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  • Douglas Pneuma

On Christian Charity

First Fruits

My first job was working at a deli at a grocery store. Having already developed the habit to give to charity from allowances for household chores, I decided to dedicate the entirety of my first paycheck to charity, specifically a church I felt at the time was preaching the one true Gospel. In my mind were biblical passages I had read and heard on first fruits, such as Deuteronomy 26:10-11, which after recounting how God brought Israel from oppression in Egypt to the Promised Land, states:

So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Giving of the treasure I had earned in my labors is a testimony to the God that had graciously allowed me to earn in the first place. It is also a profoundly countercultural act. The corrupt powers of the world seek to tempt us into thinking of our lives as existing in a state of constant insecurity, that scarcity demanding that we prioritize our own well-being against the well-being of all others even when we may believe we can afford to sacrifice of our treasure, for we never know when calamity may strike and take all we have away.

Overthrowing Mammon

But it’s that very desperation for security that has made our world insecure. From Pharaoh of Egypt and the empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, to British imperialism, American chattel slavery, displacement of the indigenous of the Americas, and the purposeful impoverishment of the working classes through classist demoralization and the use of state power aimed at curbing the power of labor, the use of economic and physical violence to survive has been the hallmark of the idols of self-sufficiency and domineering earthly powers all the way to this present day. Each oppressive social structure was built on the assumption that if individuals and their societies did not use all their powers to aggressively compete to gain as many resources for themselves at the exclusion of others, they would be destroyed by other individuals and societies more ruthless than they. Thus, the evil powers of this world had trapped all of humanity into a vicious cycle of never-ending moral devolution into profound predation of each human being against one another. For this reason, Jesus teaches:

No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (NRSVue 6:24)

Sacrificing our time and treasure both repudiate these idols and thus help us move closer to the faith that sustained Christ, who taught in Matthew 6:26:

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

Giving freely of our talent and treasure demonstrates faith in God as the genuine source of Providence. It also frees us from the desperation that our would-be worldly masters would prefer us to be in, thus demonstrating the newfound freedom we can find in being born again in Jesus Christ.

Trusting in the Providence of God

Muhammad Ali once said: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” I think this service includes both the direct service we provide through freely giving of our labor, but it also includes our charitable giving. In charity, we directly tie our service in our working lives to our God. For me, this serves as a powerful reminder that it is not my employer that provides, and thus whom I should ultimately dedicate myself to, but rather God. By framing this through freely giving of the money I earn in my professional life, I carry with me every day at work the central focus of pleasing God first—not myself, or my employer, or my customers, or my coworkers, or anyone else.

By putting God first, I come much more consistently closer to working as hard as I can everyday, without hurting myself. I am able to confront others when they behave unethically, knowing I stand on the firm ground of my prayers and my follow-through in my charitable dedication. I am able to admit my own faults freely and work through them to grow into a better worker over time. I have slowly moved all my professional relationships in this way to something far more ethical and sustainable for everyone involved. I have found a clear conscience to be my greatest ally in my professional growth, and the ground of that conscience is in knowing that my economic security depends first and foremost on God, which the discipline of charity has taught me.

Co-Participation in the New Creation in Christ

Charity also affords us the opportunity to co-participate in the act of the Creator in renewing all of creation under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If the corrupt powers that the Lord Jesus overthrows includes all the dehumanizing forces of economic exploitation, the forces that must step in through Christ’s upside-down kingdom must represent a reversal of these worldly values. I believe the opposite of trust in economic exploitation for security is healthy interdependence, which is another name for love.

I had received psychological counseling at reduced cost through the charity of others to overcome severe depression in my early twenties. I believe I am only alive today because of that charity. Others created the conditions for me to revive, and giving charitably is my expression of gratitude for that act of kindness. In this way, Christians through the use of charity are given perhaps the greatest privilege of Christian life besides salvation itself: to be co-participants with God in the creation of the Kingdom of God in this life by the reign of Christ Jesus. This co-participation in the creation of the coming Kingdom is exactly what it means to be the Body of Christ—our acts as Christians born anew in the Holy Spirit are the very acts of the resurrected Christ himself. This reminds me of my favorite part of the Eucharistic liturgy I have witnessed from Reverend Barb: “Behold who you are. Become what you receive.”

My Christian charity of course is not confined to my pledge to my church. I budget charitable giving across a few main streams of regular giving, in addition to giving for one-off opportunities that come about through recommendations from my friends and others. But what matters most to me in my giving is not what I am specifically accomplishing, because I cannot control for that. When I give charitably, I have no idea if my personal contribution will be enough to solve the problem being addressed, or at least to any sufficiency that may satisfy me. I don’t know how much of an impact, for example, my donations to the IRC for the crisis in Yemen have had. But I do know that in giving, I have made sure that I was part of the the possibility for healing in Yemen. In giving, I have connected myself to be a co-participant in the creation of the Kingdom of God here and now, and in this way participated even in the very reality of the resurrection of my Savior Jesus. That is more than enough for me.

Having Hope in God’s Harvest

I am concerned when people in the Church become overly focused on looking at budgets as problems to solve, and start calculating how much they personally need to give to solve those problems. I am concerned that this is the kind of thinking that operates from a place of scarcity and over-reliance on one’s personal power to provide, rather than on the ultimate providence of all things in God our Father. Charity for me is done best when I am letting go of any expectation for what my talent and treasure can produce in the world or others, and focused instead on what it can produce in myself. I am seeking to grow spiritually in my giving. I do not do so in expectation of something specific to produce. Instead, I do so in hope of a greater harvest, one that only God can provide.

A church that is living in the new life of the resurrection by the Holy Spirit I would imagine would function in this way. When we are thinking of giving to our church, I would like us to think less of what we think we can expect from that giving from the church, and instead trust in the process of nurturing the hope for our future that that giving represents. The harvest that God can provide can be much more than we are looking for if we have the faith to let go of our self-reliance and open our hearts and minds to the possibilities that can be realized in God.

Illuminating Our Inner Vision

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If, then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23 NRSVue)

This passage reminds me of what detectives say when extolling the virtues of using soft eyes to understand—the soft eyes being the ones that allow for illumination by being open to everything in one’s field of vision. When we look with hard eyes, we seek and thus see only what we expect. When we soften our gaze and allow ourselves to wonder, we open our vision to a much wider world of possibilities. We let the light in. I have found that this world of possibilities is where the Kingdom of God manifests truly in our lives. To nurture it, we need to stop clinging to fulfilling our expectations, which narrows our vision for what grace may look like in our lives, including in the life of the Church. Illumination of our vision comes from softening our gaze, widening our view, and replacing an attitude of expectation for one of hope.

Treasures in Heaven

Ultimately, even if our contributions to the church do not manifest in any worldly accomplishment, we can be sure that they will help us cultivate our character in Christ, who lived day-by-day a poor itinerant preacher in an Israel occupied and oppressed by Roman imperial might, and yet was resurrected as King of Kings. Learning to let go of the security we feel driven to protect in our treasure is learning to rely upon God, and is thus an investment in our spiritual growth. In a world still beleaguered by corrupting Powers that Be which cause our siblings to stumble and suffer in shame and isolation, I take comfort in the discipline that giving to the church provides me to break the vicious cycle of constant economic competition.

I don’t know what it might do for our church or the world. But I know the world cannot heal without people breaking this vicious cycle, so I need to be a part of that. And I can be sure what good it will do for me. For me, that is more than enough.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-20 NRSVue)

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