Power, Abuse, Leadership, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. by Tony Sundermeier, lead pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, PA.
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
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.
Ed Koch has a very interesting piece up on RealClearPolitics. I’m not going to get into the Israel-Palestine debate in this post, but I did want to point out Koch’s religious eclecticism on matters of the hereafter. I’m not in the business of opining on the eternal fate of people, but I do sympathize with the religious and legislative impulse behind Koch’s placement of FDR in the not-quite-sweet by and by. Certainly, it feels icky when civic leaders speculate about these kinds of things. On the other hand, like the Sinead O’Connor piece I posted yesterday, Koch’s essay captures a public figure in raw struggles around faith, life, death, justice, and forgiveness. You need to know, before reading the excerpt below, that Koch has just described newly-found evidence of FDR’s less than progressive attitude toward the fate of Jewish professionals living in a newly liberated North Africa following World War II. I’ll also mention that I remember learning about FDR’s rather crass sentiments toward the Jewish members of his own administration in high school. Yes, I went to high school in the 90’s, but I doubt this was a case of revisionism. On to Koch:
I appreciate FDR’s contributions to the survival of our country. At the same time, I have never forgiven him for his refusal to grant haven to the 937 Jewish passengers on the SS St. Louis, who after fleeing Nazi Germany had been turned away from Cuba and hovered off the coast of Florida. The passengers were returned to Europe, and many were ultimately murdered in the Nazi concentration camps before World War II ended. I have said that I believe he is not in heaven, but in purgatory, being punished for his abandonment of the Jews. The concept of purgatory is Catholic. I am a secular Jew, but I am a believer in God and the hereafter, and I like this Catholic concept. The Casablanca document reinforces my conviction that President Roosevelt was, at heart, not particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.
I’m not sharing this piece to stir up a big debate about FDR’s eternal reward. But I am very interested in and sympathetic to the way Koch rather nonchalantly identifies himself religiously in the excerpt above. “The concept of purgatory is Catholic. I am a secular Jew, but I am a believer in God and the hereafter, and I like this Catholic concept.” Period. I don’t relish the thought of anyone being stuck in purgatory, but I love Koch’s honesty about spiritual beliefs he has chosen, some informed, indelibly, by his inherited Jewishness, others by the pluralistic settings of successive communities and constituencies.
Here and there, I’ve described myself as an eclectic or even provisional Christian. Even though I am a protestant, traditions from across the wider Christian experience appeal to me in various ways, as does a whole lot of secular philosophy. This sort of up-front religious navigation strikes me as honest and compelling in ways that weren’t readily accessible to the pilgrims of other eras.
Sinéad O’Connor has a moving piece up at The Huffington Post. Please read it.
UPDATE: I just said this below in the comments but it really does bear saying here: I should say that I’m one of these typically low-church protestant types, but that I find much to love in the contemplative traditions of the Catholic Church and other Christian communities. I hope my posting of this piece doesn’t come across as anti-Catholic by any stretch. I was just very moved by it, and impressed with its cogency. A far cry, indeed, from what was done on SNL all those years ago.