Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ecclesiastic Sleight-of-Hand

My wife received an end-of-year letter yesterday over the signature of the senior pastor of her church. The gist of it was how everybody needs to contribute money to the church because every year the budget is barely being met.

Aside from the obvious (to me) conclusion--viz., perhaps the budget is overblown--the letter stands as a fine example of what I've come to regard as ecclesiastic sleight-of-hand. Specifically, it slides rather subtly from "giving to the church" to "giving to God" or "giving to Jesus." (This is hardly unique to my wife's church or denomination, by the way: I've had fifty years of hearing the same sort of slippery phraseology coming from Catholic pulpits, too, and I have absolutely no reason to believe it doesn't take place across the board.)

One is left with the question of what God needs money for.

And the answer, of course, is that he has no need of it whatsoever.

To which I would expect the rejoinder to be that, no, God has no need of filthy lucre himself, but money is what it takes to do God's work on earth, so contributing money to the church is in effect to contribute it to God's work.

Okay. But there is more sleight-of-hand at work there, too. Because every church that I've ever trafficked with, as member, visitor, or member-in-law, has insisted that its share of the take must come right off the top--what some churchy enterprises insist on referring to as "first fruits"--and that everyone and everything else must vie for whatever is left. Indeed, in some churches that I've been around, the powers that be even go so far as to describe certain undertakings as "second mile" giving, meaning that they sure as heck don't want you to deduct your contribution from what you put in the collection plate. The sleight-of-hand at work here is the presumption that God's work is done only through "the church"--which is to say "this church"--or most importantly through "the church," and so everything else is subordinate. And yet, is not a donation to charity "doing God's work"? What about a donation to "a good cause" (as defined by yourself)--I can think of several that are about the Lord's work just as much as any parish, congregation, or denomination is. But I suspect that most churchy folk will say that such contributions, though admirable and good, must come only after one's tribute to the local institutional church.

To which I say: Baloney.

God's work in the world boils down to helping other people. Thus the money donated to the local food bank, or homeless shelter, or Salvation Army is dedicated to God's work no less than the money placed in the collection plate. Maybe even more so, depending on circumstances. Ditto for dollars sent to a particular mission or relief endeavor.

This is not to say that giving to one's church is not important. It is of course. It's just to say that the church's insistence that it needs to be at the head of the line doesn't mean it really deserves to be at the head of the line.

"The first shall be last", where did I read that...?

I am left equally cold by various church's insistence on tithing. My conscience and I are perfectly capable of determining what we feel should be our contribution to the church, thank you very much. I heard tell of one pastor who insisted that no one who didn't tithe could be a member of the church council. This strikes me as a pretty hot idea, inasmuch as I'm not too fond of meetings and am usually looking for a way to avoid serving on board and committees. It also strikes me as just shy of charging a membership fee to belong to a church, which is not such a hot idea.

Once again the sleight-of-hand is fully evident: You must tithe, traditionally ten percent of the gross, to "God's work." But what is really meant is, again, "the church"--"this church"--and not any other manifestations of "doing God's work." So to say, "Ten percent of my gross income is X dollars, and I'll divvy those dollars up among the food bank, the women's shelter, the orphanage, the Maryknoll Missioners, the community chest, and my church" is not acceptable to the church. The church, indeed, insists that the full ten percent belongs to the church, and that anything else you may care to donate to any other worthy cause must come from the remaining 90 percent of your income.

And, again: Baloney. God's work is God's work, no matter who is doing it.

The sad fact is, the pie is only so big and can be cut into only so many pieces, and "the church" wants to make sure it gets its piece, and the biggest piece, first.

Shame on them.

Thoughts on Gerald Ford's Passing

Watching coverage of the various memorial services for Gerald Ford brings to mind a number of things:

  • How grand of the current president to decline to cut his vacation short a day or two in order to be in D.C. when Ford's remains (and, more important, family) arrived. Yes, indeedy, a class act all the way. Goes to show how poorly the current occupant of the White House compares to his predecessors, especially the one who will be buried this week.
  • Gerald Ford is the only Republican presidential candidate for whom I have ever voted (and unless the GOP changes mightily in the future, the only one). It was the first year I was eligible to vote. I felt (still do) that Ford had been handed the most unimaginable mess--war, inflation, Watergate, just about everything short of frogs and locusts--and had done an admirable job of dealing with it. I felt (still do) that he deserved "his own" term. I further felt (still do) that Jimmy Carter was simply not the right man for the job, and am among those who feel Carter is a better ex-president than president. My feeling 30 years ago was that Ford was an honorable man trying to pull the country back together, and nothing in the interim has caused me to change my mind.
  • I read a comment on from someone who felt that Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon is what defined Ford's presidency, and not for the better. I disagree. At the time, I was one of those who believed the fix was in and that the pardon only showed the bottomless corruption of the Nixon bunch and the GOP. With the passage of time, however, I came to believe that pardoning Nixon was perhaps the only way to get the country past Watergate. The fact that it was unpopular, that Ford must have known it would be unpopular, and that he probably realized it jeopardized any chance he may have had to be elected in his own right only serves to illustrate the character of Gerald Ford.
  • What the hell has happened to the Republican Party that in a mere three decades it has gone from the likes of Gerald R. Ford (decent, honest, committed to the nation's best interests) to the likes of George W. Bush (duplicitous, deceitful, and committed only to his cronies' best interests)?