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.