Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Karma and Tithing

I've been studying Buddhism lately.  It's been very interesting.  There are many similarities between Buddhism and Christianity (in spite of what a lot of Christians would say).  While studying karma, I learned a lot of interesting things about this concept that basically says what we do/say/intend returns to us in kind.  IOW, do good things and good things will happen to you.  Do bad things and bad things will happen to you.  I'll say more about karma later.  In Buddhism anyway, it's not quite that simple.  I've always thought of karma as being basically unscriptural and un-Christian.  After all, Jesus said that the blind man was born blind for the glory of God, not because either he or his parents sinned (this is a hint about a possible belief in reincarnation. But, that's another article.)
A couple of weeks ago while listening to a teaching about tithing, something clicked because I had just been studying karma. The verses Christians* use to defend the practice of tithing supposedly* speak of
God repaying us in kind for tithing (or for not tithing).
* Note: I say "supposedly"  and specify that Christians use these verses because Jews (the people who wrote the book), don't tithe.  They do not interpret the verses the way the Christian ministers who tell us we're supposed to give 10% of our income to God
(in the form of the "church")
The teaching I heard was a presentation to a group of young people who were about to get married.  During the financial part of the presentation, the couples were told how vitally important tithing is, as part of your financial plan.  What I find interesting about this is whenever Christians mention this, they almost always give some sort of indication that you will be blessed financially/materially by tithing.  I've heard people trying to convince others to tithe time and time again say that just as they began tithing, God began giving them money or steaks or something else, in return.  In fact the main verse they cite to indicate you should tithe is interpreted as karmic and one of the most misquoted passages, by evangelicals, in the whole Bible.
Malachi 3:8 "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. "But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my
house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty.
Following the pitch for tithing that I was listening to, the couples were given an exercise.  During the exercise, thay were asked to make various choices concerning a budget.  Were they going to buy a large house or a small one?  Were they going to buy a Lexus or a Kia?  And, were they going to tithe the full 10%, a lesser amount or nothing at all?  Then, in spite of the disclaimer that had been given that God doesn't necessarily have to repay you in money; the couples were told that, if they had chosen to tithe, they could later add an additional amount back into their budget "a tithing blessing".  This amount was (lo and behold) the very amount they had tithed in the first place.  So, pay a tithe and nothing really comes out of your pocket.  Actually, this was far from the worst presentation I've heard on tithing.  I've actually heard that God will repay much more than you could possibly pay Him, making God the world's best investment banker. If this were true, we should give 100% of our income directly to the church and just sit back and watch the "blessings" flow in.  Eventually, we'd never have to work at all, just pay 10% of the tithing blessing that will inevitably flow in and we're set!  No? Darn.  I thought that was the way it works.

Please don't get me wrong.  I think it's important to give to charity and to give generously.  Ten percent is even a great idea.  But, I don't think its required for Christians to give ten percent of their off-the-top income to their local church, because the Bible says so. Many (most?) churches would waste the money. True religion is religion that takes care of orphans and widows. I give to my church not because I think giving to them is what the Bible commands but because I know they do good things with the money. Giving ten percent to your local church, as a requirement, is is a gross misapplication of Old Testament scripture.  It takes verses way out of context, even the context of the time and the people that they were written for, let alone trying to apply them to the 21st century gentile church.
Back to karma for a moment.  I think it's an interesting (though completely unprovable) concept.  But, it's been given a bad rap (like tithing). So, let me take a minute to explain it, as I understand it. Karma is only one factor in why things happens.  According to Buddhist thought, karma can be carried over from lifetime to lifetime (rebirth).  This is what was hinted at in the disciples' question to Jesus concerning the blind man.  The question indicates a belief in previous life or lives and in karma.

There are actually five factors that determine what happens to us, according to Buddhism.  These are:
  1. Nature- natural forces, gravity, weather, etc. can impact us.  This is also known as "shit happens".
  2. Genetics- influence the things we say and do and can cause illness or health.
  3. Karma- the results of things we say/do and our intentions that come back to us.  Also keep in mind that there is group karma.  For example, nations have karma, tribes have karma, etc.  Hanging out with people with bad karma could involve you in the negative energy coming back to them.
  4. Dharma- practice.  For a Buddhist, this would be meditation, mindfulness and following the teachings of the Buddha.  For a Christian, this would be prayer and following the teachings of Jesus
  5. Mind- right mind can improve circumstances.  Again, I think prayer can fall into this category.

About now you might be wondering what the point of this post is. That is besides the obvious chance to take a shot at the practice of forced giving to the church, under the guise of the Torah instruction to
the Israelites to give a portion back to support their theocracy.  One point is that I have heard Christians (myself included) take shots at other religions based on incomplete knowledge about them and hypocritically ignoring similar teachings in our own religion. Karma is very similar to the way a lot of Christians think God works.  They think God is coin-operated.  Do good and God will be forced to repay you with "good".   I think the whole idea of karma is really underneath a desire for "justice" and predictability in life.  It's an effort to control.  We'd like to believe that if we do good things, good things will happen to us.  We want to see bad things happen to bad people.  So, we come up with a system like "karma" or say God will visit "justice" upon people based on their behavior.  Of course, we see that things don't always work this way.  We know "shit happens".  So, we kind of water the system down by saying there are no guarantees that if you give your tithe God will give money back. Or that karma might not be visited upon you in in this lifetime or that you can actually cancel bad karma with good karma, making the whole thing so complicated that we can't possibly really know what is going to happen to us, based on our behavior.  So, while it's kind of nice sounding idea and it encourages good behavior, it doesn't really have great practical application.  My advice?  Just be good for goodness sake. 

That's the other point of the post.  Don't give to get (or to avoid being zapped).  Don't do good deeds to store up points in the karma bank.  Do good for the sake of doing good. 

This brings up another point.  How do we judge if a thing that happens to us is good or bad?  Ideally, we want to be like Paul, happy in all circumstances (see the book of Phillippians for more on this).  The Buddhists call this "equanimity".  Here's a Taoist story to wrap up this post:

There was once a wise old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "May be," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "May be," replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "May be," answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.  "May be" said the farmer.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE THIS POST! It is so true. I've seen people (and close friends) give money they could not afford to part with in the first place in hopes of getting their blessings answered. It is so sad.

arjunamarc said...

Enjoyed your post. Thanks for taking the time to write it. And thanks for the tolerance of other faiths. You have done a service to the collective. Maybe something good will come for you. And then again...lol