Wednesday, March 19, 2008

About Obama's $20,000 Contribution

I find myself surprised and discouraged by one aspect of the conservative attack on Obama.

I'm not surprised or discouraged by the that they think Obama should disown Rev. Wright unless Wright himself disowns and apologizes for his profoundly false and unjust* rhetoric. All that is appropriate.

No, what gets me down is that they refer to Obama's gift of $20,000 to Wright's church as being particularly indicative of Obama's support of Wright and of his rhetoric.

Twenty thousand dollars? A mere twenty thousand dollars? Is...surprising? Is indicative of wholehearted support? Shows Obama to be joined at the hip to this execrable clergyman?

Folks, we're talking about the donations of a Christian layperson to his church, here.

The normative (I do not say normal, because I'm well aware many fall short) practice in Christendom regarding church contributions is something called tithing. For those of you who sleep in on Sundays, it means you give ten percent of your pre-tax income to your local church, to assist it both in (a.) its operation costs, and (b.) in funding its own ministries to the needy in your local community and in the world.

Now, before anyone with theology degrees starts to hammer me with explanations why God does not require ten percent and how that's a mis-reading of Scripture, let me preempt that discussion by saying I'm aware of all that. It doesn't change the fact that ten percent is (a.) reasonably common among the faithful; (b.) a measure of a person's trust in God and awareness of God's sovereignty -- including ownership -- over all there is; (c.) is considered a low-ball figure for people who are particularly wealthy, as Americans in general and the Obamas in particular unquestionably are.

C. S. Lewis wrote that, when it comes to giving to church and charity, he felt the only "safe" approach was to give more than he felt willing to give, more than he thought he could afford without discomfort. Another, similar, approach is stated this way: "The responsibility of the believer is to keep his church operating and to provide for the poor, and to do so generously, even up to the point -- though not past the point -- where he himself thereby would become unnecessarily dependent on others."

A few paragraphs ago I used the phrase "a mere twenty thousand dollars." Sure enough, $20K isn't "merely" anything for me. But my income is, uh, rather less than that of Obama and his wife, which has tended to hover at well over $750,000 per year for a long time.

If Obama and his wife made only $200,000 in a year, then a $20,000 gift to his church would be ten percent: One year's normal gift. Of course, the word "normal" in that sentence should be read: "normal for folks who aren't particularly blessed with high incomes." Since the Obamas would unquestionably be considered high-earners even if they were only (!) making $200,000, a tithe of $20,000 would probably be considered a bit stingy by common Christian standards.

And for a man whose household income sometimes tops $1 million, a $20,000 check is, well, extremely underwhelming as a sign of fervent support. It is, in fact, a sign of a lukewarm, rather than firm, attachment to Wright and his church.

All of the above assumes, of course, that Obama does not regard tithing as merely his religious duty owed directly to God, rather than a way of expressing how he feels about each Sunday's sermon. If that is the way Obama thinks about his contributions, why then, the whole discussion of the number "twenty thousand" is completely irrelevant to Obama's approval or disapproval of Wright.

So when I've seen some commentary from conservatives referencing this amount, I've been surprised and discouraged. Why should they regard this amount as so unusual, unless...unless they themselves are unfamiliar with trusting God with their financial needs, and giving generously to church and charity? Is the problem that they think of their church contributions as just a way to "tip" the pastor for a good sermon? Is the problem that they, some of them with six-figure incomes, contribute to their churches by dropping a fiver in the plate every once in a while when they feel like it, and can't contemplate why anyone would do more?

I've noticed, on occasion, some of those same conservative authors referencing C. S. Lewis in such a way as to suggest they thought highly of the man, even considered him something of an example. Well, Lewis sometimes gave half of his income away in various charities. That is the Christian perspective on such deeds.

Excited exclamations over Obama's $20,000 gift?! Pah. Someone isn't thinking straight.


* Note that my choice of adjectives for Wright's rhetoric was "false and unjust" not "divisive" or "hateful" or "racially inflammatory" or other such formulations. Such formulations may accurately describe Wright's rhetoric; however, sometimes things must be said, because they are truths which need facing, despite their sounding hateful or divisive or even racially inflammatory. So those adjectives themselves are not definite arguments for Wright keeping his forked tongue behind his teeth. But Wright's words, in relevant part, were false and unjust, and saying them represents an evil act by Wright on that basis alone.

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