Lent: Giving Out, not just Giving Up

Lent isn’t just for Catholics anymore. It seems like every year I hear even self-described nonreligious friends musing about what to give up for Lent. Check out the 100 top choices people made last year according to their Twitter feeds.  It’s an interesting mix, from the sarcastic (“virginity” or “Christianity”) to the sublime (“smoking” or “negativity”).

The point of today’s Ash Wednesday post is not to add yet another suggestion to this list. I figure if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already considered what to give up this year. Instead I want to simply propose that Lent is not just about “giving up” but “giving out” too.  If you’re giving up Starbucks for Lent, why not calculate the amount you would have spent on your morning java and give that to the poor on Easter? If you’re giving up Facebook or Pinterest or ESPN.com, why not invest the time you would have spent surfing learning about poverty and injustice–and then give to the cause that most inspired you?

Best of all, why not supersize Lent by gathering a few friends together in order to “give up” and “give out” together? My favorite story of Lent-in-community remains my 8 friends  who one year “gave up” all drinks except tap water and creatively raised more than $40k to fund clean water wells in Haiti. This year they’re doing it again, except now they’re going for $100k!

My goals for Lent this year are more modest. Since we recently moved to a new city, we don’t yet have a small group of friends with whom we can grow in economic discipleship. Even though I blog and think and speak about this stuff all the time, I am not regularly gathering with anyone to support each other in living simply for the sake of giving generously. I’m in that stage of transition where I still don’t really have local friends I can go to a baseball game with, let alone talk about the challenging issues of living a just economic lifestyle. So this Lent, all I’m hoping for is to find a couple friends to form a Giving Group that meets 4 times a year.

If you’re doing any “giving out” this year, please comment! (And if you are doing a Lazarus at the Gate group, I’d especially love to hear about it.) I always find it very encouraging to hear what creative steps of faith groups of friends are taking. May you have a holy Ash Wednesday!

Effective Giving: Emmanuel Ministries Calcutta

One of the biggest obstacles to effective giving to the global poor is simply lack of data.  In traditional investing, even those of us who know nothing about finance have access to scores of mutual funds that pick the “best” stocks for us and package them in a portfolio that minimizes our risk. And of course there is always the most basic feedback loop of all: the bottom line. Your investments either go up or they go down.

But if your goal is make investments that reduce poverty for others, things are not quite so simple. In this case our data points are typically limited to what organizations tell us about themselves through their appeal letters, websites and marketing campaigns. There are few independent evaluators of organizations that tackle poverty to help us choose where to invest (givewell.org is one excellent exception—look for an upcoming blog post on them.) This lack of data is even more pronounced when it comes to social entrepreneurs who work within newer or smaller organizations—many of whom are doing exciting, effective work, as I wrote in my last post.

What we need much more of is a kind Rottentomatoes for relief and development organizations. So what follows is one Yelp-style review of an exciting organization we supported this Christmas.

I recently spent some time in Kolkata, India getting to know various organizations that work with the poorest of the poor. I was especially impressed with Emmanuel Ministries, which is right down the street from the headquarters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Founded in 1971 by social entrepreneurs Vijayan and Premila Pavamani, they work to empower street children, addicts, the unemployed, and slum dwellers, all of which you can read about on their website. Here’s why I was impressed by them:

  • As I talked to their leadership and staff, they all articulated a holistic approach to their work which integrated a deeply Christian worldview with a sophisticated grasp of recent scholarship in community organizing, vocational training, addiction recovery, etc.
  • Several acquaintances in InterVarsity and Word Made Flesh with experience in Kolkata spoke very highly of Emmanuel and their reputation in the community, as did leaders from local churches and other NGOs. They have worked successfully with organizations I respect like TEAR fund and Compassion International.
  • I was especially impressed by my visit to their Christian school, Calcutta Emmanuel School. Uniquely, its students come from among the poorest families in Kolkata, but the school has achieved India’s highest accreditation standards. The principal and other school leaders claim that nearly 100% of graduates go on to college. I talked to more than ten high school students and indeed, they all had detailed plans for their college careers.

If you have any knowledge of Emmanuel Ministries, please add your thoughts below.

Effective Giving: Social Entrepreneurs

The holidays are finally over. Yesterday Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) brought an end to the twelve days of Christmas. We decided to really go for it this year, giving little presents to our kids most every day of the mini-season. (Bonus: the stream of stuff really helped to alleviate school vacation boredom.)  But according to family tradition, on Christmas Day we gave not to each other but to Jesus, since it was His birthday. This year we chose to fund social entrepreneurs whose organizations serve the poorest of the poor, which we explained to the kids are just the kind of presents Jesus most wants (Matt 25:31-40).

Why social entrepreneurs? In recent years foundations and philanthropists have emphasized investing in promising local startup NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in order to help them scale up. Just as business entrepreneurs have changed the marketplace through innovation, social entrepreneurs around the world have combined their creativity, commitment, and knowledge of local culture to more effectively impact those who experience poverty and injustice in their communities. Perhaps the best introduction to this phenomenon is David Bornstein’s How to Change the World, which tells the stories of social entrepreneurs who tackled issues like electrification in rural Brazil, home-based AIDS care in South Africa, and empowerment of street children in Indian megacities. Many economists claim that local organizations are often more effective and efficient than bureaucratic government programs or bloated international agencies with offices in Geneva.

However, as is the case in for-profit investing, the problem is figuring out who to fund. India alone as over a million locally founded NGOs.  Until relatively recently, we’ve given primarily to large, established, international organizations simply because I don’t know how to find smaller, local NGOs that I’m confident are effective. But this year we found that the three organizations we’ve been most excited about supporting are all in the social entrepreneur category.  My next couple blog posts will profile them. I hope they serve as a mini-How to Change the World, helping us give more effectively in this new year.  How about you? Do you prefer giving to the Fortune 500 of poverty relief, or smaller start-ups? Why?

Engineering clean water

When I lived in inner city Oakland, I loved the way folks in our church community could use their careers and professions to serve their neighbors. Teachers, social workers, medical professionals, programmers, attorneys, etc., all found ways to use their skills and background to work with those around them.

Now that I live in Guatemala, doing community development in a small rural community, I love seeing how engineering can radically alter an entire community’s existence. One of the engineers on staff builds water filters out of cement, fills them with three layers of sand, inserts a plastic tube, and voila: contaminated water goes in, 99.9% pure water comes out. I’d explain how this ridiculously simple concept works, but being a social worker, I’ll just post this image:

It works, it’s simple, and it saves lives. It’s estimated that water-borne illnesses account for 1.8 million deaths every year1. These water filters also prevent illness, reducing absenteeism from work for parents and from school for kids. I love being a social worker, but I’m so grateful for engineers’ creative use of their gifts to love their neighbor.

This two-minute video features the community leader where I work demonstrating the use of the filter:

This Lenten season, although I wish I could drink the tapwater here, I’m so grateful I don’t have to hike up the hill like Judith and all her fellow residents do every day. Cheers!

1. World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/burden/en/index.html

Tap Water Tuesday

People come to Costa Rica for its tranquil beaches, stunning volcanoes, and wildly diverse plants and animals.  But my favorite thing about living here is the water.  You see, other times I’ve lived overseas, accidental imbibing of tap water has inevitably led to bouts of writhing in pain on my bed for hours, accompanied by other unpleasant and unmentionable symptoms.  But here I haven’t gotten sick even once in three years. I don’t even think about it.  It’s wonderful.

But today, on Tap Water Tuesday, I wanted to find out if Costa Rican water could pass a more stringent test: the taste test.   Every Tuesday in Lent we’ll be discussing various aspects of clean water, one of the most important topics in global justice today. There are many health, environmental and economic reasons to prefer tap water to bottled water (to be discussed in later posts), yet many people pass up the tap because of taste.   So for lunch today I got my family together for a blind taste test.

We had three candidates:

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Coca Cola’s bottled water Alpina, sold throughout Central America at about $2 a liter. (A liter of gas is $1.20 a liter.)

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Fiji, which is the Rolls Royce of H2O at $3 a liter.  According to the label, it was bottled at a spring in Fiji “preserved and protected by one of the last virgin ecosystems on earth”

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Straight tap water, prepared according to the advice of Megan Z, Simple Living Challenge participant and scientist:  We ran the tap a bit to get fresh water that hadn’t been sitting in the pipes (waiting until the water ran cold.)  Then we collected it in a pitcher & waited a bit because the water naturally dechlorinates when it sits out (you want the chlorine to kill germs in treatment & as the water gets to your house, but it’s not so tasty.)

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We chilled each candidate to the same temperature and placed them in wine glasses.  We included a fourth glass of tap water just to see if we could tell the difference between two identical water specimens.  Here are the results: utter confusion.  Isaiah liked the Fiji best, but the Alpina worst.  Camila rated identical glasses of tap water the best and worst.  Jodi preferred, in order, Alpina, then tap water, then Fiji, then tap water.  I liked tap water best, then Fiji, then Alpina.  None of us correctly identified the identical glasses of tap water.  So according to our taste buds, water that costs almost three times the price of gasoline was indistinguishable from decidedly unsexy tap water.

Perhaps we’re just water philistines with undeveloped palates, but I doubt our experience is that unique.  Many studies have shown that our perceived taste preferences are often due to packaging, marketing and the desire to feel sophisticated rather than objective reality.  But why not find out for yourself before you spend another dime on bottled water?  Have your own blind taste test with friends or family–perhaps even a prize for whoever can guess correctly.  We’d love to hear your results if you do….

Happy Tap Water Tuesday!

How Much Should Christians Give: a Tithe?

This is the second in a series of posts considering if it is possible to quantify how much Christians should give.

When I was a new convert, my church gave me a simple, straightforward answer to the question of how much I should give.  Unlike the IRS, God’s demands were clear:  10% to my local church.  Furthermore, if I was faithful to pay this Divine Flat Tax, abundant blessings, financial and otherwise, were sure to come my way.

My experience is not unique.  Tithing to one’s place of worship “because the Bible says so” is the cornerstone of many pastors’ teaching on financial stewardship.  While I deeply appreciate leaders who are willing to tackle the challenging issue of money, I no longer believe the discussion ends with the tithe.  To see why, let’s begin with an “executive summary” of the biblical teaching about tithing.  Most scholars agree that in the Old Testament not just one but three tithes were required:

  • The first tithe was intended to support the Levites, who led Israel in worship.  The tribe of Levi did not receive any land on which to farm, so they were dependent on these levies of fruits, veggies, and livestock for their livelihood.
  • The second tithe paid for a massive annual party at which everyone celebrated God’s goodness by eating and drinking heavily.  Amen to that.
  • The third tithe, given only every third year, funded a nationwide feeding program for immigrants, orphans, widows, and Levites.

This added up to 23.3% of each family’s annual income!  But that’s not all.  In addition to tithes, farmers were supposed to leave for the poor any grain their harvesters dropped and everything on the edges of their fields.  Loans were to be offered interest free.  And every seven years, slaves were set free and all debts cancelled.  Every fifty years, all land reverted back to poor families who had lost it.  Finally, everyone paid a small additional temple tax.  These clearly quantifiable ethical standards assured that ministers got paid, people recognized God as their provider, and the poor had a social safety net.

How should followers of Jesus today apply all this?  If we wanted to faithfully follow the Old Testament’s instructions for giving, we’d need to figure out how all these taxes, tithes, and laws should be applied in a non-theocratic society with no centralized temple, animal sacrifices, or hereditary priestly class making up approximately 1/12 of the population.  Certainly we can learn from God’s concern that everyone do their part and that the poor be cared for, but the resulting standard will certainly not be as simple as 10% in the offering plate!  In fact, since most of us attend congregations with other rich people like us, tithing to our local church actually exacerbates inequalities within the global Christian family-the wealthy’s tithes fund megachurch buildings, comfortable seating, professional sound systems and gymnasiums, while poor churches worship under a tree with unpaid pastors.

But even aside from these complications, the Old Testament is often not binding on us in a straightforward way.  Sometimes Jesus specifically overturns aspects of the Law, such as animal sacrifice, food prohibitions or purity laws.  Aren’t you glad that cotton/polyester blend t-shirts are no longer an abomination to the Lord?  Other times Jesus radicalizes teaching from the Torah, as in his commands to avoid not just murder and adultery, but hateful speech and lust too.  I think Jesus’ attitude towards giving fits into this category.  The New Testament directly speaks about tithing only once: Jesus affirms it for the Pharisees but calls them to a deeper commitment to justice and mercy.  And the rest of Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching on giving is even more radical than the tithe.  According to Randy Alcorn,

Every New Testament example of giving goes beyond the tithe. This means none falls short of it.

So in the end, I think the Old Testament offers us a model society in which giving is central and obligatory, but no nice round numbers to definitely quantify our level of “just giving.”  Perhaps we should view the tithe as a sort of “minimum standard” which God’s grace enables us to joyfully exceed, but I’ll wait to say more until my next post on the New Testament.

What do you think?  How do you use the Old Testament as a guide to your giving, and why?

How Much Should Christians Give?

Many of the great movements for justice in Christian history have been driven by clear, unequivocal moral stands.  Think of William Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade.  Think of Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle.  Slavery is wrong.  Racism is wrong. Although they were prophetic minorities in their time, they had the advantage of a forceful, unambiguous ethical position.

However, when it comes to economic discipleship in the 21st century, things are perhaps not so straightforward.  This community of bloggers believes that God is calling wealthy people (i.e. people with access to a computer) to live simply for the sake of giving justly to the poor.  We stand for lifestyles of generous giving powered by a rejection of consumerism and relentless upward mobility.

But what does this mean?  What exactly qualifies as a “simple” lifestyle?  What degree of giving could legitimately called “just?”  How much would we have to share in order to be “generous?”  When it comes to hard numbers, what precisely is God calling us to do?  In short, how much should Christians give?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately, and in my next few posts, I’d like to invite you to explore these issues with me.  I’ll be writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, carefully considering the guidance we find in the Bible, especially the teaching of Jesus.

Nevertheless, as a way of getting into this important topic, let’s take a quick glance at the larger philosophical conversation.  Over the last 40 years, there has been an earnest and sometimes heated debate among ethicists about what the rich owe the poor as a matter of justice.  (For a wide-ranging, intellectually challenging discussion that touches on many of the broader issues involved, see this exchange following one of Ed’s book reviews.)  But in order to prevent this a blog post from becoming a philosophical tome, I just want to focus on how one important thinker has answered the question “How much should we give?”

Peter Singer is widely credited with having kicked off the debate about what justice demands the rich give to the poor.  Over the last 40 years, his basic stance has not changed:  we should spend our money wherever it will do the most good, and since saving human life is of much greater value than movies or vacations or eating out, giving to the desperately poor should take precedence over such relative luxuries.  However, when it comes to quantifying this general principle, Singer’s stance has varied greatly:

  • In his seminal 1972 article Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Singer rigorously followed through on the implications of his demanding utilitarianism.  He claimed that the rich ought to give away their money and possessions to the point where they consumed almost as few resources as the poor themselves.  In other words, as long as half the world subsists on less than $2 a day, we should live on about $3 a day and give away the rest.
  • In a 1999 New York Times op-ed, he relaxed his position a bit, arguing that any income above what is necessary for our “essential needs” be given away.  Singer suggested anything over $30,000 per household, regardless of total income, should be given for economic development.
  • In his 2002 book One World, Singer conceded that his previous radical demands, while accurate from his perspective, may overwhelm people to the point where they give nothing.  But if he told people to give less, more may actually do it—and the aggregate total for the poor will be greater.   Various economists have calculated that if all wealthy people gave 1% of their income to economic development, extreme poverty could be ended.  So in the end, Singer suggested that we annually give 1% of our income as a minimum standard for doing our “fair share.”
  • In a 2006 article and 2009 book The Life You Can Save Singer sticks with the 1% figure for most of us but says that those who make more than about $100k should give 5% and up as income increases.

I find this quick overview of Singer illuminating because in the career of one scholar we have nearly the entire spectrum of answers to the question of how much we should give:  we should give even to the point of identifying with the poor (extremely demanding), we should only spend on necessities (very challenging), and we should at least do our fair share (pretty easy).  It shows how complex the issue really is.

I think this survey is useful for another reason too: it encourages us to decide for ourselves where we stand.  Often Christian giving to the poor is not a planned, intentional part of our lives—it is common to think about it only when major disasters make the news, a special offering is taken, or a homeless person invades our space.  Singer’s  proposals challenge us to embrace a quantifiable standard for our giving—and then act on it.  So what about you? If you had to add a bullet point to the list above summarizing your ethical standard for giving, what would it be? One of Singer’s options, or something else?

In my next post, I’ll consider tithing, the most common answer offered by church leaders to the question of how much Christians should give.