Getting back on the path to decency

By Tom Ehrich
Posted Sep 26, 2012

[Religion News Service] Nothing will get better in our troubled and divided nation until we take to heart three lessons about what it means to be a decent person.

First, give back to God.

In researching trends in giving, I was shocked to discover that more than 50 percent of those who attend Episcopal congregations give nothing at all — not a dime — to their churches. Giving has plummeted 50 percent over the past 20 years, even as personal income has soared 900 percent.

Across mainline Protestant traditions, giving has sagged to 2 percent of household income — one-fifth of the biblical tithe. Even conservative traditions that teach the tithe give at only the 3 percent level, and Roman Catholics give 1.5 percent of income.

As wealth has soared, especially for the few, gratitude has been replaced by arrogance. We earned it, say the lucky, and we deserve to keep it. Trouble is, that wealth would vanish were it not for bailouts, government protections, tax breaks, and a complex infrastructure of education, technology, transportation and laws that they feel entitled to exploit but not obligated to support.

It’s time we learned that what we have came from God. The fortunate have a fundamental obligation to give back to God. As long as we cling to wealth as if Mammon were God, we will remain shallow and self-serving — and thus self-defeating.

Second, help the unfortunate.

The myth of rugged individualism is nonsense. Any society worth perpetuating learns charity, not hoarding. It is our God-given nature to help the child in danger, the elderly person who falls, the victim of assault. The spectacle of a rich politician telling his rich friends that the unfortunate are lazy moochers violates every teaching of faith and history. It is an assault on humanity itself.

A decent society’s moral foundation rests on sharing, not on building bigger barns. This is what Christianity teaches — what Jesus called caring for the “least of these.” It is what Judaism teaches — giving from the harvest to benefit widows and orphans. If I understand correctly, caring for the weak is a core teaching of Islam.

It couldn’t be more basic. Haves must care for have-nots. The fortunate must care for the unfortunate. The healthy care for the sick, the strong care for the weak. This isn’t some radical concept designed to separate rugged individualists from their hard-earned wealth. It is a basic tenet of civilization.

Third, tell the truth.

No matter how fashionable and politically expedient it may be, dishonesty undermines society. We cannot possibly enact and enforce enough laws to protect people from cheats, thieves, liars and predators.

For society to endure, citizens must embrace a basic level of honesty. Otherwise, children cannot play safely outside their doors, neighbors cannot borrow tools, shoppers cannot trust products, patients cannot trust physicians and pharmaceuticals, contracts mean nothing, promises mean nothing, marital vows mean nothing, friendships mean nothing.

Big lies lead to demagoguery and oppression. Medium-sized lies lead to shattered trust and confidence. Small lies eviscerate families.

When politicians lie with reckless abandon, when business leaders treat dishonesty as slick strategy, they guarantee not only their own downfall but the collapse of the society that they claim to lead.

As a lawyer named Joseph Welch told a demagogue named Joe McCarthy at a low point in American history, if we have no “decency,” all we have left is “cruelty” and “recklessness.”

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Statements and opinions expressed in the articles and communications herein, are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of Episcopal News Service or the Episcopal Church.

Comments (8)

  1. Ron Duckworth says:

    I am in agreement with the article through the first four paragraphs. However, the notion that the wealthy are so because of bailouts, etc. is nonsense. All the infrastructure was built with tax money collected disproportionately (under our progressive tax code) from the wealthy.

    Research has discovered that 80% of millionaires did not inherit any money. They made it themselves! Most of those millionaires started small businesses and made them grow by their hard work.

    Everyone, not just the “fortunate” should follow the teachings of Jesus and love their neighbor. It does not take much searching to find who gives the most to local charities. As would be expected, most of the donations come from the fortunate.

    The rich politician you chastise for his comments about the 47% who do not pay income tax is known to habitually give ~20% of his annual income to charity. His opponent typically gives in the low single digits. Per the theme of the article, which one is doing what you desire and which one should you chastise?

    Government programs involve the involuntary taking of money from one person and giving it to another. There is no morality in that. It is only in voluntary giving on an individual basis that giving to God and helping the unfortunate occurs morally.

  2. Doug Desper says:

    I really appreciated most of this article until the villainization of the wealthy was interjected. Would everybody who feels guilty for taking advantage of a legal tax break please just donate it to the government?

  3. Kurt Kirchoff says:

    Not sure the characterizations of Governor Romney’s (habitally ~20%) and President Obama’s (typically in the low single digits) charitable giving are as accurate as needed in order to make fair judgments. On their respective 2011 tax returns, the Romneys reported giving 29.4% to charity and the Obamas 21.8%. For a report on each one’s charitable giving over a longer term, see, for example, Glenn Kessler’s article in the February 15, 2012 Washington Post, “Obama’s Gifts to Charity: Just 1 percent?”. Before approving or chastising either one, it’s important to get as close to the facts as we can.

  4. Douglas Elliott says:

    Wow, personal income has grown 900% over the last 20 years? That’s a 45% annual growth rate. Nowhere else have I seen it stated as more than 3.7% annually. But I really agree with your third point; that it is important to tell the truth.

  5. Paula Moore says:

    Your premise is correct and I agree with your article. The dreaded however is that it’s not about money; it’s about the people in the church, the religious and the lay. I’m the dinosaur in the room. At the age of 68, I’ve belonged to 4 parishes and worked part-time for a diocese and I’m tired of the enabling.
    I help feed starving children, supply mosquito netting, help build water systems. Locally, I work with community organizations and give my money to them to help support where we live. I moved my membership back to a church that requires me to drive 80 miles one way on Sunday mornings. There is life in that church and old friends I’ve known for years but I’ve slipped through the cracks there too. They don’t know why I get up there early or drive that far just to go to church. I don’t pledge there anymore because I feed the hungry and support the less fortunate around me and help develope educational events for the children in this area. These are not great things and they aren’t hard to do and they bring comfort and fun to me and them.
    Pledging to my church just makes me feel guilty because it never seems enough and, except for a food pantry, I’m not sure what they do with any money they receive to help people. No one in my church remembers I’m alive unless I show up on Sundays or they need help with selling chili supper tickets. My point isn’t that hard to get. The first bishop I remember as a child used to say, “We are called to be fishers of men, not keepers of the acquarium.” The other slogan that keeps going through my head is, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and I don’t think that means which tax bracket you fall into.

  6. In the middle 80’s, I published for the Executive Council’s and Presiding Bishop’s Office of Stewardship and Development the fact that the Episcopal Church had grown to and attained the highest giving of the major denominations because of great authentic financial/giving by lay and clergy leadership . (We were the top givers with per unit giving and Venture in Mission thirty years ago.) So the latest data is not a decline but a fall off the cliff. Our leadership at every level has abdicated its witness to and implementation of financial/giving/ spiritual leadership. What we hear now is “gimme” and spiritualized/dualistic nonsense about giving; I see no desire for authentic and powerful witness to the true blessings of giving as Tom is in part indicating. It seems that we have returned to the bottom levels of giving we had climbed up from in the 60’s to late 80’s.

  7. Tom Rightmyer says:

    In the 17th and 18th century in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina the colonial legislatures authorized church vestries to levy a per person tax on all white adult males and all slaves of working age (13+). The tax was about 30 pounds of tobacco when a field hand could make between 1000 and 1500 pounds of tobacco. The church tax amounted to between two and three per cent of income. Clergy in Virginia were paid 16.000 pounds of tobacco; the amount varied in pther colonies. Vestries also used this tax money to build churches and parsonages and to provide for the poor of the parish. My conclusion is that the present level of giving is not very different from the 18th century level. Tom Rightmyer, Asheville, NC

  8. Most of us rarely like to hear the truth, particularly when it implicates our own privilege and the politics and religion with which we legitimate it. Mr. Erlich has hit the nail on the head above. Not surprisingly, for many of us, it smarts.

    A number of the early church fathers, like Islam today, did not see charity as an act of magnanimous condescension as it so often practiced today, but rather as an obligation. One of the fathers, whose name I can no longer remember, went so far as to say charity was not so much an act of magnanimity as simply returning to the poor what was already theirs.

    Jesus himself points us in this direction. When the disciples remind Jesus that the assembled people are hungry and suggests he send them home so they can find food, he responds, “You feed them.” So, the hungry are fed, a mark of the Kingdom of G-d. If G-d sees the hungry as blessed and Jesus sees his followers as obligated to feed them, what does it say about a world of hungry people in which Jesus’ well fed followers simply look on ?

Comments are closed.