With Charity for All, Part 9: Generosity

“Mine” is not part of the mature Christian vocabulary, nor is it a virtue that manifests itself in God’s economy. It belongs to the language of infancy in terms of psychological human development. Erik Erickson described human development as moving from the preoccupation with identity at the youngest stages to generativity at its oldest. In economic theory, it belongs to the language of capitalism wherein all citizens in an economic market are self-interested consumers. What’s “mine” is mine, and what’s “yours” is yours … and we both have received what we have both earned. At its worst, the handbook of psychological disorders calls a preoccupation with “me, my and mine” narcissism. Immaturity. Selfishness. Narcisism. Not exactly words to live by, especially in God’s economy where generosity, love of neighbor and sacrifice are hailed as virtues of a cross-shaped life.

But these are all descriptions of a life lived by the “me, my, mine” philosophy, and it is this same philosophy that I hear touted over and over again in Christian circles as the underlying foundation of their economic principles. “The government should keep its hands off of my money.” “Don’t tax my property.” “Hands off of my health care.” And my favorite, for humorous reasons, “Keep the government’s hands out of my Medicare.”

The assumption behind such admonishments is that health care, money and property all belong entirely to the individual so that we can declare it “mine” or “ours.” It is easy to believe this. At a most fundamental level, this philosophy is part of our human nature because ownership brings us a measure of self-worth and perhaps even a false sense of self-importance. Owning a certain kind of car, a vacation home in the mountains or a home in a prestigious neighborhood can even advance our place in society. And besides, we got there. We worked hard. So why can’t everyone else? But the philosophy of “mine” also is easy to adopt because it seems logical that what I have in my possession is mine. I receive a payroll check by direct deposit from my clients or employer, and it becomes “my money.” The deed at the courthouse says that my home and the property it is on belongs to me, so it is “my house.”In other words, we buy into the assumption, no pun intended, that what we possess should determine who owns it.

But what if that’s not true in God’s economic system? What if there is no such thing as “mine” in the economy of God’s Kingdom? Most of us Christians tend to dismiss these Scriptures as descriptions of an ideal Kingdom world but not fit for my barely getting by budget. We want to live by Kingdom principles, but we revert to capitalistic principles when it comes down to how we actually budget and spend our money. And if we are not careful, we allow Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh to stir up our passions over taxes so that we somehow feel that we have been robbed of what is ours, and that the government is the thief. Even some Christians then make it their overwhelming passion to “get back” what was theirs, or to so constrain the government so that it has no power to tax them. There are certainly worthy debates to be had about the role and size of government. But I cannot understand how someone who claims to live in a Kingdom where all belongs to God, and all is going to God, can wake up every day angry because the government or someone has taken what is “mine.” As my dad says, “That kind of thinking is not the way Jesus thinks.” It’s just impossible to live passionately for the blessing of the world with all that you have if you are spending all of your emotional and mental energy trying to defeat those who are taking your money.  Perhaps the government is taking something it doesn’t deserve. Disciples make their arguments peacefully, and then live lightly without an overriding preoccupation with saving what is our own.

Those who want to live in God’s Kingdom on Sunday but are selfish with their charity and overly concerned with the undeserving on Monday may need to read the Gospels again (and let’s not even mention the Prophets). The “mine” mentality is a problem for those who claim Christian faith as their own because Sermon on the Mount Christianity also impacts our acquisition and use of money. It makes demands on all of us, including what we possess and how we use what we possess.

First, let me make one clarification. I do not believe that the affirmation that all that I possess is not my own exclusively is tantamount to saying that that all that I possess belongs to the government. To affirm this would be to accept the essential fundamentals of socialism, whereby the means of production and distribution are controlled by the state for equal distribution to all, or communism, whereby the means of production and distribution are owned by the state for its own ends. I do not accept those economic systems because they do tend to place too much power in the hands of government and take away individual and community initiative. My suggestion is a more radical one, but a much more relational one shaped by Good Samaritan principles. Everything that I possess does not belong to me. Neither does it belong to the state. It belongs to us — to us individually and to us as neighbors in communities and the global village.

But why do I suggest that everything that I possess is not “mine?”  Scripture teaches us that what we have never belonged to us in the first place. It came from God, and it is given to us to bless the world. Not just my neighbor. Not just the homeless ministry at the church. But the world. Therefore, Christians who operate by this principle should take great delight in both writing a check to a needy unemployed neighbor, to World Vision or to the Internal Revenue Service. Now granted, the first two are much more satisfying because we experience the joys of charity and the blessings of generosity when we share in the life of the recipient of our generosity. That is why generosity should first and always be relational. But this does not exclude a role for government to play in distributing our gifts to its Treasury. There are certain means of compassion that are most efficiently and equally handled by government agents and programs, and it is not logical to assume that such agents and programs are wasteful just because we do not experience the results of our gifts as taxes as we do when we provide gifts as charity. We should be able to find some satisfaction in knowing that strangers that we do not know will receive nutrition, rescue, food, shelter or health care. Why do I need to know each person or control every expenditure? Generosity takes many forms, and government that operates on behalf of us, and within its limits, is one worthy recipient of our generosity just as a charity or a church. As a matter of course, Christians should be the last people in America to complain about taxes. Scripture has two mandates when it comes to taxes: Pay them, and be quiet. This is not because we are unthinking door mats for an unweildy goverment. It is rather a matter of where we put our emphasis and how we are perceived in the world. Quiet and peaceable Christians who work for the good of leaders and institutions are much more able to be salt and light than those who make it their vocation to complain and criticize. We should be the first people to work for the good of the governments and their leaders who use these taxes for the good of us all.

We Americans have had a love-hate relationship with government from our beginnings. But we must distinguish between a tyrannical state and one that asks us to pay taxes to ensure a healthy and decent society for all of us. Public libraries, roads, food safety, a clean environment, fire stations, law enforcement, and security are hallmarks of a thriving and decent society, and tax dollars are how we provide these services. I am not suggesting that Christians must campaign for big government programs, but we should be unapologetic defenders of the public life and those institutions that nurture and protect that life. What if Christian ministers highlighted effective public servants and efficient government programs rather than leading the crusade for their demise?

Some wealthy Christians are annoyed as well by taxes that are redistributed to others because they feel that they could grow their own business and employ more workers if they were not taxed so much. But as the tax burden falls more less on the wealthy and more on to the middle and poorer classes, they become less able to purchase the goods and services that makes the wealthy person thrive in the first place. In other words, the wealthy need to understand that a more equalized distribution of the resource of society is for their benefit. It is the middle class and the poor who consume more goods that the wealthy owners and managers create and distribute, so it seems that generosity is even in the self-interest of those who possess.

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