Wednesday, May 29, 2024

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (30)

Refunds generated by charitable donations documented on tax returns have always been a source of disagreement between believers. The churches I attended growing up were so determined to do their giving on the sly that they practiced something informally referred to as the “brethren handshake”, in which a little envelope full of cash was passed from hand to hand under cover of the traditional greeting.

It wasn’t as hard to detect as they thought, but you have to give them points for trying.

Not Secret by Definition

Apparently, evangelicals are still batting the subject around. On social media, Sir Hamster recently opined: “All the charitable giving you reported on your tax returns is not secret by definition. Something to consider when the tax system encourages you to itemize everything. Do ‘off-the-books’ charity.”

His proof text, from the Sermon on the Mount, is Matthew 6:1:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

Now, I’m all for discretion in giving, and off-the-books charity is totally fine with me. Left hand, right hand and all that. In fact, I suspect we will be going that way shortly, like it or not. Our Western governments are far too eager to tie compliance with their diversity and inclusivity agenda to a monetary incentive, and the threat of revoking a tax break for charitable donations may, they think, be sufficient incentive to cause some Christians and churches to compromise their convictions. We will see if they are right. So I’m in agreement with the general principle of discretion Sir Hamster is advocating. A tax break shouldn’t change the way we give, and it won’t change mine when they are no longer on offer.

All the same, I’m not sure the verse he’s quoting proves his point exactly. What the Lord was criticizing, it seems to me, was the practice of giving publicly in hope of drawing attention to your own generosity. He cites the “hypocrites in the synagogues and in the streets” who do it for praise. The problem is not so much the giving technique but the motive behind it, which is self-aggrandizing and competitive. He was counseling discretion and humility in giving, not hiring an Ojibway Code Talker to communicate with missionaries off the books.

How Secret is Secret?

Unless you are a public figure, tax returns are not public. Even getting at Donald Trump’s took a court case and fair bit of finagling. I do 1/3 to 1/2 my giving off the books, not because I am worried about being unfaithful by documenting it, but because I often give to needy people who couldn’t possibly give me a receipt even if I wanted one. One or two might have difficulty signing their names these days, let alone filling out paperwork. The information on the tax form I get from the third-party facilitator that enables me to send money efficiently to missionaries and workers overseas and at home does not include the names of those to whom I am giving, and the annual total on the form is a mere fraction of my total giving. Not only do I not “itemize everything”, I don’t actually itemize anything. There are no “items” at all. When I file my return, no comprehensive record exists in my personal tax records of those to whom I have given or how much I have given them. I expect this is normal among Christians who regularly use such services.

Does all that information exist in a database somewhere? Partially at least. Could a diligent IRS or CRA actuary with endless time on his hands or a bone to pick with Christians audit me, or the third-party facilitator, and piece a big chunk of it together? Certainly. If he had my email and the GPS in my cellphone turned on, he could probably do it faster. Will it happen? Not terribly likely. Algorithms could do it efficiently, but someone would have to be doing a seriously deep dive into my financial affairs or those of others for that to happen.

How troubled should we be if such a scenario were to actually occur? Personally, I like to hope that any auditor doing an AI-assisted deep dive into the giving practices of Christians comes up boggled by our relative generosity. It would indicate a bigger problem if he doesn’t.

Missing the Point

Much more importantly, I don’t believe the Lord intended us to invest all kinds of cost and effort in concealing our tracks from the government just so they could come up short when they try to determine how generous a Christmas gift I sent in 2019 to a widow teaching the Bible to former prostitutes in Zambia. His concern is not that his followers might fail to conduct themselves with sufficient security, but that they not use giving as a way to draw attention to themselves and increase their status in the eyes of others. Any interpretation of a verse that misses the Lord’s main self-declared point in saying it is a little suspect, even if the intentions behind encouraging us to greater secrecy are noble.

Most Christians who get a partial tax break from giving to the needy are not status seekers, and unless their motive in taking a tax break is unadulterated greed (in which case, the slim percentage by which their taxes are reduced is unlikely to slake their addiction to mammon), I’m doubtful the Lord is deeply concerned.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Christians are wise to maximize their interactions with government these days, financial or otherwise. That would be short-sighted, to say the least.

What it wouldn’t be is a violation of Matthew 6:1.

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