How Good do we Have to Be?
While my family endeavors to single-handedly revive the economy this holiday season with frivolous gifts, and while we attempt to meet our charitable goals for the calendar year, a question keeps entering my mind: how good do we have to be? Can we spend money on unnecessary items knowing that it could instead improve or even save another’s life? Should we in effect take a vow of poverty, agreeing to forgo any of our own pleasures while others are in need? If not, where do we draw the line? How much should we devote to helping others while we pursue our own security and interests?
I suspect that a couple of hundred years ago giving was easy. Living in the relative isolation of a small farming town in Europe, a charitable person would probably have given to their church or synagogue, nearby families enduring hardship, and the local beggar. They you’d have it. You’d be good to go.
Nowadays, when the woes of the entire world make headlines daily, it’s impossible to confine your giving to local needs without wondering about the atrocities occurring half a world away. There is always more to do. In 1800, a tsunami in Japan would hardly have been a concern for a person living in America. Today, it’s another tug on our consciences.
Or at least some of our consciences. A woman I met in 1995 said to me once, “Charity starts at home.” The problem is, for many people, that’s exactly where charity ends.
A recent article in the Sacramento Bee discussed charitable giving and highlighted the One Percent Foundation, an organization whose members give one percent of their annual income on-line and vote for a cause quarterly to donate to. They attract young adults primarily – those still in school or still paying off student loans and getting their career paths set – and while it’s a nice start to be sure, one would hope that it instills a habit of lifelong giving that grows as incomes rise, because one percent hardly seems enough.
Mitt Romney’s run for the White House this year highlighted the Mormon Church’s practice of tithing, whereby 10% of one’s income is devoted to the church. This is similar to the tithing Jews set into law in the Torah, but after the Temple was destroyed, Jewish tithing was amended to giving at least 10 percent of net earnings to helping those in need. This is somewhat ironic, since in fifteen years of attending Shabbat services, I've rarely heard that tithing is a goal Jews should be aspiring to. By contrast, the Presbyterian church where I’ve played piano for the last year has already devoted a sermon on tithing and how we are not doing nearly enough to help those in need.
Then there are the mega-wealthy – Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and the like – who’ve committed to The Giving Pledge, a promise for billionaires to give at least 50 percent of their wealth to charity in their lifetime or after. Nice, I suppose, but not nearly as charitable as my 10 year-old son would be in similar circumstances. I was overcome with pride last summer when he concluded that if we won the lottery, we should keep about ten percent and give the rest away. I couldn’t agree more.
But we are not lottery winners. We are people living comfortably but who have a mortgage, three college educations and a retirement to consider. And we like to have fun. Did we really need to buy five tickets to see “War Horse” in Chicago? After all, if we’d instead donated that money to Feed My Starving Children, we could have fed a meal to 2045 people. How can three hours of entertainment be justified?
This isn’t a no-brainer, but being human has always encompassed so much more than giving. Education. Art. Beauty. Creating. Athletics. Family. Friendships. Community. Should we really forego great architecture and resort to concrete structures because there are people in need? Should we stop commissioning sculptures, painting and symphonies? Are movies and sports luxuries we should no longer succumb to?
It’s comforting to know that smarter minds than ours have struggled over the years with these questions. For my money, the most reasonable conclusion comes from the Babylonian Talmud. It states: “One who wishes to donate generously should not give more than a fifth of his income, lest he himself come to be in need of charity.” This might not cover the billionaires of today, but it could be a good guideline for the rest of us: try to contribute ten percent of one’s net earnings, and, if possible, up to another ten percent.
Either way, how good do we have to be? Probably a whole lot better than we’ve been.