Jason Coker

MLK’s Most Audacious Dream

BEE369 Minister Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at an event

Today we remember the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. for his civil rights legacy. I am especially inspired by his most audacious dream:

So what, exactly, was King’s economic dream? In short, he wanted the government to eradicate poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income—an idea that, while light-years beyond the realm of mainstream political conversation today, had actually come into vogue by the late 1960s.

The patchwork of social services we’ve half-heartedly assembled over the past generation have barely made a dent in American poverty. Since the 1960’s, deinstitutionalization of mental health services combined with runaway corporate profits and stagnant wages have combined to create a potent brew of hopelessness for America’s most discriminated and challenged citizens.

It’s time to make genuine equality a reality. It’s time to support a Universal Income in America. It’s an idea that has support across the political spectrum.

The best way to honor Martin Luther King Jr., is to pursue his greatest civil right’s dream.

The Myth of Selfless Giving, Part 3

All gifts come with an expectation of return, and that’s a good thing. Generosity is an economy of kinship, designed specifically to create interdependence. Consequently, giving must be protected from any appearance of marketplace exchange, which exists for the purpose of creating or maintaining independence. Therefore, we hide the self-interest in giving in a variety of ways (ceremony, wrapping, anonymity, etc.). In Modernity, this move has been pushed to the extreme of believing that the only virtuous gift is the pure, selfless gift.

Selfless Giving Is Arrogant Giving
The idea of purely selfless giving is actually just an altruistic version of marketplace exchange; it, too, protects independence by creating or maintaining boundaries.

When I refuse to be interested reciprocally in what I give, I’m preserving the boundaries between myself and the recipient because in doing so I refuse any kind of return. This is the inherent problem with Modern charity and altruism; it tends toward a one way movement of gifts that don’t allow for the equality of relationships that come from mutual reciprocity. In this way, both marketplace exchange and attempts at “pure” charity both contribute to the kind of distance and isolation endemic to Modern Western culture.

In Philanthropy, the issue is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, we make a show of Philanthropy as being disinterested because doing so allows charity to preserve the inequalities in our system. Charity is a one-way gift, that denies the receiver the basic human dignity of being a giver. The way charity is done in America virtually guarantees that the poor will remain poor. But at the middle class and upper class level, Philanthropy is an openly reciprocal economy. Everyone knows that giving larger sums to charity brings certain expectations, whether that be in the form of wall plaques, naming rights on buildings, or simply the power to dictate program goals and outcomes (as is the case with grant-making).

In this way, it’s easy to see how giving can become coercive, and that is precisely what selfish giving is all about; it seeks to gain power for the giver. But in much the same way, selfless giving also acquires or displays power by flagrantly denying interdependence, effectively saying to the recipient, “Here is my generosity. I have no interest in it, and I will never need anything from you in return.” So, selfless giving is arrogant giving. This arrogance not only dominates the receiver, it dominates the very act of giving, dissolving the gift into a kind of non-object by denying its vocation, thereby effectively destroying it.

What’s interesting is that last sentence describes exactly the hyper-modern turn in philosophical thinking about what defines a good or virtuous gift, particularly via Derrida, who says that the gift (and here he’s thinking of the Modern notion of pure giving) is either impossible or madness. The hyper-modern logic about the impossibility of a pure or true gift and its resulting self-destructiveness are key to “death of God” theologians. For them, the true gift is the gift that dissolves itself because of its total and radical unconditionality, which is what they claim God did to Godself in the event of the cross.

This logic relies heavily on the Modern bias against the inherent conditionality in any form of economics (and giving is an economy), a bias that I think can be traced directly back to the Reformation notion of grace as unconditional. But I don’t see any clear rationale for that bias – it simply appears to be assumed by nearly everyone that conditionality is always a form of corruption.

But Luther and Calvin were wrong. Grace is not and never has been unconditional. For an excellent and thorough theological treatment of the conditionality of grace in the writings of Paul, see John Barclay’s breathtaking work, Paul and the Gift.

Now, it bears repeating: All of this Modern logic about gifts (including death-of-God theology, in my opinion) is an attempt to protect gifts from becoming instruments of coercion or control by the giver. And I sympathize. This is a huge problem in politics, family relationships, and organizational cultures.

So, while I propose that self-interested giving is humble giving (as opposed to selfish or arrogantbecause it acknowledges that the giver needs the return of the gift someday (or, at least desires it, as is the case with God), we must face this problem: the self-interest of giving is precisely what tempts us to become selfish by exerting coercion or control.

But there is a solution that doesn’t require the inherent arrogance, disconnection, and isolation of disinterested giving. I’ll visit that in my final post.


The Myth of Selfless Giving, Part 2

Click here for Part 1.

In the previous post, I said that gifts are a commerce of kinship, whereby bonds of loyalty and love are created on the basis of an expectation of return. In order to understand why we tend to insist on believing the Modern myth of pure, selfless giving, it’s important to understand how and why giving must be protected from corruption.

The Commodification of Gifts 
With market-based commerce, we convert resources into commodities and trade them for cash so we can avoid creating kinship bonds with people. Cash creates boundaries, or allows them to remain intact, precisely because it eliminates all reciprocal debts. Once I pay you for a good or service, we are unburdened by any further obligation. We are both open about our interests, we agree upon the terms, and we execute the exchange. It’s a clean transaction.

That’s not altogether a bad thing. After all, we can’t be connected in kinship to a very large number of people. We couldn’t function in a society where every human interaction created a loyalty debt.

The problem in a marketplace society like ours comes in when we try to commodify things that are inherently gift-oriented. Because gifts are meant to create and deepen bonds of kinship, and because cash is explicitly meant to avoid such ties, any confusion of a gift with a directly profitable transaction runs the risk of destroying bonds of kinship.

This is why its awkward to loan money to family, or do business with close friends. We intuitively understand that treating kin like clients or customers damages the grace (a word that literally means “gift”) of interdependent relationships.

Key to this is understanding that a gift is not just something we happen to give away, it’s something we first receive. Specifically, it’s anything we receive that is dependent on something uncontrollable and external for it’s production – what we often call “inspiration,” or “wisdom,” or “love” or “God.” It therefore can’t be directly duplicated or manufactured without destroying it’s spirit. A gift cannot made, it can only be received and grown.

Consider how art works. Yes, you can “make” a piece of pottery or furniture and give it as a gift. But we consider such gifts to be more than a mere object. Even if the work is less than skillful, less than beautiful, if it was made and given by someone near and dear to us we imbue it with it own spirit, often saying it was “made with love.” When such objects rise to the level of “art,” even if it was made by a stranger, we it is say it was “inspired.” What we mean by this is that the artist alone didn’t make it; there was some other thing involved, some magic or muse that worked through the artist to beget something truly unique. That object now has a spirit that we desire and value beyond the crass exchange of money. If we do buy it, we compensate for that crassness by paying a great sums of money for it.

The effort to quantify and commodify these “gifts” in our culture has resulted in a crisis for the people most associated with them. This is why artists, teachers, ministers, and musicians stereotypically struggle for acceptance and prosperity in a market-based society, and those who do “make it” are often accused of “selling out.” Why? Because “making it” in a market society generally means selling commodities, and the very act of turning your gift into a vulgar commodity destroys the spirit of the gift.

Likewise, selfish giving seeks to turn a gift into commodities (or disguise commodities as gifts) in order to control their repayment. This is usually what we’re referring to when we denigrate certain kinds of “gifts” from certain people as “having strings attached.” We mean that they’re trying to control us or the gift – or both. In other words, it’s no gift at all.

So, that’s the danger we’re trying to avoid when we insist on pure, selfless, disinterested giving: gifts that seek to control us.

But just because good givers have relinquished control doesn’t mean gifts must be selfless and bear no obligation of return. All good gifts bear a burden of reciprocity, because that is exactly how they bind us together. In this sense, there’s no such thing as a gift with “no strings attached.” In fact, the greater the gift, the greater the obligation.

The Myth of Selfless Giving, Part 1

There’s a lot of buzz these days about Philanthro-capitalism and how Mark Zuckerberg is re-inventing charity. It reminds me of a story NPR ran a few years ago about the Red Campaign. In it, they talk to Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd from the story, who laments:

“I do feel like, as a country, we have lost a sense of morality for its own sake,” says Harvard professor and psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who teaches about moral development. “You should just be generous to be generous. You should do what’s right because it’s right, not because of what you get back.”

We’re hearing lots of statements like this in response to Zuckerberg’s announcement and frankly they all strike me as dangerously naive. While I do have my own serious concerns with Philanthro-capitalism, there’s no such thing as selfless giving.

A Commerce of Kinship
There’s an inherent expectation for a return in every act of generosity – and it’s a good thing too. Self-interest is what keeps us connected in kinship. The problem is when I try to coerce the act of generosity away from the blind faith inherent in giving toward a transcendent ego (of which I am a part), and turn it instead into a quid-pro-quo transaction that directly pays me back in some way. For the Pharisees in Matthew 6 the direct repayment was status or reputation. The same could be argued for those who buy Red products. Conscientious capitalism usually turns on the immediate repayment of an enhanced reputation or image (as well as the obvious repayment of a tangible good or service, or in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, an actual profitable return on his philanthro-capitalist investment).

This is when generosity becomes a pure commodity. Or, perhaps more accurately, when ownership is disguised as charity.

Now, it’s true that Jesus condemned selfish giving in Matt 6but he did appeal to self-interested giving. Look more closely at that passage. Is Jesus really promoting a pure, selfless, disinterested charity? If so, then why does he promised a “reward” for virtuous giving (Matt 6 verses 4,6,14,18, and 20). The distinction is that Jesus appeals to a reward that we cannot coerce or control, because it is a delayed reward that is from God by faith through the Kingdom.

So the purpose of giving is not to “Do what’s right because it’s right.” That’s altruistic fundamentalism. Weissbourd may as well have said, “We should give because the Bible says so.” Rather, the purpose of giving is to create bonds of gratitude, loyalty, and love between people. That kind of kinship is impossible without an expectation for some kind of reciprocity.

For example, you wouldn’t continue loving your spouse if she ceased to love you back (at least, if she was still capable of doing so). You might hold out for a while – perhaps even a very long while – but the truth is, humans can’t remain lovingly connected to others who don’t or won’t reciprocate; not to a spouse, a friend, a child (once they reach a certain age), or even to God.

Like all gifts, love must be shared – that is, quite literally, moved back and forth, or passed around a group, in order to grow. Otherwise, it dies. Gifts owe their existence to the contribution of an other.

We tend to deny this because we intuitively understand that to capitalize on the reciprocal nature of giving would corrupt it, usually by becoming a means of coercion. And that’s true. But it doesn’t change the fact that we really do give in order to receive, even if we willfully blind ourselves to that fact in order to avoid the temptation of abusing that very power.

Still, just because we tend to blind ourselves to it doesn’t meant there’s no commerce in giving. Rather than a commerce of power or cash, true gifts move in a commerce of kinship. That’s what gifts are for.


Offering Plate Alternatives, Part 3

This is the third and final installment in my Offer Plate Alternatives series. Here’s a quick recap:

5 Reasons to Stop Passing the Offering Plate

In the beginning I stated that there is no good reason why most churches today should continue passing an offering plate. It’s logistically ineffective, socially awkward, and contributes to the wrong kind of worship culture. The only reason to continue is to preserve a tradition that some might find meaningful. That’s an important consideration, but it can be overcome. Click here to read all five reasons.

Tip #1: Get to know people and ask them directly

In the first tip, I suggest that the best way to build healthy, sustainable giving is to get to know people and ask them for their contributions directly. The development of a genuine spirituality of giving in your church isn’t a process of sales, marketing, or manipulation. It’s a process of pastoral care. Click here to read the post.

Tip #2: Invite people into personal giving

In the second tip, I visit the results of a long-neglected study of 600 congregations who found there was a far more effective way to engage people around giving. By implementing this one change, churches doubled or tripled their membership giving. By making this switch, your church would be free to explore better ways to empower people’s giving. Click here to read the post.

Which bring is to our third and final tip…

Tip #3: Give people multiple & meaningful ways to give

Make it accessible

Churches aren’t just places or spaces. More essentially they’re communities of faith with one highly countercultural and conspicuous feature: they live out an alternative economy of generosity, committed to meeting each others needs and the needs of the most vulnerable in the surrounding area through the generous grace of God.

That means they give.

If you’re going to ask people in your church to give – and you should – then you should also give them as many different ways to do so as possible. Not everyone is inclined to give the same way and not everyone thinks about their giving at the same time.

In other words, make giving accessible to everyone.

Lower the barriers to giving by providing ways for people to give in person, online, through the mail, on their smart phone, by walking in to your church office and handing someone a check, etc. When you send a letter, include a self-addressed reply envelope. Offer a direct phone number people can call when they have questions about giving to your church, and make sure someone answers that phone and returns messages quickly.

You get the picture. If you’re only offering people one way to give, then you’re cutting out a huge number of people who may very well be willing to give, but your method just doesn’t meet their needs.

Make it automatic

While you’re at it, offer people an opportunity to automate their giving by setting up direct debit from their bank account.

Now, some people in your congregation will hate this, so keep in mind the culture of your church before you set this up. But, the younger your church is, the more likely there is a significant and growing number of people (like me) who wantthe opportunity to make their regular giving automatic.

I’m a good example of the kind of person who prefers this. When I give to charity, I give purposefully. I want to fulfill the commitment I make, but I’m also absent-minded. Deadlines wave cheerily as they pass me by and afterwards I get frustrated for not remembering to take out my checkbook at the right time.

You have lots of people like this in your church.

The beauty of automatic debits for a person like me is that I can use tools to make up for my absent-mindedness. This enables me to keep the sincere commitments I made and turns my giving into a positive experience rather than an exercise in frustration.

Give people that kind of positive experience, whoever they may be.

Don’t strong-arm anyone into giving any particular way. Some people will hate automatic giving, and they’ll resent it when you try to push them in that direction. Just offer it as an option, and watch how people like me start giving more, simply because you’ve made it easier for them to do so.

Make it tangible

Last tip. And this one might seem like a contradiction to the first two, but it isn’t. Create opportunities for people’s giving to be tangible and concrete.

Because of the myriad of tools listed above, financial giving to churches is becoming as intangible as prayer. That can become a problem when you’re trying to help people engage in giving as a spiritual formation practice.

Take a cue from prayer practices like lighting prayer candles, using prayer beads, or praying in groups where intercession becomes a communal experience.

In the same way, give people ways to express their giving physically and communally.

Here are three ideas I’ve seen used effectively:

  • Make giving an act of worship. Create a time in your worship gatherings where people can come forward and offer their gifts in physical way. This could be cash, check, or even a pledge card if it’s done during a campaign. This reverses the flow of the typical offering and gives people a chance to come to the altar in a worship expression.
  • Give small groups power over their giving: In small group settings, you can integrate a family’s giving into their process of discipleship and connect them to the impact of their giving at the same time by having group manage a portion of their own giving. Invite them to agree on a local outreach cause, then give them control over a healthy percentage of their own giving in order to fund that cause. This puts the power of the outreach budget squarely in the hands of the people who are giving.
  • Represent your church’s generosity artfully and inspirationally: In churches where there has been a giving campaign for a significant purpose – like a capital campaign or an endowment fund – smart organizations represent their supporters giving in artful ways in order to remember the effort and inspire others to give. This may be anything from an art installation, a supporters garden, or a donor wall. One church I was on staff with created a quilt made from the hand-painted artwork of members in the congregation, which was then displayed on the wall as a reminder of that collective effort. These kinds of physical representations become a regular and powerful reminder of the generosity of the community.

These are just three representative examples, but there are a number of ways to make giving more tangible, more formational, and therefore more abundant.

If you have examples of your own, share in the comments below!


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