Return of the Pharisees   Leave a comment

Many of the Wealthy Seem Bent on Giving for Name Only

December 31, 2015

The concept of giving is wonderful, confusing, rewarding, necessary. And that’s just for starters. From my earliest days in Lutheran elementary school, I learned about the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. “Alms for the poor” (or a variation), a phrase we were assured was found throughout the Bible, was drilled into our heads. What Sunday School 8-year old could not feel some degree of empathy? There are the numerous lessons on giving offered by the world’s major religions including Judaism, Christianity (including Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, etc), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and among them we learn what alms are, who they are for, why we should give, and so on.

We’d like to believe that charitable giving is only or primarily altruistic. But, of course, it is not. To be fair much of the giving to charity by Americans is personal, like money dropped in the collection plate during mass, or in the poor box inside the narthex of the church, or in the Salvation Army collection pot. Yes, someone may observe the act of giving but not necessarily the amount given. The idea is to be less than obvious. And to be clear, there exists no societal norm for how much is enough. Some elect to follow an historical or epistemological practice. Tithing, for example: giving 10%. Others may have a familial ‘norm’ based on nothing more than “I always give $5.00”. And still others follow the “spare change” model. I was in a conversation with a priest who told me of a parishioner who asked “if one wishes to practice tithing, is it gross or net?” Somewhat predictably the priest responded, “well, if you have to ask. . . .”

The number of people who choose to give anonymously is infinitely larger than the “look at me” crowd, those who make very public contributions. My analysis is based soley on the far greater number of people in the so-called 99%, versus the smaller group—the 1%, those who hold the greatest amount of accumulated wealth within this or any society. It is possible that some within the latter “one percenters” give for one or more sincere reasons, but I would wager that most of the wealthy believe that public giving works beyond helping others; it improves their standing in the community, society, or the world. They are also likely to be well versed in the tax code, as in a list of deductions to offset income and reduce taxes.

Charity, from ancient times to today, has been used by some as a billboard, a neon sign, offered publicly to impress others. Like the pharisees of old, the wealthy and particularly the über-wealthy seem to relish making public donations, affixing their family name to a fund, trust, or charitable organization so everyone knows it was they who made the donation. These days when I see the credits at the beginning of a documentary film or a public television program (or video) I find I’m spending more time scrutinizing the donors than the stars, producers, or writers. The latter have an agenda, to be sure, but the former—the donors to one of these projects—have an agenda as well. The size of the on-screen font suggests that some (or many) of these donors are 21st-century pharisees who, like their namesakes two thousand years ago, believe in their inherent lofty place in society, and wish to reinforce an equally pretentious “knowledge” of their superior sanctity. They want the world to accept their premise.

The wonderful and long-running PBS series Nova is just one example where the good vibe and hopeful anticipation of what is to come quickly crashes through the floor when you see one of the named contributors to the funding: The David H. Koch Fund For Science. You understand that IMG_1558this is no quiet, unobtrusive thank you credit to the billionaire. That on-screen credit, the fund’s logo, takes up about 25% of the screen. About as subtle as a freight-train. The Koch brothers, more than any single American family—at least during the past twenty years—have used their wealth to reshape the American political landscape. Their agenda is simple: spend hundreds of millions (billions really by some estimates) to place very conservative, anti-government, low-tax (for the wealthy) candidates in state legislatures, governorships, in the U.S. congress, the senate, and on the supreme court. And they receive tax deductions for their efforts.

As one of his contributions to the generations who followed, the great codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides left the world his take on giving, on charity, with a list of eight levels of giving, correlating to the degree to which the giver is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the recipient. Counting down, and in an abbreviated form, here are Maimonides’ levels, the “Great Eight”:

Eight: Giving grudgingly. If the option is to give grudgingly or not at all, Maimonides prefers that you give grudgingly. Better to help someone in need, albeit with a bad attitude, than to ignore them.

Seven: Giving less than you can afford, but doing so pleasantly. If you or your accountant suggest you can afford to give $1,000 and you decide to give $250 and you do so with a pleasant demeanor, the positive nature of your expression of caring helps offset—to some degree—the decision to do less than you can afford.

Six: If you give generously, but must first be asked, you land at level six. Take heart. You gave, even though the person in need had to calmly ask or grovel in your presence.

Five: You gave before anyone asked. This requires you to pay attention, to look where you may not wish to look. No crying, begging, or pleading required. In essence, you reached out before the needy reached out to you.

Four: The person on the receiving end knows that the gift came from you, but you don’t know who received the gift. Perhaps the donor feels like they’ve accomplished something of more value because of the anonymity. Of course, those on the receiving end still know they are indebted to the donor. The superiority of the giver is maintained.

Three: This is the reverse of level four: The donor knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know who donated the money. I disagree with Maimonides here, as this seems like it should change places with level four (above). After all, this type of giving enables the donor to maintain a feeling of superiority over the recipient. In any case, Maimonides placed this at level three.

Two: A completely anonymous gift. The donor does not know where the money went, or who received the money, and the recipient has no idea whom to thank. This is a near-perfect level, since the receiver can take the gift with the knowledge that there is no one to whom they need to feel indebted, and the giver can never know if the recipient was someone on the other side of the world or down the block.

One: Helping someone reach self-sufficency. If you recall the saying that “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach someone to fish and they can feed themselves”, then Level One is the idea that you can actually help someone become self-sufficient. Better to have a job than to be unemployed. Better to feel you are contributing to society than to take from society (although many on the far right speak only of the “takers”). Along with income, food, and shelter, there is the preservation of one’s dignity.

Many followers of western religions believe that doing good things on earth will be rewarded in heaven. Karma, from Hinduism and Buddhism, represents the sum of one’s actions in this and previous states of existence, and those actions are viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. This year let’s resolve to do more, and perhaps we should consider doing it silently. Our karma may depend on it.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2015

 

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