America is the most altruistic nation in the world, in terms of giving. So reports the 2011 World Giving Index (WGI), published by Charities Aid Foundation, that calculates responses to the following:
Have you done any of the following in the past month:
- Donated money to a charity?
- Helped a stranger or someone you didn’t know who needed help?
- Volunteered your time to an organization?
While the report is certainly an interesting look into the ubiquity of generosity around the globe, the findings offer a distinct challenge to the American Christian in the present season of giving: How does one demonstrate faith through giving?
The proliferation of humanitarian causes and apparatus for advertising and collecting donations has operated as a middleman between benefactor and beneficiary. Through a text, status update or tweet, we can declare our benevolence without interacting with a real individual in need. This nascent method of philanthropy might have been what the famed American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he quipped, “I hate giving of the hand unless the whole man accompanies it.”
Giving shouldn’t be easy. And yet, as Americans, we endeavor at this time of year, as compassionate consumers, to shop for the most efficient way to spend our money. Should we not pause to consider whether our current practices of giving resemble that which God has called us to do?
Now, back to the WGI. While America found itself as the world’s leading giver, with 65 percent of respondents having given money in the past month, only 43 percent had volunteered time.
Now, consider this. Within the oft-cited parable of the Good Samaritan, we’re presented with an archetype of what it means to help another in need. The subplot to this narrative, however, is the fact that the Samaritan was moved to action first. Saddling up a stranger left for dead brought its share of inconvenience—nevermind the socio-cultural implications of a Samaritan caring for a Jew. Then we discover that after the Samaritan had taken action, he offered monetary support for the victim, too.
This “Samaritan model” is worth our consideration. Historically, the Church has been the vanguard of compassion activism, as demonstrated in instances like the great epidemic of the second-century Roman Empire. While many fled the areas oppressed by the virus, the broad swath of Christians remained behind to nurse and care for the sick. An early Christian patriarch, Tertullian, extolled the Church’s volunteerism, saying, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’”
In the U.S., charitable giving is an act that accompanies a myriad of highly codified legal and tax ramifications. Thus, while those residing in the U.S. certainly belong to one the most generous groups in the world, it should not be ignored that philanthropy has been acutely incentivized since the 1917 charitable deduction law. As Americans, we have become accustomed to philanthropy as an endeavor that is not merely an act of altruism, but something the federal government has essentially rewarded for nearly 100 years. Incentives and rewards are not limited to the tax code, either, as generous gifts to nonprofits and other tax-deductible institutions tend to result in name recognition and other perks deriving from one’s gift giving.
To Ralph Waldo Emerson’s point, though: Are we giving of our entire selves, or are we expecting something in return when we give? What if we, as American Christians, would seek to volunteer our time and talent before our treasure? Sure, we could continue tithing and giving, but instead of throwing money at social ills, what would it look like if we employed the dramatic measure of simply being present, like the Samaritan and early Church were? What if we tithed our time?
Advent provides a prescient opportunity for us to do just this by focusing on giving presence rather presents. It is through the prophet Isaiah that we are foretold of Emmanuel—the coming presence of God on earth. As one pastor put it recently, we should view Christmas as God Most High becoming God Most Nigh.
Opportunities abound for us to tithe our time and be Christians that accompany our giving with our entire selves. Before setting out to identify where you might do this, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Where can I be useful?
Make an attempt to offer your time to an organization dealing with an issue for which you have prior knowledge or skills.
2. What will give me the most contact with individuals?
Remember the point: tithing of time with people.
3. Why am I volunteering?
Understand your motivations, as this will enable a good selection and positive experience.
4. Who can I volunteer with?
Tell someone else about your interest in time tithing and ask them to join you.
5. How can I continue the time tithe?
Whether your experience is positive or not, make sure you glean some level of understanding about what went right or wrong for future opportunities—and then try again.
Jesus commended the Samaritan for giving his time and then giving his money to one in need. In our overwrought culture, time is increasingly more valuable than money. Thankfully, God has provisioned 24 hours a day for all of us—which affords every Christian equal opportunity to emulate the Samaritan model. This Advent and beyond, may we consider giving our entire selves—which includes our time—as we extend our hands to those in need.
Jeremy Taylor is a doctoral student at Regent University and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions.