Dear White People,
Apparently it’s the fashion to address you (us) corporately at the moment. There are even movies about it! But I fibbed a little; my note is actually addressed to other white people who happen to be Christians, and more specifically to those white Christians who threw up when the grand jury findings in Ferguson were announced this week. I know I threw up. I was mad. I am mad. I even went to a couple protests, which is unlike me (crippling social anxiety) and probably not much help (I make any crowd look 36% less militant just by standing there with my Oh-that’s-a-very-interesting-point-you-just-made facial expressions).
So, anyway. Hello, white Christians. While I’m writing you, isn’t it strange that I can even say that, “white Christians,” as if we’re a determinable and delimited social grouping (and we totally are), when we supposedly work for a guy who sort of frowned on that? I’m not going to say that we’re all each personally equally responsible for that, but it bears some thinking about, anyway.
But that’s a digression. I’m actually going to talk about tithing. Which is perhaps the one topic more taboo in many Christian communities than racism.
One of the most spiritually inspiring books I’ve ever read was a work of fairly (though not gratuitously) dry sociology. It was called Passing the Plate, and it examined a very simple empirical question: Do American Christians tithe? If not, why not?
The answer to that question was not the inspiring part. In fact, Passing the Plate had little but bad news to bring on that subject. (One in four American Christians doesn’t give a solitary dime to church or charity in a given year.) The inspiring part came at the beginning of the book, when the three authors ran some projections on what kind of money would be made available, to all manner of worthy causes, if Christians (self-identified as “serious”) who can afford to tithe were to actually do so. (Their cut-off for “affording to tithe” was, IIRC, fairly lavish.) As of 2008, this modest, incremental change in peoples’ habits would have freed up $85.5 billion for dogooding per year. From this initial estimate, the authors project an utterly transformed world: one million new clean-water projects; polio and malaria nearly eradicated, everywhere; food, clothing, and shelter provided to every refugee then alive in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; five hundred new prison ministries... The authors went on in this manner for several pages, and by the end still hadn’t spent all the money.
Truly, the Kingdom of God is within you.
I don’t know why this book (or at least a careful curation of its best factoids) hasn’t become a part of every pastor or Sunday school teacher’s standard repertoire. It made me want to tithe. It made me want to sell my almost-complete collection of n+1s to a book dealer and give the money to Oxfam.
Today, as my minister pointed to some of the good work being done by black churches in Ferguson, MO, to assist a freshly insulted and grieving community, I thought of this book again. I thought, What if white Christians tithed? And then: What if we tithed, in part, to those churches, or churches like them?
The idea won’t quite leave me alone, so I’m throwing it out here. What if every white person who considers him- or her- (or, since this is the ’90s, zim-)selves a serious Christian were to make a slightly more serious attempt to practice one of the most basic of Christian duties? For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s be a lot more pessimistic than the authors of Passing the Plate, who assumed ten percent giving for everyone above a certain cutoff. Let’s halve that, because if every middle-class-and-above American Christian gave five percent, that would still represent a world-shaking improvement. From the article linked above:
“Americans who earn less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to religious organizations,” Smith, Emerson, and Snell write, “whereas those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent.” While the actual percentages are slightly higher for Christians who regularly attend church, the pattern is similar. Households of committed Christians making less than $12,500 per year give away roughly 7 percent of their income, a figure no other income bracket beats until incomes rise above $90,000 (they give away 8.8 percent).
I bet most of us can beat 1.2 percent. I bet we can do five. That’s about where my family is at, frankly, because, as the authors of Passing the Plate acknowledge, most middle-class and rich American Christians are up to our eyeballs in debt, so that our month-to-month fixed costs gobble up quite a bit. So, five percent. It’s a slovenly standard, but, collectively, I’m pretty sure we can meet it.
What if white Christians were to do that, and then give half of that five percent, no strings attached, to a black church?
It shouldn’t be hard to find one. As our friends at the Pew Research Center put it, “African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life.” And most of that religiosity takes Christian forms: the same study finds that 78% of African Americans call themselves Protestant, for example. The people worst-served by Caesar are understandably eager to grant divinity to someone whose cops don’t murder their children.
Now, of course, when I say this, I don’t mean to make some sort of blanket endorsement of black Christianity in America. As many cultural critics, black and white, have pointed out, the black church certainly has its issues with prosperity theology, homophobia, vindictive afterlife revenge fantasies, and personal behavior indistinguishable from the nonchurched world.
(Yes, every single one of those links leads you to something that pertains to white people. Womp-womp. I don’t feel like being subtle today.)
So in other words black churches are exactly like white churches, except that they’re working from far smaller resources (e.g.) to minister to people who, in addition to coping with life, must also cope with racism. I.e., with the cops murdering them and getting away with it. If Michael Brown didn’t prove that to you, then we can talk about twelve-year-old, armed-with-a-toy-gun Tamir Rice. Or, closer to (my) home, we can talk about Aura Rosser.
So that’s what I’m going to do, or try to do: increase my tithe and then split it with a church that ministers to the kinds of people the cops get away with murdering. Those of you who read my blog regularly know what “resolution” means coming from me. “I’m definitely gonna finish my novel in 2012.” “I’m gonna just work my way through the library shelf by shelf.” Oh well. I will do the best I can.
I point out the likely weakness of this public declaration partly to embarrass myself into actually carrying it out, and partly to take some of the air of what otherwise may sound like pompous moralizing. I hate how much this post probably sounds like A White Guy Saying Hard Things About Race, because that usually means that he’s simply using black people to call attention to his moral virtue. Don’t look at my moral virtue. I don’t have hardly any. I know the world is miserable and I blow money on recorded discs of a cheaply-made BBC sci-fi show that I can watch for free on YouTube. I am not so great.
And it’s harder than it should be to tithe. One of the points made in Passing the Plate is that that difficulty doesn’t always have to do with garden-variety selfishness. Being middle class at all these days means that debt conquers so much of your attention, so much of the basic shape of your worldview, that you can’t even see past it. (That’s one reason why the poor are more generous, across study after study. They’re not given as much credit to manage. And they haven’t had the chance for the pains of poverty to become less real to them than the social consequences, mostly comparatively minor, that come with defaulting on your mortgage. When I was twenty and my dad was sanding parts for a living and I lived among crackheads not to be “edgy” but because it was where I could live, I was terribly generous, to the point where sometimes I lacked rent because I had given all my money to a guy whose child, he insisted, had “scarlet fever.” I was a soft touch.) It will take some personal discipline and restraint for me to just get to five percent. I’ll probably fuck it up. I do that. But I’m going to try.
I was originally going to wrap up this post with a list of some of the churches in Ferguson that have attracted media attention for their good work. But the more-helpful, less-grandiose way of doing this would probably be for everybody to find someplace closer to home. It’s not like you can’t find similar problems in your city. And if you don’t like my racial angle here, then find yourself one of those working-class rural mostly-white parishes where they can’t even afford a regular celebration of the Eucharist and throw them a half-tithe. Our country is literally suffering from an unequal distribution of Christ’s body and blood.
I guess there’s nothing more to say than that, really.