An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Helping the poor’

Facebook Follies

Last week I posted a quote by Stephen Colbert on my Facebook page:

 “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

My post stirred my niece, Rudi, to righteous indignation:

“We should force everybody to be as righteous and charitable as we are, at the point of a gun. Because it’s what Jesus would do . . . . Your method of helping the poor is really just feeding a scheme of graft and corruption, without doing much to help the poor.”

A couple of minutes later she added,

 “The people of the United States already give far more to charity than so-called enlightened people of Europe,  so I don’t know why everyone complains that we are selfish. It really is quite offensive.

While I didn’t expect everyone to agree with Colbert’s thought, I didn’t think it was offensive. Since I don’t check Facebook religiously, my daughter Jaycee called to tell me about Rudi’s response and to say, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ve got your back covered.”

Jaycee’s comment on my Facebook page said she is now relieved from feeling selfish when she buys a latte’ grande instead of helping the poor. By taking care of herself instead of the poor, she’s not feeding schemes of graft and corruption.  That’s the most activity on my Facebook page ever. I hope it will boost the company’s stock.

I did not post a response to Rudi. Were we able to meet for a one-on-one chat, I might have assured her that I really haven’t proposed “a method of helping the poor.” Possibly Stephen Colbert has proposed a method which Rudi knows about and assumes I agree with it—more likely she is placing words in my mouth—a hazard of emotional argument.

Part of my reason for posting Colbert’s quote is in hopes it might stimulate thought and constructive discussion. In a constructive discussion, I would acknowledge the reality of graft and corruption (G&C) in government social programs. I would also point out that G&C occur in the programs of charitable organizations as well as those of churches. Even the Mormon welfare system is not without problems. I’ve seen able-bodied men receiving Church aid for their families because, “I can’t get a job in my field.”

G&C are hardly limited to aid for the poor—dare we say Wall Street and the financial institutions? Congress is rife with corruption caused by corporate campaign contributions. Why single out programs for the poor as potential sources of G&C?

Another thing I would point out to Rudi is that, in my mind at least, right and righteous are not the same thing. It is right to obey traffic signals and doing so makes us safer without necessarily making us righteous.  Voluntary obedience of traffic signals would create hair-raising adventures on every city street. Likewise, voluntary donations to help the poor won’t do the job.

Preventing hunger and disease for others is the right thing to do. Keeping my neighbors alive and healthy so they can work and pay taxes benefits me as well as them. There is nothing particularly righteous in trying to see that American children receive adequate nutrition, health care, and education so they can grow up to be productive citizens. We all benefit from that—and pay the consequences when it doesn’t happen.

Rudi is right about surveys showing that Americans give more to charity than Europeans. What she overlooks is that churches receive the majority of American charitable donations—and not all the donations received by churches are spent on charity. The lion’s share of Mormon tithing funds goes into three areas—temples, missionary work, and Church education. These areas of focus are important for the organization but could not be defined as charitable works.

I don’t have the answer to our modern social problems, but I wish we were having a constructive conversation about the issues instead of tossing barbs on Facebook.

Is It Really Charity?

In a recent post I wrote about how much to give to charity. Today, I want to bring up an equally touchy subject—one with which Congress is currently wrestling— are all donations really charity? Utah, which is over 60% Mormon, ranks high among states for charitable giving—yet nonprofits that provide services for the poor are always starved of funds.

I suspect the vast majority of itemized donations by Utahns are tithes to the Mormon Church. My question is—does supporting a church really count as charity? If charity is defined as helping the poor and the church spends the majority of contributions on helping the poor, of course, that counts. But I have heard that a relatively modest percentage of tithes and offerings paid to the Church funds programs benefitting the poor and needy. The lion’s share of Church expenditures are for three programs—CES (BYU, seminaries, and institutes), missionary work, and temples—none of which directly benefits the poor—with the exception of building and staffing temples in developing countries which does provide jobs for qualified members there.

Large Mormon families of average income sacrifice to pay their 10% to the church, leaving them little or no money for giving to other organizations. Most members prioritize Church donations—feeling confidant that 100% of their donations are well spent instead of going for the high salaries paid to CEOs of some organizations—and with a belief that their donations further the work of the Church in preparing the world for the Second Coming. Less altruistic motives include the fact that  non-tithe payers fail to qualify for temple recommends and leadership positions in their ward and stake. We are also told we will be blessed for making these sacrifices—with the implication that God will withdraw blessings if checkbooks close.

Giving to support a person’s church is necessary and commendable. I’m just not sure that it constitutes charity. Donating in order to maintain membership status and privileges seems more like paying dues to a social organization. Donating out of fear is sad.

Giving to an organization where most of the contribution benefits others in a demonstrated way—such as micro loans to help establish small businesses and improve farm yields, food for starving children, and funds to educate and improve skills is closer to my definition of charity. I think this is what Isaiah had in mind when he wrote, “Draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted.” (58:10)

Giving ’til It Hurts

Several years ago when George was an ordinance worker at the Jordan River Temple, another worker showed up for prayer meeting in a spiffy, new white suit. During prayer meeting he asked the counselor in the temple presidency how to go about donating his old suit to a worker in a new temple in a developing country. “Why don’t you donate your new suit to the brother in the new temple?” the counselor replied.

Shock and disbelief registered on the faces of the questioner and most of the group. Instead of praise for his generosity, the owner of the new suit received implicit criticism. The counselor, however, was on the same page as C.S Lewis who, when asked how much a good Christian should give, said, “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. . . . There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” (Mere Christianity)

Sobering thoughts—giving away what we want for ourselves. And the tricky part, of course, is distinguishing between our needs and our wants.

Charity, defined as “the pure love of Christ” (Moro.7:47), is obviously more than donating items we no longer want to the poor. Maybe true charity is working to create a system that equalizes, not income, but opportunity.

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