The Common Good

Starting the 'Christmas Tithe'

Religion is far too judgmental. Surveys show that many people think that, especially a new generation of young people who — more than ever before — are checking the “none of the above” religious affiliation box. 

I get it. But religious leaders tend to be judgmental about many of the wrong things; they are not making moral judgments on the important questions. So I am going to be judgmental, as a religious leader, about something I just read.

A recent Harris International and World Vision poll showed that Americans plan to spend more this Christmas season on consumer gifts than they did last year, but give less to charities and ministries that help the poor. Many say they are less likely to give a charitable gift as a holiday present — a drop from 51 percent to 45 percent.

So we will have more Christmas presents this year, but less help for the poor. While retailers, economists, and politicians may rejoice at the news about higher consumer spending this year, the lower levels of support for the ones Jesus called “the least of these” should legitimately bring some moral judgments from the faith community. 

Indeed, the Matthew 25 scripture that this text is taken from is one of the few and most judgmental passages in all the New Testament. About some things, Jesus was judgmental. The Gospel clearly says that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, is how we treat Jesus. That’s is pretty judgmental, especially when you go on to read what will happen to those who ignore Jesus in this way. 

But rather than just being judgmental, let’s do something about it. Let’s start a "Christmas Tithe.” Let’s spread the idea to our kids, our families, our friends and neighbors, and to the members of our congregations. Let’s keep it simple: 

Keep track of all our holiday spending for gifts this year, and then tithe a percentage of that amount to an organization that directly serves the poor. A tithe is traditionally 10 percent, but you could decide to do less or even more. But make a decision about your Christmas tithe and pledge it to groups that are now struggling to respond to the highest number of Americans in poverty since the Great Depression, and to those who focus on the poorest and most vulnerable around the world. This is a time to give more — not less.

Sit down with your kids and get them involved in the discussion and decision. You may be surprised at how responsive they are to doing this together. World Vision, which commissioned the sad survey has a great World Vision Gift Catalog that concretely improves the lives of a children and families in need around the world, by providing critical tools, opportunities, and animals to overcome extreme poverty! 

We do this every Christmas Day at our home after we have opened our presents to each other; and our two boys often feel it is the best part of the day. Each kid gets to choose a gift for a family in one of the world’s poorest countries. (Goats are top choices!) And then we decide together what else we will give to other families. Many other organizations provide similar opportunities. We at Sojourners have launched our own Just Giving Guide for that reason. Such gifts can be given in the name of our children or loved ones. 

The only silver lining from the World Vision survey was the high number of people who like charitable gifts like this that are given in their names. This Christmas, my own extended Wallis family, instead of just giving more things to each other, are all giving to an orphanage in Haiti that our sister Marcie and her family and church are very involved with.

All of that can be part of our Christmas Tithe. 

Many of us are deeply involved in missions and campaigns to bring social justice to this world — to transform structures and policies that hurt the poor into new practices that help them overcome their poverty. But the kind of personal giving that we do is also very important, especially in teaching the lessons of compassion and justice to our children. 

So let’s counter the results of the survey with a Christmas Tithe. Gather your family together around this, send the idea to your friends and fellow believers, take the idea to church, write letters to the editor in your local paper. Let’s all decide this Christmas to tithe a percentage of all that we give in Christmas presents directly to the poor; who were given the greatest gift at the first Christmas with a child born in a stable who promised to bring them “good news.”  

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in early 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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