Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Is it time to look at tithing again?

As bankers’ enormous bonuses are in the news again, a charity called Giving What We Can aims to bring back tithing (giving 10% of your income) to raise the living standards of the world’s poorest people.

How do we respond to this? It’s an interesting question for Quakers who have a historic opposition to the imposition of tithes to support the established church. But this is different – it’s voluntary, not imposed; and it’s for the poorest of the poor, not for an established institution. And, tellingly, this is a secular, not a religious initiative.

Here’s what the organisation’s founder says about himself:
I realised that by donating a large part of my future income to the most efficient charities, I really could save thousands of people’s lives. Since I already have most of the things I really value in life, I thought — why not?
Toby Ord
And here’s what they say about what they’re doing:
The members of Giving What We Can are people who have realised how easy it is to do large amounts of good in the world and who have made a commitment to give 10% of their income to the most effective charities they can find. For a person earning £15,000 per year, this would mean saving 5 lives every year, or leading to 100,000 fewer missed days of school due to illness. These incredible sounding feats are within most people’s reach.
Giving What We Can is built around two simple ideas:
• Giving away a significant portion of one's income is easier than most people think. Far from making their lives miserable, members say that taking the Pledge to Give has made their lives happier and more fulfilled.

• Giving to the most cost-effective charities massively increases the power of one's donations.
So, they’re being quite pragmatic and hard-headed about this. They’ve done their research into the effectiveness of charities, and recommend certain organisations. The also have a resource bank of background information and reflections on the philosophy and ethics of giving.

The Pledge to Give is aimed at people of working age, and is quite a serious commitment:
I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good in the developing world. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from today until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to fight poverty in developing countries. I make this pledge freely, openly, and without regret.
They have other arrangements for people who are not earning, who are retired, etc. and have created an gentler way in for those who feel ‘not ready yet’.

One of the very important pages on their website is about ‘Giving 10%’:
We chose 10% because it strikes a good balance. On the one hand it is a significant proportion of one's income: it recognizes the importance of the problem and that we must be prepared to make some real sacrifice to prevent it. Yet it is also within reach of almost everyone in the developed world. Indeed, the idea of giving 10% to the poor has been with us since ancient times (when the givers were much poorer than we are today) and still exists in many religious circles in the form of tithing. It may seem impossible to give 10% of your income, but it rarely is. After all, there are a great many people who are living on substantially less than 90% of what we currently earn.
They show this graph of the global distribution of income:

and point out that we are accustomed – of course – to comparing ourselves to those around us. Their calculator invites you to discover how you compare with the whole world. It’s very revealing: I work part time and earn a pro rata fraction of what would be a modest (in UK terms) full-time salary . . . but I’m still in the top 3% globally. Try it for yourself.

This bold, simple, and challenging idea has received varied and interesting press coverage:
- in the Catholic paper The Tablet
- in the Financial Times Magazine
- in the BBC News Magazine
- in Psychologies Magazine
. . . and many others.

The Guardian has followed the story closely. It first appeared on their Money Blog in 2009, and they followed it up a year later in the printed G2 supplement. At the end of last year they published an interview with the founders followed by an editorial comment a month ago.

You can follow Giving What We Can on Twitter @givingwhatwecan and on Facebook.

Look out for their 10% logo.

Background on tithing

Tithing – giving one tenth of wealth, produce or income – has a very ancient history. It pre-dates the period of the Hebrew scriptures, although that is probably the most familiar source to us, and Orthodox Jews today continue a form of tithing because it is seen as a biblical commandment. Christian churches adopted similar practices, and in England - following Henvry VIII’s secession from the Roman church - tithes were compulsorily levied from the whole population to support the new English church.

In Islam the giving of zakat is a religious duty on individuals and an Islamic state has the duty to collect zakat and distribute it fairly. It is akin to charitable giving and is primarily used as welfare contributions to the poor. Significantly, zakat applies to accumulated wealth and assets as well as to income. Ushar is the contribution to the upkeep of the mosque and the support of the imam.

In Sikhism, dasvand (literally ‘a tenth part’) refers the act of donating ten percent of one's ‘harvest’, both financial and in the form of time and service to the Gurdwara and to charitable causes.

In many evangelical Christian churches today there is an expectation of tithing to support the upkeep and running of the church, and paying the pastor.

In the 17th century George Fox, founder of what became the Quaker movement, opposed compulsory tithes to support the Anglican church, and many Quakers were fined or imprisoned for refusing to pay them. For Fox, his objection was part of a wider challenge to many of the practices of his times. The Quaker movement was marked by: opposition to flattering speech or behavior, regardless of the social class of the person being addressed; refusal to bow or curtsey to others; refusal to pay tithes, (the early Quakers said any priest or minister who asked for money was a false prophet); refusal to remove their hats to honour people; and refusal to swear or take oaths. They also testified strongly against fashion and extravagance, condemning unnecessary ribbons, feathers, scarves, fancy buttons, jewelry and anything worn for pride, ostentation or adornment.

The testimonies to simplicity, equality and peace are significant aspects of modern Quakerism, whereas tithing is discussed only as a historical matter. Modern Quakers make voluntary donations to the upkeep of their Meeting Houses and the continuation of the Quaker organisation, as well as donating to various charitable, social or political causes.

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