and perhaps even sacrifice in preparation for the coming of the Holy Week that culminates in the celebration of Christ’s Easter resurrection. Throughout the world on Wednesday, Christians from across denominations and traditions will make themselves known through the imposition of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, small but conspicuous statements about their spiritual identities and, I suspect, their most pressing hopes.

We know from Tolkien that not all who wander are lost. The inverse, of course, is also true. Not all who find themselves moved to religious ritual are finished seeking. Most aren’t, even as many of us wander in and through various religious orbits, spiritual practices, and times of communion and estrangement from God and from each other. Those who will bear the mark of Christ’s cross on Ash Wednesday do so for different, even disparate reasons. Some will wear it as a proud (and I don’t mean prideful) badge, a faithful, even kerygmatic public statement. Some  receive the ashes and the Wednesday blessing because of the long pull of tradition. Others are compelled to it by a desire for that same pull and the hope that God might meet us in it. Not all, and perhaps not even many, who wander are lost. Not all who wear ashes are cradle Christians or Christian converts. Not all who take pause on Ash Wednesday will go on to observe a Christian Lent. Not all who hope for Easter’s promise necessarily believe it. Not all who want to feel able. But I do believe, somehow, that all who seek God will find.

I’ve never been much of an Ash-wearer, but I became one last year when confronted with the thousands-fold witness of marked heads on the subway. It was not so much the numbers themselves, but the odd occurrences: every other person in the long corridors beneath Time Square, every fourth or fifth on the 3, a small group walking towards me as I surfaced to street level. If a sacrament is, as theologians are fond of saying, a visible sign of an invisible truth, these pilgrims were sacraments for me. Their willingness to be marked as believers or seekers, and, in either case,  people needing something, made me willing, too. Going up the wrong flight of stairs at 14th Street Station and hitting the street at the Church of the Village meant I was greeted with a sign proclaiming Imposition. So then there I was, and there, it seemed, was God. I received ashes and a blessing, a charge to repent, believe, and live. In short, I was moved, felt something, lost my bearings. I didn’t know which way to walk when I came back out to the street. I believe I had a profound, even mystical experience, not because I succumbed to a ritual I’d never valued, but because I believe God uses what God can to meet us where we are. For me, a provisional-at-best Christian, a seminary grad burned out on church and religion, it was the totally new experience of ashes, of anointing prayer and blessing. It was whatever God said to my spirit while the bishop spoke to me.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself much more interested in the mystical Christian traditions than ever before, and needing them. I’ve felt more at home around ritual and process so long as I approach them from humility and from the recognition that God is always bigger than the things we do and that when God meets us in those things, it’s because God is God, not because we’ve done religious work God deems cosmically essential.  But it’s also true that our drive to meet God in places carved out by tradition echos something cosmically essential: an understanding that we want and need the mystical, the holy; a hope that God will meet us wherever it is we seek to find.

This Ash Wednesday, I am reminded that the power of Christian ritual has absolutely nothing to do with it being set down by patriarchs with apostolic authority or some other contrived historiography that super-values the existential (and perhaps compulsive) needs of long-dead saints.  For me, our rituals, like our stories, are opportunities to embrace the basic Christian claim: the in-breaking of God at every turn, the furious longing on God’s part for time and eternity with us.