Advocating For the Poor

There are well over a hundred verses in the Bible about caring for the poor. These take various forms: some condemn the wicked for their oppression or disregard for the poor, some talk about God’s concern for the poor and the hope He offers them, and many are also direct mandates to care for the poor. Of these verses, most of these speak in general terms about caring for the poor, but others discuss the specific ways that we should care for the poor. While the general nature of these verses should compel us to care for the poor in any way possible, there are more specific mandates. There are two main mechanisms to help the poor;we find a number of passages instructing us to give to this poor (financially, or with goods), and there are also sets of passages instructing us to advocate for or defend the cause of the poor. These passages include verses like Psalms 72:4, Proverbs 29:7, and Proverbs 31:5-9.

These verses are translated in variety of different ways, including “defend the afflicted”, “care about justice for the poor” (NIV), “defend the poor”, “care about the rights of the poor” (NLT), “defends the poor”, “knows the rights of the poor” (ESV), “considers the cause of the poor” (NKJV). In contrast to giving to the poor, these verses speak to the importance of working to ensure that the poor have a just, fair, and equitable life and opportunity in society. This might have the most literal implications for a judge, but for us (assuming you aren’t actually a judge), we need to think a little more about how we can proactively pursue this command.

Outside a direct position of making judicial or governing decisions in regards to the poor, I believe our primary role in fulfilling this command is found in advocating for the poor. As citizens we do indeed have an influence on government. And following these two Biblical categories of instructions for the physical welfare of the poor, giving to the poor and advocating for the poor, the first can be carried out by offering our material (financial or goods) resources, the second by offering our influence (certainly we should also pray for the poor and care about their spiritual and relational needs as well). Our giving page talks about opportunities for the first, but I wanted to consider our second in this post. While often it may feel that the only way we can help the poorest of the poor is with money, advocacy gives the opportunity to invest our time and voice as well.

I have previously written about how our citizenship is a profoundly substantial resource. And this isn’t just a subjective superlative, our influence as an American voter can be objectively and literally measured; every voter effectively influences roughly $25,000 per year in government funds, which doesn’t even include other impacts the government has. If we are called to defend the poor, our voting privileges give us the ability to defend the poor with advocacy that has potential for very meaningful and substantial benefit to the poor.

So what are ways that we can defend and care for the poor through advocacy? And what does that look like for an American citizen?

The great opportunity that we have is found in simply contacting our representatives and encouraging them to have concern for the poorest. There are numerous bills to consider and budget decisions that they will make, and as they come to focus, we can easily email, write, and call them to push that to consider first and foremost how to protect the most vulnerable. Even calling a representative is very easy. An aide will answer the phone, you can tell them what position you want your representative to take, and they will politely record your response. Remember, they want your vote, so they are always very friendly, and will never argue or dispute (unless, perhaps you insult them, but I have never tried that).

Probably the easiest and most effective way to get involved in advocacy is to join or even just follow (mailing list, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you prefer) a poverty advocacy group. These groups often will research and follow legislation as it is considered, and send information on who you can call and when, to promote bills that help the poor. These groups all invest effort in research to ensure that they are advocating for the most effective measures and policies to help the poor. There are several great groups that help citizens advocate for the poor:
Bread for the World – This is Bible-based Christian group, working to fight for the poor, here and abroad, although they tend to be more focused on domestic issues (I tend to believe that domestic policy tweaks are more complicated with smaller impact).
RESULTS – This group is probably the best organization at specifically equipping and training people to advocate for the poor in an effective way. They offer numerous ways to engage, and provide a lot of assistance in how to influence representatives, and will often organize in-person meetings with representatives and letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers.
ONE – This is probably the largest poverty advocacy group, and they do a great job staying focused on the most severe international poverty issues. This group is more focused on mobilizing large numbers of people, so they offer very-low effort advocacy opportunities (sometimes just clicking through to sign a petition, sometimes encouraging a quick phone call), but don’t tend to push for as much depth as RESULTS.

There are also a number of other advocacy groups that also do great work, but tend to be more focused on technical suggestions and in-person lobbying, or advocacy with foreign governments, rather than getting members to advocate. This is very important and effective work, but these groups are supported more through financial donations, and rely less on personal advocacy. This may be a great way to be involved if you have more money, and less time (but I wanted to focus more on personal advocacy in this post). These include groups like Jubilee (focused on debt relief and more technical trade and tax issues), International Justice Mission (focused on criminal justice systems in other countries), and Oxfam (focused on an array of social justice issues with various governments).

It is easy to be cynical of online advocacy. We often see online petitions going around. Does this really have any impact? Recently, our local RESULTS group sent out a request to contact representative Chris Stewart to encourage him to co-sponsor a bill that starts a working group in USAID to better support child and maternal health in developing countries. There were about seven or eight of us that called his office to encourage co-sponsorship, and sure enough, he agreed to sign on. It is worth understanding the significance of this. Representative Stewart represents about 700,000 people. Each of us were effectively representing the voice of about 100,000 residents by our simple phone calls! This is an incredible level of influence and impact! People often think that voting is the key to change, but our vote has a relatively small influence compared to the influence we carry by actually contacting our representatives.

Some may be concerned that some of the policies may not be effective. These groups’ advocacy is often focused on aid efforts, and often “foreign aid” is frequently criticized. However, “foreign aid” tends to be an unhelpfully vague term, often encompassing completely different types of international funding from military funding of other developed countries, to programs really directed at the poor, and an anecdotal examples of waste and misuse tend to ignore the incredible impact of well-targeted aid programs. Most of the efforts that advocacy groups fight for are around health initiatives, education, and microfinance. They are very well monitored, with excellent accountability, that save and empower countless lives and really are about giving the poor a fair opportunity, saving them from the injustice of preventable diseases, inaccessible schooling, or lack of basic capital. There may be critics of other types of foreign aid, but there is little, if any actual debate about the positive impact of such efforts to help the poor. In fact, it is almost undisputed that these efforts save more lives per dollar than basically any other government expenditure. This is less of question of efficacy and more about making the poor a priority. This is very straightforward way of simply being a voice to help the poor.

Finally, in closing I’d like to point out that one of the great things about advocacy is that it is complementary to giving. Are you already giving all you can to help the poor? Great, you can engage in advocacy without have to cut giving somewhere else. While you glorify God with your finances by giving, advocacy is something you can do with your time and voice.

Kris’ 2015 Book Reviews

It’s a little late, but here is a review of the books I read in 2015. I actually didn’t finish most of these books, or in some cases skimmed them pretty quickly. I think I have increasingly felt that when my goal is to gain more knowledge (or wisdom), with limited time, the time it takes to fully read a book is sometimes better spent spent quickly skimming or reading several book summaries, and gaining the broader perspective of multiple authors. Of course, I don’t expect that to be true for everyone. If you have more time to read, or actually enjoy reading… Anyway, here are some quick summaries of things I have read (at least some of, even though I didn’t finish all these books).

A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof – This book followed Nicholas Kristof’s amazing book, Half the Sky. This is a great book, as it looks at some of the great injustices in our world, and focuses on practical ways that we can help. This book is not mere theory and sad stories, it is full of hope and concrete, positive suggestions. However, I personally grew a bit bored reading this book; I think Kristof follows all the same blogs and research that I do, and his suggestions echoed what I heard others say (although I certainly agree with them). However, I don’t think that would be as much of an issue for others.

A Farewell To Mars by Brian Zahnd – A friend posted that this book was available for free, so I thought I would skim some of it. I was very impressed, Zahnd is in incredible author, and this book is remarkably thought-provoking and challenging. Brian Zahnd is focused on resisting the urge towards violence, and even though I am not a pacifist, his perspective is very thoughtful and his challenges to the church should definitely be heard.

Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly – Easterly is a well-known aid critic, so I wanted to read for another perspective. He offered some good insights. Most of these critiques are actually more aimed at improving the quality of our research, approach, and efforts to help those in developing countries, not to eliminate such efforts. Unfortunately, his comments are often pulled out of context and used by those looking for an excuse to not be generous and help the developing world.

The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier – This book examines the countries where the poorest of the poor live, and what are the forces that have kept them in poverty. This looks at the frustrated issue of fragile and unstable states and the economics of international trade and considers the right time for military intervention in countries that face violent upheaval. This book is considered a classic of international development, and I learned a lot.

Politics for Christians by Francis Beckwith – This book is more about political philosophy. I suppose it is a decent survey of how different philosophies have shaped politics, but it ultimately doesn’t deal directly with existing political issues (at least in any useful or distinctively Christian way), nor offer any real meaningful or new thoughts on the subjects. The preface, by J.P. Moreland, on Christian integrative thought was really good, though. But it went downhill once the book actually started.

Healing by Francis MacNutt – This is a good book looking closely at the subject of healing, and is regarded by some as the definitive book on the theology of healing. I didn’t read the entire book, but skimmed through some of the key parts. I am already a believer in healing, so I don’t think he really suggested anything contrary to what I already believed. One particular entertaining aspect of this book is seeing the intersection of a Catholic priest in pursuit of social justice working side-by-side with the charismatic movement. What a fun combination this must have been (and I am not being sarcastic, there are great stories at these intersections of perspectives). Probably the most challenging and defining question about healing (at least for those that believe in it) is how we understand and respond when healing doesn’t or hasn’t yet occurred for someone. He had a chapter on this, which offered some insights, but I think there could be a lot more to explore and consider on God’s purposes in this, that the book only lightly touched on it.

Most of my reading during a typical day is outside of books, so I thought I might mention a few favorites there. My favorite blog (of original content) is probably still Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology, who continues to produce very thought-provoking content (even if I don’t agree with all of it). My favorite new (to me) blog I started reading is Bruce Wydick’s Across Two Worlds. Wydeck is a Christian economist who has extensively studied and researched child sponsorship programs, and found very positive results, and he offers a lot of unique perspectives.

The Church and the Kingdom, Part 2

This is part 2 in a series on the way my understanding of certain term used in the bible and in Christianese has changed and how that has affected my faith. You can read the first part here
In the previous post, I looked at what I have been learning about the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Kingdom. I used to vaguely consider these simply other words for Christianity, but I have come to think of these as very distinct. The Church has the specific purpose of nurturing, training, and preparing people to follow Christ, and ultimately model the community that should arise from following Christ. The Kingdom is the actual actions of following Christ. In this post, I want to consider a few other terms, and how they relate.

Other Terms

Within scriptures, the word “Christianity” is never actually used, and other forms, like “Christian” are only used a few times. There are instead several other words that are used that are applicable to our concept our “Christianity”, and I wanted to try to describe my understand of these distinct words and concepts.

The Believers

This is the most simple and straightforward description in scriptures for the collection of people that believe in and follow Christ. This is probably most analogous to what we mean when we say “Christians”.

The Way

“The Way” was the initial term that Christians used to describe their religion. This term obviously emphasized the teachings of Jesus as a distinctive “way” of living. In Acts, it is reported that they soon started to be called Christians by outsiders. The Christians didn’t seem to object to this, and as the early church increasingly understood and formulated the divinity of Christ and His centrality, the name seemes fitting, even though it was rarely mentioned in scriptures.

Brothers, Children of God

If you look up all the references to brothers and children of God, they seem to exclusively refer to believers. However, it can be easy to recognize the object of these terms, but miss the meaning. If we take these terms to be nothing more than a synonym or replacement for believers, this would seem to suggest that the Bible uses these words as a code word, to obscure the meaning, rather than using the clearer term “believer”. But of course these terms aren’t intended to be obscure, but rather add meaning. So while the object of these words is the believers, the descriptive meaning that these terms add to the reference to believers is to describe a familial, relational connection between believers with each other and with God (which builds our understanding of the Church and the Kingdom). When we see these terms we should recognize that scriptures is pointing us to a relational element (and not just a code word for believers).

Christianity

Again, the term “Christianity” doesn’t appear in scriptures, but I was comparing other words with it, so it seems worthwhile to try to define this as well. Being more colloquially originated, Christianity has come to mean more of the culture of Christians. Christians certainly do have their own sub-culture, with certain language characteristics (Christianese), worldview, ideologies, and traditions. However, not only does the term “Christianity” not really have a Biblical origination, but the sub-culture, like any other sub-culture is often a mix of perspectives and ways, some that are redemptive, and some that are in opposition to Christ’s teaching. Christianity, as a culture, needs to be transformed and redeemed by the Kingdom of God, just like every other culture.

OT Precedent

Perhaps another helpful way of distinguishing between the Kingdom and the Church is to look at their Old Testament precedence. For the Kingdom, the precedence is found in the theocratic kingdom represented by the Davidic line of Kings. The Davidic succession of Kings found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ as the ultimate King of the Kingdom. And their battles they waged, in their partial understanding (Col 1:25-27), are representative of the real battle that was to be revealed.

For the church, finding the precedence might seem a little harder. Conventantal theology sometimes is described as treating the church as a successor to Israel. While I definitely affirm conventantal theology (that there is no distinct spiritual category of people with obligated blessing based on ethnicity, Matt 3:9, which clearly contradicts dispensational teaching), the church as a successor isn’t quite precise. According to Romans 9:6-8, it is the believers, the children of God, that are the true heirs of Israel. It might also be tempting to compare the Church, or at least its ministers, to the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. This is also misguided. The purpose of this priesthood was to act as a mediator between the people and God. The necessity of this function was decimated at the cross, when the veil was torn, and all believers were effectively made priests, with direct access to God. This also means that the associated rituals of the Aaronic priesthood, like animal sacrifices, a temple, and required tithes do not carry forward to the church.

However, finding the precedence of the church in the Old Testament is actually much easier than searching for metaphors. Why? Because the church is actually frequently referenced in the Old Testament. Now, of course, this may sound like a bizarre claim, as you probably have never seen the word “church” in the Old Testament. But, that is because you are reading an English Bible, and an artifact of English translation is the Hebrew equivalent word is traditionally not translated into “church”. However, the Hebrew word that is most equivalent to “church” or “ekklesia” is the Hebrew word “qahal”. And this Hebrew word for church (and it is varying forms, including a verb form) not only is mentioned in the OT, it occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament (and even in the Septuagint, this is typically translated to Ekklesia, and occurs 80 times there). If you want to see the church in the Old Testament, just look for this word, which is typically translated more literally as “assembly”, “congregation”, or in verb form as “gather”. Now, I would certainly affirm that, thanks to Paul’s epistles, the church is much more fully developed in the NT, but it certainly is present and described in the OT.

What does this mean for us?

In response to my first post, a friend asked how (mis)understandings in these things work themselves out (for good or ill) today. This is a great question, and I don’t really have a complete answer. I wrote this post more to try to wrestle with the relationship and responsibility of these different aspects of God at work in His people. As a church leader, I feel it is important that I try to understand this. However, to take a rough stab at how a lack of distinction in these concepts might affect our thinking, I will offer this: I think we have tried a little too hard to make our virtuous efforts be tied to a Christian source. My assertion would be that when we pursue helping the poor, social justice, or evangelism, that there doesn’t need to be a church banner flying overhead, because the church isn’t and doesn’t need to claim direct responsibility. God will be glorified by these actions, (eventually), even if the immediate audience isn’t aware. This may diminish the church in one respect; in terms of our expectation of its direct capabilities. However, I think this (greatly) magnifies the Church in another respect. I like to characterize the role of the Church as a catalyst, and a catalyst can often trigger something that is orders of magnitude greater and larger than the catalyst itself. The Church has, can, and will continue to plant seeds of change that permeate and grow far beyond what the individuals themselves could ever accomplish. Through the Church is a thrilling and amazing potential! Lowly followers of Christ, by gathering to disciple and encourage, have triggered new patterns of living that have rippled through generations and have truly formed and shaped the world we live in today. We can and should legitimately hope to see our gatherings do the same today and tomorrow.

Putting This All Together

If I were to try to weave these together, I think I would say this:
Believers are called to periodically come gather together, like a family, relationally and lovingly, to train, nurture, equip, encourage, and prepare each other for following Christ’s way, that we might live our lives (not only inside, but outside the church) obeying the ways of the Kingdom, showing the way, like a catalyst, for transformation (for all cultures including Christianity) to a new way of living. As we do this, and manifest the Kingdom of God, demonstrating compassionate, merciful, and just ways, we tear down the barriers between ourselves, and draw people to gather together in harmony, a delight to Christ, radiating as His bride, walking in ways that anticipate our future closer union and gathering as relational community with Him.

Scarcity

One of the most important contexts from which we demonstrate our affections, and our love is in the context of scarcity. Scarcity is the reality we all face (in differing levels of course), in making decisions about how to use our finite and limited resources. The decisions we make within this context reveal our true desires and pursuits.

Within Christianity there is tendency to ignore or downplay scarcity, because we serve and can petition a God with unlimited resources (Matt 7:7, John 14:3). However, these verses are caveated by being in accordance with God’s will, rather than our own. This means that these verses are intended to give us hope and comfort of a God who can and will provide for us, but it does not mean that we do not need to make decisions on how to best use the finite resources given to us. We often easily redefine “faith” to be about ignoring scarcity, but in fact, the concept of stewardship as expressed in scriptures (Like 12:48, Matt 25:14-30) is all about making decisions with finite resources. Faith does not ignore our finite resources, it acknowledges them. The reality is that we continually have to make decisions about how to use our time, effort, and money. We buy items, with a limited amount in our bank account. We schedule our time, we have a fixed amount of time each week. We only have so much effort we can expend before we are exhausted.

But, rather than being discouraged by this, we should understand how valuable this situation is in giving us an opportunity to demonstrate our love and affections. Imagine for an instance, if my wife needed a vehicle, but I wanted to buy a fancy sports car for myself. If I had unlimited resources, I could simply buy both. While on the surface, this might seem loving, as I gave my wife what she wanted. But, I really have not demonstrated much, other than I can swipe my unlimited credit card with ease. However, in the context of scarcity, working to meet a loved ones needs takes a new meaning, as we actually make sacrifices of our own wants to help another. From this, love is truly demonstrated. Love is demonstrated by what we are willing to give up, our true affections are proven by what lesser affections are willingly set aside for a greater one.

One of the reasons God took on flesh, as Christ, was to demonstrate living in the scarcity of the human existence. In this, he was able to truly demonstrate and prove his love for us, and demonstrate his true affections. Anyone with the slightest bit of imagination could easily come up with laundry list of things that we would have liked God to do while he was here on earth, if he was acting with unlimited resources. We might wish that we would have setup hospitals on every corner, implemented robots that caught every criminal, and discipled every believer (and don’t think he couldn’t have made robots that are way better disciples than you and I), and put reader boards in the sky proclaiming the gospel. But, as demonstration of his love and affections, he operated with scarce resources (and quite scarce, his carpentry work probably wasn’t that financially lucrative, and he had relatively short time/life to work with). And consequently, by looking at his life, we can see the things that God truly regarded as important and worth pursuing. Where Christ spent his time and energy clearly reveal God’s greatest desires.

This doesn’t mean that we voluntarily choose to be poor. One of our resources is time, and using this finite resource to produce more resources (like money or other good, for the benefit of others, and glory of God), is good stewardship. Our resources are also not bounded, there is no fixed bound on how big of impact we can make with our efforts (there is a critical difference between bounded and finite). Exchanging resources is a key way that we do the most with what we have been given. But ultimately we will still need to decide for who and what purpose we will use what we have.

Our affections are revealed by how we respond to scarcity. We may affirm the goodness and value of many things, but our financial statements reveal what we truly regard as important. And our schedules reveal what we truly care about. We live in a society where people seldom say no to things that they really want, for the sake of something else. But this demonstrates our affections with the greatest of clarity. Our finite-ness gives us the opportunity to unmistakably declare what we value, what we love, and what we prioritize.

The Nature of Christian Persecution

What is the nature of Christian persecution and opposition? Jesus declared that we should expect to face persecution, and throughout history, Christians have often faced different types of oppression and hardships for their. Christians have come to not only expect persecution, but will even find validation in opposition from society. What types of opposition have Christians experienced, what are “good” forms of opposition, and what type of hardships should we reasonably expect and prepare for?

Jesus set the expectation for persecution early on, saying: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”. Jesus went on to encourage and even suggest reward for those who face this persecution.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

First, it is important to remember that persecution or hardship can never alone be used to validate the truth of one’s ways. This is a classic example of the genetic fallacy. Genetic fallacy is when we argue for or against something because of who believes it. A silly example would be saying that Nazi’s drank water, so therefore water is evil. A more serious example, is that Westboro Baptist firmly believe that they are doing the right thing with their ugly protests, and they say the opposition they receive proves it. We must be careful not to fall for genetic fallacy, and assume that since there is opposition that challenges our beliefs, therefore our beliefs must be right. Sometimes we face opposition for our beliefs, because our beliefs are wrong.

However, while recognizing that we can’t use opposition as a solid basis of truth, it is still helpful to recognize what types of patterns of persecution to legitimately expect. We can look for these both in scriptures and in history.

As we look at the verses above, this already gives some narrowing definition to legitimate persecution. Legitimate persecution is tied to who Jesus is and what he represents: righteousness. Certainly the great prototype and example of suffering religious persecution, is Christ Himself. So can we draw from His example?

One of the first things to notice is the source of Jesus’ persecution. The challenges and conflict that led to the cross are a major theme in the gospels. And who is the opposition in this conflict with Jesus? The Pharisees. These were the religious leaders of the day. And these weren’t just any religious leaders, they were, in fact the religious leaders of Jesus’ own religion. They (attempted to) follow the same God that Jesus preached. They were the proto-Judeo-Christian leaders of the day. They were the church leaders. In fact if we look more closely at the major theological division of the day; the resurrection, the Pharisees would even legitimately be categorized as the same denomination as Jesus. Yet these leaders were the major force of opposition and ultimately persecution against Christ. (And I say this as a leader in our church; it is humbling to remember that I am in position which is so prone to being in opposition to Christ).

This story of persecution continues well into Acts, as the early followers of “The Way”, as they called themselves, were thrown and imprisoned and killed. And again, who was the source of these attacks? They were the dominant church/religious institute. The conflicts between the dominant religion and the followers of “The Way” are the main narrative of Acts as they (the disciples) challenge the power structures and traditions of the “church” at the time (the religious organizations).

As Americans, we should recall our history, to be keenly aware of our experience with this. The pilgrims themselves were a group that were persecuted. And who were they being persecuted by? That’s right, again, the Christian leaders and organizational structure of their society. And even within our country Christians spearheaded the oppression of Salem Witch Trials and defended slavery.

Christians have come to expect persecution to come from secular society, but the Biblical narrative and even American’s own history demonstrate that isn’t always the case. They indicate that to follow Jesus is to invite hardship and challenge from Christians and their culture, as much as anyone else. If we are truly follow Christ’s radical and revolutionary call, that turns the natural way of religion upside down, this is as likely to illicit backlash from the Christian culture as anywhere else. The point is that Christ’s teaching are so contrary to our natural ways, that it is a challenge to every culture and sub-culture, whether it be Greek, Jew, American, or even Christian culture.

Now again it is worth remembering that persecution from either side does not validate the truth. You aren’t correct just because you are being opposed by Christians either.

Let’s also consider what types of activities actually lead to persecution. Being persecuted simply for what religion you belong to is actually quite rare. There are indeed cases of it. However, if you study the statistics on Christian persecution, you will see enormous variations in the counts. Why is this? It is because persecution solely due to religious affiliation is extremely rare. But persecution due to religiously inspired or commanded activities is much more common. Categorizing these activities as religious is naturally very difficult and subjective.

Again, this is demonstrated by scriptural accounts as well. They didn’t crucify Jesus because he was a “Christian” or believed in God. In fact, if his only teaching was just that he worshiped YHWH, he would have been welcomed with open arms. Jesus wasn’t crucified simply for being Jesus of Nazareth, or for his religious affiliation. Nor was Jesus even persecuted for laws that he established. In fact, the crime that Jesus was crucified for was clearly stated: sedition, or insurrection.

This points to the fundamental nature of most legitimate persecution in the world. Persecution isn’t usually about religious affiliation. It is not even about what laws the Bible teaches. Persecution is about power. Jesus wasn’t persecuted because he had some good sermons, or for a particular set of rules. He was persecuted because he was subverting the power structures and hierarchy around him. Jesus represented a threat to the order of power that the religious leaders were wielded. Jesus was turning this upside down, creating a kingdom where the first will be last, where the weak are lifted up and the strong are torn down. And this upheaval was not welcome by those at the top of the order.

Of course, Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This was partly due to the Jewish leaders insistence, but their own role was important as well. Jesus immediate challenge to the power structures of the church were most direct, but there was some truth to the threat Jesus played to Romans as well. To be sure, Jesus was very clear in resisting any type of military and violent coup against the Romans. But his followers had indeed switched their alliance. They no longer held to an unassailable alliance to the Roman empire. The Romans certainly didn’t have any physical threat to worry about from the Jesus followers, but to the degree that the Romans hunger for and demanded allegiance, the threat of allegiance to another Kingdom was very real in Christ followers.

And this persecution wasn’t just something that was externally triggered. Christ was on an intentional and committed path of sacrifice. It is on the committed path to sacrifice for others, sacrificing for the subversion of power, for the sake of those in need that real persecution takes place.

Likewise through the history of Christian persecution. It is not those that quietly have a private faith that are persecuted. It is those that are committed to sacrifice that challenge hierarchies of power around them, and choose to stand with the oppressed, that face the greatest threats.

Unfortunately, I feel like we have sometimes forgot this. In our Christian culture talking about persecution has far too easily become a replacement for real sacrifice. We talk about slippery slopes (it is also shocking to me when people explicitly state that they are basing their fears on a logical fallacy, like slippery slope) that will supposedly lead to persecution. This is a convenient replacement for making any real sacrifices.

This slippery slope fallacy is far too common. Many of us have mistaken the path of secularism as moving us towards persecution. But this path is not towards greater interest in (against) religion, but towards disinterest. The secular world is not growing hostile toward religion. It is growing bored with religion. Now this may be a worse fate. It has been said that the opposite of love is indifference. This reality may be hard to swallow, but many people just don’t really care that much about your religion or what laws it includes.

This exaggeration of hardships among Christians is not only out of touch with reality, but I believe it represents a shallow, wimpy Christianity. There are people who are tortured and killed for Christ. Comparing the types of opposition American Christians face with someone has to truly pay for their belief is, to be blunt, pathetic. Not getting your way with legislation and then comparing it to a slippery slope to persecution is nothing but weak and whiny Christianity. Until we have actually bled or been injured for our faith, we have little room for complaint.

Jesus called us to take up our cross (Matt 16:24). This isn’t a passive call, to sit around and worry, and fret, and wait for someone to come persecute you. This is active call, that begins with denying ourselves. Likewise, in our society, sacrifice doesn’t come passively. It comes when we actively and voluntarily give up our time and money for others. Christ-based sacrifice is found when we identify with, help, and give to others that are hurting or oppressed, and challenge the structures and hierarchies that hold them there (Eph 6:12). This is how we follow Christ on the cross.

Sexual Immorality and Biblical Purpose

As I have written about before, I believe that one of the most important aspects of approaching scriptures is to be looking for how it reveals God’s purpose, demonstrating his character and His vision for us. As we consider various rules from scriptures, the difficulty of understanding the underlying purpose can vary greatly. If we read stories, and even obey rules, without looking to understand how they reveal God and His purpose, we are missing the entire point. And, there are some commandments, like prohibitions against murder and theft, where we can clearly see the purpose and benefit, that God lovingly intends towards society. These could be called transparent commandments, because we can clearly see the purpose. However, many commandments are opaque, and it is difficult to see beneath the surface. In this post, I wanted to consider Biblical mandates on sexual immorality, including homosexuality, from this perspective.

Much has been written defending different positions on sexuality and especially homosexuality of late, but it seems they we rarely engage with the preeminent goal of looking for purpose in these mandates. I have seen countless articles, books, and discussions defending a position, and using scriptures to back their polemic. But the actual intent of these scriptures, to reveal the vision and character of God, seems almost completely unexplored. And when we fail to follow Christ’s mandate to look for purpose, and instead jump right to conclusions, we can be almost guaranteed that we will get it wrong (or get it right, and still miss the point). It is amazing to me how little interest there is in the actual purpose of these teaching. Because of this, rather than taking an asserting position, and then trying to defend it with some selected passages, instead I want to start with broader teaching on sexual immorality, and progress to more specific mandates, to try to understand these underlying purposes. And only after considering purposes, can we actually assess further implications.

So why does the Bible condemn certain sexual practices as immoral? These can indeed be opaque commands. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow Jesus’ clear directive to seek to understand the purpose here. There are two common errors that can come from failing to go deeper. Some apply a surface-level understanding without any consideration of other factors that deeper understanding can inform. This is incongruous with Jesus’ lesson from the Sabbath, that we are not simply supposed to legalistically follow rules. And others simply throw these opaque commandments out. This does not adhere to Jesus’ upholding and careful observation of the law (Matt 5:17-18).

Consequently, I will give my best effort to understand the purpose of sexual moralities mandates, and the potential implications of different purposes. Again, let us begin with general commands about sexual promiscuity including adultery, sex outside of marriage, etc. What are the possible purposes of these commands?

  1. It is the physical act itself, that is immoral. Obviously, this is nonsensical, since the physical act of sex between an unmarried or divorced couple is physically identical to that of any married couple. Married couples don’t use different organs to accomplish the act. It is the same act, it is the meaning or context of the physical act that actually differs. As Paul said, these physical acts are “just a shadow” (Col 2:16-17). This is clearly not the purpose.
  2. The primary underlying purpose of sexual morality mandates about adultery and pre-marital sex seems rooted in the purpose of relational faithfulness. Or the converse, is that sexual immorality leads to relational brokenness. The impact of the tragedies of divorce are easily measured in terms of negative impact on children. Sex, is a powerful act of intimacy, and it undeniably leads to a deeper level of relationship. These relationships that are characterized by trust and faithfulness towards each other are far more fulfilling, broken relationships are one of the most painful human experiences.
  3. Sexual immorality objectifies woman. If we need objective evidence of this, we need to look no further than the tragedy of the global human trafficking, which is quite clearly driven by prostitution and pornography as well. Of course the extreme cases of sexually driven oppression don’t just happen out of nowhere, there is a clear pathway to this. Every time we treat a woman as simply a tool for sex, whose value was found in physical pleasure, rather than relational value, we further contribute to the objectification of women, and further encourage her and others towards the consumerist treatment of women that has led to misogyny, inequality, trafficking and sex slavery.
  4. Romantic relationships make us less available for others. Businesses often discourage romantic relationships, particularly hierarchical ones, because they know that it can interfere with the focus on productivity, and remaining available to help each other. By restricting romantic relationships to a single monogamous relationship, we retain greater availability for helping others without the confusion or awkwardness of romance.

I think these last three are reasonable ideas for the probable reasons behind some of the rule behind sexual morality.

However, these reasons don’t necessarily give a good explanation for homosexuality. Let’s specifically look at the possible reasons for the Bible’s statements against homosexuality:

Physical Act

Possible Purpose: God is disgusted by the physical act of homosexual act.
This is probably the shallowest possible conclusion. Looking at the purpose behind rules should reveal the wisdom and glory of God, but this idea suggests nothing more than an arbitrary dislike. Col 2:16-17 again makes it clear the laws are not about physical actions, but are shadows of deeper realities. This idea seems further improbable from a God who purposely associated with people and areas that the dominant society found disgusting (Heb 13:13). And if this type of sexual morality is similar to adultery, it would further point away from just the physical act. Using this as the reason for the prohibition against homosexuality is pretty absurd, and contradictory to the rest of scriptures. Let’s try to look deeper.

Commitment

Possible Purpose: Homosexual relationships are less committal.
The idea here is that the purpose of the prohibition is to avoid relationships where the commitment to each other is more likely to broken. This idea gains further merit because it aligns well with reasoning about sexual immorality in general. Prohibitions against adultery and fornication seem to be at least partly for the purposed of fostering stable, committed relationship.

This idea suggests that we can verify that straight couples are more faithful, and indeed, empirical data and studies do seem to have some support for the idea that homosexual relationships tend to be much shorter and more transient (about 4 times shorter, from what I can tell). But, it is certainly not always the case, and it is worth noting that the significant exception is gay marriage. Gay married couples have actually been equal or even slightly more faithful than their straight counterparts. However, this may be due to the resistance to gay marriage that has resulted in a selection bias (only those that are really committed go to the effort of finding a place to get a marriage certificate), but their faithfulness can’t be ignored.

This idea has interesting implications. If homosexuality is to be avoided because of infidelity, than it means that the homosexual relationship isn’t the real sin, but rather the likely infidelity. And if this is the case, the immorality is intrinsically tied to its realization: a straight couple that divorces is guilty of the same root sin of infidelity that statutes on homosexuality are trying to prevent, while the gay couple that remains faithful to each other, have actually avoided the deeper issue of a broken relationship. And if this is the real reason, than encouraging a gay couple to separate would actually be more sinful than staying together. Another interesting implication is that homosexuality is morally equivalent to any other risk factor of divorce (including things like different professions and emotionally instability), although in differing degrees.

If this is true, than discouraging gay marriage is actually counterproductive to the purpose of encouraging relational faithfulness. To discourage homosexuality for the sake of discouraging relational separation, and then turn around and discourage the institute of relation commitment is contradictory. If homosexuality is immoral because of its reduced likelihood of relational faithfulness, than discouraging gay marriage (an institution which certainly encourages relational faithfulness) is immoral for precisely the same reason. Interestingly, most Christians tend to believe that while the Bible condemns divorce and remarriage, they don’t believe that those who have remarried are actively living in sin. But if the statutes for divorce and remarriage serve the same purpose as homosexuality, then the same logic should be applied.

No Reproduction

Possible Purpose: Homosexuals can’t reproduce.
This is probably the most illogical idea. This notion effectively diminishes the purpose of marriage down to procreation. Not only is this incredibly dishonoring to the concept and greater purpose of marriage, it also absurdly implies that marriage with an infertile person would be equally immoral. I would hope no one would be so cruel as to label the inability to bear children as immorality.

Demonstrating Culturally-Specific Uprightness

Possible Purpose: Christians are to exhibit the highest of their cultural values so as to reflect positively on the church and God, and homosexuality was prohibited because it was culturally considered to be perverse, and the authors of the Bible wanted the Christians to be above reproach.
This idea fits well with the context of the prohibition of 1 Corinthians 6, as Paul suggests disassociation, which seems to be more aimed at presenting the church as clean from such behavior that was considered dishonorable, than it is at correcting such behavior. And in fact 1 Cor 6, as well as later sections of this letter, are clearly aimed at helping us to understand how our actions are viewed by outsiders (speaking in tongues, lawsuits, head covering). In fact, the rules on head coverings found just a few chapters later in chapter 11 are almost universally understood to be a cultural-specific way of showing honor and respect, and not to be literally carried out in the same form today.

One of the difficulties of this view is that prohibitions against homosexuality were written to multiple cultures/cities (OT Israelites, Romans, and Corinthians). Did these cultures just happen to have a similarity among each other, that is not shared with modern cultures? It is possible, but this makes it less likely. And further, the language of other passages makes it harder to believe this is culturally specific. Why would Paul (and the OT) so harshly condemn and ostracize people for their orientation, just for the sake of the church’s image, particularly when the Bible usually sides for the marginalized?

Appeal to Nature/Design

Possible Purpose: Homosexuality isn’t according to His design.
As a direct reason, this is a poor reason, but it does have some indirect value. Simply put, God created man to be creative himself. The world is full of the beauty of art, technology, architecture writings, and other delegated creations that were absent from any account of God’s initial creation. These continually creative works of man, are reflections of the brilliance of God in creating man to be participants in the on-going, dynamic creation process that continues to this day. Art, technology, and architecture are not evil because they weren’t a part of the original creation, and it is equally illogical to think that homosexuality is wrong simply because it was absent from the account of the original creation. iPads were just as absence from “original creation” as homosexuality, but one can not logically draw a conclusion about the morality of either simply by claiming it is not natural. Essentially, this is the appeal to nature fallacy, and I have written before how this logic contradicts the theology of creation.

However, God’s creation can be viewed as revealing God’s concept of beauty. As we look at nature, we can see diversity, reproduction, fractal complexity, and countless other elements that reflect on God’s ideas of beauty. Creation can be  an indirect perspective on gaining more understanding of what God finds beautiful. However, like looking at the rules in the Bible, this too, requires that we look below the surface, to see what is being revealed. It is not a direct proof of God’s desire, but an indirect indication. But this perspective may give us additional insight for moving forward.

Diversity

Possible Purpose: Homosexuality doesn’t express the diversity and complementary nature of the male and female.
This idea can find substantial Biblical support if we can compare community of marriage to the community of the church. Paul goes into detail in various occasions about the purpose of different gifts (Eph 5, Rom 12, etc.) in the body complementing each other for the purpose of a healthy community, where different strengths work together for the greater good. This is a pretty strong theme in scriptures, and can be seen in the beauty of nature as well. It would certainly seem to follow that marriage should also be a showcase for diverse gifts being brought together for complementary purposes. If this is true, this idea definitely has the largest and most substantial portions of scripture for backing, with so much emphasis in the New Testament focused on the coming together of diverse gifts and peoples.

However, this too has some very profound and challenging implications and difficulties. If diversity is such a key element of marriage, this should likely apply to more differences than just gender. Is a couple with duplicative gifts, rather than complementary gifts and talents acting immoral in the same way as a gay couple? Should we be just a careful about commending marriage of people that have distinctive perspectives as we are about different genders? Anyone with more than a few dozen friends could probably find at least one pair of same gender match and a differing gender match, where the former’s distinctive traits outdid the latter. And if this is indeed the key principle, are we not obligated to apply this outside marriage as well? If a family really needs to be led by both a female and male, how much more so a church (where often only male leadership exists)? Is an ethnically homogeneous church amidst a diverse community, immoral in the same way as homosexuality? Is church leadership where only a single ideology or eschatology, is represented, equally immoral?

While these are indeed pretty challenging implications, in reality this is probably more surprising to our own church culture. From the perspective of the Bible, this is may well be the most scripturally consistent reason, these implications are not inconsistent with how NT described the formation of the church. Still though, carrying out the implications of this reasoning to its conclusion is pretty radical, and I am not sure if it  is completely reasonable. (It is also quite interesting that the motivation for diversity is same reason given for gay equality).

Uncertainty

It is certainly reasonable to look at these possibilities and simply say that we can’t be sure of God’s exact purpose. Indeed these scriptures are opaque, and having an appropriate level of humility about how to understand these passages is definitely appropriate. However, recognizing our limited ability to precisely determine the purpose does not mean that we can ignore the likely purposes and their implications.

These are my best guesses of what is being revealed by the Biblical teaching on homosexuality. In review, I would believe that commitment/faithfulness and diversity are probably most likely, and culture may have had an influence in some of the language of some of the passages. However, in the end, I simply don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone really knows for sure. So what to do we do when we don’t know? First, we rarely go wrong with simple obedience while we strive to understand further, and I would certainly commend simple obedience to a literal understanding of these passages, if you can’t understand more deeply.

However, the vast majority of us are not facing the question of whether to follow homosexual urges, but rather are more likely to deal with the questions of how to interact with those that they are gay, how to react to homosexual’s in leadership, or if we should pay any influence in legislative issues on the subject. These are all issues that do not simply logically follow from the basic statute. These are all issues that require logical implications to determine the correct answer, and without understanding the purpose behind these Biblical rules on sexual immorality, we are very likely to reach the wrong logical conclusion. Without any inquiry below the surface level reading of these passages, we will probably be as wrong as the Pharisees, and their interpretations that Jesus so harshly condemned.

One of the most discussed issues is if it is helpful to define legal restrictions on marriage so that it is limited to heterosexual union. Again, we can’t assume that a Biblical prohibition implies that legal restrictions are helpful. In appealing to the government to influence behavior, we always face a tension. We want the government to protect the individuals from harm from others, but we also want people to freely make decisions to do right. So does homosexuality actually harm others? We have discussed the possibility of fidelity being a reason against homosexuality, but marriage itself, among gay couples, has actually been shown to be very faithful.

However, the Bible actually seems to give a very explicit answer to the question of whether this type of sexual immorality harms others, in 1 Cor 6:18: “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” Paul seems to make it clear that the immorality discussed in this chapter (including homosexuality), is mainly about sinning against oneself, and not others, which means it requires the government to go beyond its normal, limited role of preventing harm to each other.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that any such legislative actions are really even effective. It is almost comical to think that anyone has changed their orientation due to government’s restrictions on marriage. The only implications that have resulted from legislative efforts have been driving people away from the church. Many feel that they are taking an important stand, but taking a stand for something that has been demonstrated to have no moral impact, is pointless. It is logically incoherent to think that defending legislation X, if X has no affect on moral behavior, is there somehow moral.

Perhaps an even more important issue to consider here is the significance of God’s ultimate purpose. The Bible consistently teaches that the highest cumulative purpose of God is to glorify Himself. God’s purpose is not moral compliance, but His glory, and He is glorified when people freely choose to follow Him and His ways. As with any laws, one of the drawbacks we face is that when we restrict people’s actions, we restrict their free agency in choosing to obey God. God wants and is glorified when we choose to obey Him, solely because of how good He is. When the choice to obey is partially driven by legal constraints, we are effectively diminishing that free choice towards Him, and diminishing the glory He might receive from that decision. While it may always be appealing to want to maximize Christian moral influence, ultimately we need to decide whether we want to put greater priority on our influence, or greater priority on God’s glory, as found when people freely choose His ways without any coercion.

The Definition of “Marriage”

An important issue in the debate on gay marriage has been the definition of marriage. However, this emphasis on preserving the meaning of the word, has itself been a denigration of the Biblical marriage. It is critical that we understand the purpose of language. Language exists to convey meaning and describe concepts. We use language best when we use words in such a way that others understand the concepts we are trying to describe. Language has always been a product of culture, defined by what meaning people in culture understand from different combinations of letters or sounds. Language is always evolving as culture evolves. A great danger we face in using language is when we equate a word with a concept. When we do this our definition of the concept becomes tied to other’s understanding of the word. When we equate very deep and meaningful concepts, particularly like Biblical concepts of grace, the gospel, God, or even marriage to a single word, we belittle these concepts, turning them into a shifting idea, constantly redefined as culture evolves. If we care about any concept, we must never distill it to a single word, we must care enough about it to describe it with the variety of words necessary to communicate it to the culture around us.

Next, it is also critical that we understand the difference between meaning and context. Many have asserted that marriage is defined as the union of a man and woman. However, in reality, this isn’t exactly the *meaning* conveyed by marriage, it is a combination of the meaning and the context. A simple test can demonstrate: If I were tell your Jim and Bob got married, I don’t think anyone would honestly think I am trying to tell you that one of those men had suddenly turned into a woman. Purpose of the word “marriage” isn’t to communicate the gender of couple, but to indicate they are entering into a committed relationship. The traditional context of the word marriage is indeed between a male and female, but that is distinct from the meaning, and you, as well, as anyone from the 20th century, 19th century, or any other English-speaking culture would have a very good idea of what I meant when I said that Jim and Bob got married. The meaning is distinct from the context. You certainly may get some odd looks from people of different times or cultures if I told you Jim and Bob got married, as again, traditionally the context for marriage has been between a male and female. But one of the most important characteristics of language is to be able to use words, and carry their meaning into new contexts. Our entire vocabulary of being able to meaningfully describe technology because of the flexibility of taking old words and applying them in new contexts, to help communicate new concepts. It is critical that we understand the distinction between context and meaning, in regards to marriage. Seeking legal means to define marriage is a pointless exercise, because not only is it the traditional context instead of the meaning, but it undermines the purpose of language which is about communicating ideas using the the meaning of words ascribed by culture and your listeners.

Now while I am generally critical of efforts to curtail gay marriage, I would also note I don’t find the pursuit of gay rights very compelling, because of lack of comparative and objective benefits. I think it is helpful to make a simple comparison to an other issue that I believe is much more important: the number of undocumented immigrants in America is roughly similar to the number of LGBT that might seek marriage (about 10-20 million). However, the types of rights that are denied undocumented immigrants is not even comparable to the types of rights that are debated for LGBT. Access to a driver’s license, health care, voting, are vastly larger challenges than lack of ability to get a marriage license. These types of rights are not even being discussed for gay equality, no one is even considering denying LGBT access to a driver’s license or any of the other basic opportunities that are denied immigrants. I am hopeful that the recent SCOTUS decision will let us move on to the much more important policy issues of immigrant rights.

Conclusions
In examining these scriptures, by trying faithfully to follow Jesus’ exhortation to look for purpose, there are a variety of interesting and challenging possibilities. I don’t know the exact answers, but I believe the possibilities that exist must guide our response and interaction with the LGBT community. And I also must conclude that attempting to employ the government in preventing gay and lesbians from marriage is likely to be counter-productive to God’s purposes of relational faithfulness, and the pursuit of His glory. I would encourage Christians to consider giving higher priority to the glory of God, and His purposes, and choosing not to compromise the pursuit of God’s purpose for the sake of moral influence.

Collective Generosity

Generosity is almost universally regarded as a virtue. When someone with wealth makes a decision to give in order to help the poor, this is generally applauded. However, when a decision is made on behalf of a group, to generously give of that group’s resources to some cause, this type of decision is often less popular. When and how should groups make decisions to be generous, to help those less fortunate? How we view collective generosity can have a big impact on how we see the role of the church and the government. Many feel that when an individuals help the poor it is generous, but when organizations or governments use their resources to help the poor, it is coercion, or even theft. In this post, I wanted to examine what scriptures say about this subject.

Looking for direct scriptural examples can be helpful, but difficult. In 2 Corinthians, Paul points to the church in Macedonia as an example of a church collectively demonstrating generosity, and uses this to encourage the church of Corinthians to follow suit. This certainly appears to be an useful example. However, due to the lack of details, we can’t be certain of exactly how this was carried out, how people gave, and how these decisions to give were made.

It is worth remembering that in reality there is actually a wide spectrum of scenarios from true individual generosity to completely leader-dictated giving. When a family has a discussion and based on the outcome of the discussion decide to give to cause, this has an element of group decision making with a high degree of individual input. What about if a church votes and decides to give a certain amount of the budget to a specific cause? This has a larger degree of group decision making, there may be some members that vote against it. What if leaders make recommendations for causes to donate to? What if a country or state votes on a budget, choosing to allocate a certain amount for helping the poor? What if individuals vote for representatives who then decide on budgets? Again in all of these situations there may be decisions made to use resources that some disagree with, but there was also free-will input from individuals that influenced that decision as well. Of course, on the far side of the spectrum, you could have a dictator that makes decisions on budgets with no input from citizens. However, the majority of group decisions that we experience fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Returning to scriptures, is there any other teaching that can be applied? One of the most important keys that Jesus taught in understanding scriptures is to look for purpose. I described this in more depth in the previous post. One of Jesus biggest critiques of the Pharisees was that they went through surface obedience, yet ignored the purpose behind the law. Likewise, if we take a look at generosity, what it might mean to a group of people, we should examine possible purposes behind generosity. There are a couple possible purposes I think we can consider (and they are not mutually exclusive). Determining the purpose behind generosity has a big impact on what it means for how we apply it to a group.

First, we can consider that generosity is for the purpose of the giver making a sacrifice. In particular, the purpose of generosity might be the voluntary, free-will decision of a person to make a sacrifice. Certainly the notion of sacrifice is incredibly important throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law has a heavy focus on sacrifice, and Christ, as our example, paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Furthermore, freely making a decision to sacrifice, is an opportunity for a giver to demonstrate love. Certainly, love is most clearly demonstrated when someone makes a decision to sacrifice on behalf of another. Without this free-will decision, the giver is not really demonstrating love.

And acts of sacrifice are not simply a negative experience for the giver, a giver, who gives cheerfully can expect to be rewarded by God. As Paul said, it is better to give than receive.

This element of an individual’s choice to sacrifice is indeed important, and in the context of the question about collective giving, we should definitely seek to maximize the opportunity that people have to freely choose their contribution. However, the possible purposes don’t end there.

Next, we can consider that the purpose of generosity for the sake of the recipient. While generosity is important as an act of sacrifice of the giver, obviously it also serves a purpose for the recipient. Generosity is an act that offers mercy for those who are in need. As we consider generosity as a form of mercy, it is important to note the center of focus: the focus is on the target of generosity instead of the donor. This is important when we consider generosity as an act of love, and what form of love that might be. Love may take an emotional form, often manifested by the emotions that a donor may experience as they feel the satisfaction of helping another. However, the Bible frequently lifts up “agape” (one of the Greek words for love) love as the highest form of love. Agape is characterized by a sincere interest in well-being of the object of love, rather than the experience or emotion of love. Generosity with focus on the donor may be an exercise in the emotions of love, but generosity with a focus on the benefit to the recipient is an act of agape love.

Again, the purpose of generosity has a significant impact on how we assess the collective versus individual generosity. If the purpose is making individual choices of sacrifice, than collective giving is pointless. However, if the purpose is mercy for the recipients, than the nature of the donation is not of substantial importance, and trying to make a significant distinction between individual and collective giving is erroneous.

Interestingly, when we analyze generosity from the perspective of purpose, the Bible is suddenly surprisingly clear. Hosea is very explicit about the true, underlying purpose:

Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;

In fact, this is not only stated in the Old Testament, but it is so important that Jesus actually repeats this verse:

Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

This is one of the clearest declaration’s of purpose found in scriptures. Based on this, it is unavoidably clear that generosity is not all about individual’s exercise of sacrifice (although that is an important mechanism), that the true end goal is to bring mercy.

Another helpful insight from scriptures comes from the emphasis we see on community in scriptures. While the scriptures certainly demonstrate that individual’s are responsible for the decisions, this does negate the strong theme of building community. And community is shallowest when it is simply a group of individuals that tolerate and stay out each other’s way as they all make their own decisions. True, deep community comes when we actually consider, discuss, and see to understand, and work through our values, priorities, and commitments, and seek purpose together, sharpening each other in the process.

The Bible teaches that wisdom is found in the multitude of counselors, and giving wisely has tremendous impact on our giving. If our generosity is for the purpose of mercy, than we should be deeply concerned with the fact some forms of giving have 10s, 100s, or 1000s of times more impact in bringing mercy than other forms. Wisdom is important to the true purpose of generosity, and we can be much wiser together. We should not be surprised to find that the collective generosity of a group has an impact far beyond what individuals might do on their own because the collective wisdom can multiply the effect of the collective resources.

In assessing collective generosity, it is often important to think in absolute terms, rather than in relative terms. While we can certainly make comparisons between individual and collective generosity, we also have to recognize that in many situations these are not even mutually exclusive options. When a group, organization, company, or government is considering generosity, such possibilities are often compared negatively to individual giving, when in fact that this does not replace individual’s opportunity to be generous as well. Leaders that are making decisions to be generous are usually only using a small fraction of available resources, and this has a negligible impact on the individual’s resources and ability (in fact collective generosity can often be just as likely to encourage individual giving as to discourage). The frequent complaint that collective generosity will replace individual generosity or vice versa is a false dichotomy and a poor excuse for the generosity of a group or society.

By looking at the purpose of generosity, we can hopefully can gain a better understanding of appropriate forms of giving. We should indeed strive to encourage individuals to freely choose to sacrifice for the sake of others. However, when individual generosity and collective generosity are not mutually exclusive, the true purpose of giving reveals that we should pursue collective generosity alongside individual generosity.