Message 113, “Thankfulness in Action: Giving Back or Paying Forward??”, 11-18-12

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

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Most of us know the real story of the first Thanksgiving.  After surviving a starvation winter when over half of Plymouth colony died and, after reaping the benefits of a summer harvest due mostly to Native-American help and instruction in new world farming techniques, Miles Standish called for a three day feast of Thanksgiving.  He invited a few Native-Americans and their families to join the Pilgrims.  Not knowing how large Wampanoag families were, over 90 Native-Americans showed up for the meal.

But the pilgrims had a pitiful amount of food available for such a large crowd.  The Wampanoag Indians returned to their villages and came back with what was the majority of food for that first Thanksgiving.  What is notable about the Native American gift of time, resources and food to the European invaders is that the Wampanoag – like all Indians – did not consider what they offered to be a gift.  Indeed, they had no need to give or share with 50 pitiful intruders whom they could easily have defeated in any battle or simply have allowed to starve to death.  Their charity, as we might perceive it, was not charity at all in their view.  It was extending portions of their lives, wisdom and harvest to other humans – NOT as gifts or as charity but as simply sharing what was not theirs to begin with.

This idea of sharing is common to all Native-American cultures.  All of life – the earth, the sun, water, plants, animals and humans – are a part of what they call the “Sacred Hoop”.  The universe and all life within it is interconnected in a great cycle of giving and receiving, birth and death.  Native-American culture did not think in terms of amassing wealth and resources.  Everything they reaped was, to them, a loan from the Great Spirit – theirs to use, share and then pass along to others in the Sacred Hoop of life.  The well-being of the community as a whole was far more important than any individual success or wealth.  In this regard, sharing their food with the Pilgrims was simply a part of coexisting within the web of life and was done for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

As we conclude our Thankfulness in Action November series, I’ve purposefully titled today’s message of “Giving Back” with question marks.   While an attitude of thankfulness encourages us to give away portions of our blessings in gratitude for what we have received, a holistic spirituality of wealth rejects the motivating premise of giving back.  Indeed, western thinking falsely leads us to believe that giving is essentially a transactional response.  We give back in return for what we have been given – even if it is because of our gratitude.  Ultimately, this is a false way to think about sharing and giving.

If we reorient our thinking, we find that a spiritual understanding of wealth sees sharing as a natural act – something done to strengthen our communities and thus our own lives.  More important than giving back because we are grateful or because we have compassionate hearts, we share because we are part of a greater whole.  We are a part of one human family that is spiritually and practically called to support and insure the success of the whole.  The health and well-being of all people are vital to our own individual well-being.  We are not islands unto ourselves – achieving and succeeding by ourselves.  We each thrive because others have mutually shared, worked and created the conditions so that ALL can thrive.  And we too are called to give, share and work with the same motivation.  This is a mind-shift for many of us – to think not in terms of giving as charity or as pay-back for our blessings, but as a means to preserve and strengthen the communities to which we belong.

That is the ethic not only of Native-Americans but also of many Africans as we discussed a few weeks ago.  The African philosophy of ubuntu elevates the community over the individual.  People are not unique and beautiful all alone but because they are a part of something greater than themselves.  In this sense, the well being of the groups to which we belong should be our primary focus.  If the community succeeds, then ironically the individual does too.  Ubuntu and Native-American thinking do not diminish the importance of individuals but rather sees people in their proper context – members of the human family which is great and wonderful precisely because of its many diverse members.

In writing to the terribly divided churches in ancient Corinth, Paul wrote in one of his letters to them, which is in the New Testament, that an ideal Christian community should see itself as similar to a human body.  A body is made up of many parts that may seem to operate on their own but which, in reality, are vitally connected to the other parts and thus operate as a systemic whole.  He wrote, “But God has put the body together…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

Paul’s analogy was a warning to the Corinthian people to stop treating various members – those who were poor or who lacked certain spiritual abilities like speaking in tongues – as less than others.  All are equal before god and all are essential for the well-being of the community.

The implication of Paul’s words for us today is to see one another not as separate individuals but as vitally connected to each other.  And that has a profound impact on how we approach our sharing.  It is not giving.  It is extending what belongs not to me or to you but to all people and all life.

Jews understand giving in much the same way.  Giving is not a voluntary act.  It is compulsory if one is to even think of oneself as a genuine person of faith.  Giving is not a form of compassion but an act of justice.  All money and all resources come from God.  Giving is simply a way of extending to others not what is ours but what is God’s.  God’s intention was that all justly share in life’s gifts.

This religious view of giving was secularly expressed by economists Kenneth Boulding and Michael Moody who, in 1981, coined the term “serial reciprocity” to describe their vision of an economy and social structure which gives and shares material resources as a way of paying forward.  Individuals extend resources to third party strangers in a future focused effort to advance humanity in general.  In their view, resources have come to us from people in our past, we use and borrow the resources for a time, and then instead of hoarding wealth, we pay it forward so that others can also use and borrow for a time.  What we share and do for others is passing along what was passed to us.

Serial reciprocity is fundamentally part of what I have spoken about before in terms of universal moral imagination.  It sees cooperation and unity as a persistent trend in human evolution.  It contrasts against competition, survival of the fittest and rampant individualism.  Humans increasingly realize that competition is a zero sum game.  Competition for limited resources creates a world where nobody wins.  Life is one hard slog to get ahead and beat out the next person.  Increasingly, however, humanity recognizes that cooperation helps insure that there are no losers in life.

Importantly, an economy based on serial reciprocity and paying forward is not socialist but has been called, instead, “moral capitalism.”  It is a form of economic thinking made famous by Henry Ford who, in 1914, paid his workers the unheard of salary of $5.00 a day.  Ford understood that if he and his company were to succeed, there had to be enough people who could afford to buy his cars.   If he paid his employees high enough wages, not only would they be better off, they would buy his cars and he would also reap greater benefits.

Fundamentally, Ford was not giving away high wages as a form of compassion.  He was a clear eyed capitalist who understood that the well being of himself, his customers and his shareholders was intrinsically tied to the success of his workers.  Higher wages for others was a way for Ford to practice serial reciprocity.

This ethos is today practiced by the Whole Foods company which famously pays its entry level employees significantly higher wages – $15.00 an hour – nearly double the minimum wage.  While this earns a full-time employee $30,000.00 a year in wages, Whole Foods combines its pay with medical insurance benefits and stock options.  A typical entry level worker at Whole Foods thus earns over $50,000.00 a year in wages, benefits and stock options.

The mindset of Whole Foods is that each of the stakeholders in its business must share equally in its resources if it is to succeed as a company.  Shareholders, employees and customers must be equal at the table.  If shareholders prosper at the expense of employees, the company will have less motivated workers and, in the long term, fewer customers to buy its goods.  Ultimately, over the long haul, shareholders will also lose.

What Henry Ford and now Whole Foods understood is that paying forward for the betterment of all is not a socialist concept of redistributing wealth.   It is both a wise economic strategy and a spiritual practice to help the human family.  All must do well in order for ALL to do well.  Wise capitalists pay forward as a way to assure the success of the capitalist system itself.  It is, ironically, a very conservative ideal.

As I said earlier, this economic understanding of sharing wealth turns on its head many of our beliefs and long held ideas about charity.   No longer do I give based on what I have been given or will be given.  No longer do I feel, with an implicit sense of superiority, that I bestow what is mine on others out of some sense of charity or kindness.  I share because I believe in the well-being of everyone, because I don’t really own anything and because I’m a part of a greater whole.  I help insure my own survival by making sure the community in which I am a member survives and thrives.

What I ask us to consider, myself included, is that we see the time and money we share here at the Gathering, with family and with others….in a new light.  What we share with others are not gifts.  What we share here and with other organizations and individuals are investments in humanity.  At the Gathering, we pay forward not to benefit me, one another or even the church – but all people.

When a Gathering member volunteers to help one of our outreach partners, all of humanity benefits.  When a member makes new friends and builds new relationships with other members, he or she feels better about life – and all of humanity is better off.  When a member is encouraged and strengthened by the support and love of others, all of humanity is better off.  When any of us are challenged by Sunday messages to be more open, true and whole, that extends outward to others in our lives.  All humanity is better off.  And, ultimately, we are each individually also better off.

Let us share with the church and with others as fully as we possibly can, not just because of gratitude or a sense of charity.  Let us pay forward to the Gathering and to others because that’s who we are as people.  We share for the sake of our world.  We share so that people who hurt and struggle might find a place of comfort and relief – like the Gathering.  We pay forward so that people who feel different or unaccepted can find a place to fully express who they are.  We share so that all people can love whom they wish without shame or guilt.  We share so that homeless kids might be helped – hopefully breaking a cycle of poverty in their lives and thus benefitting all society.  We share so that all of us and ultimately all in our community can spiritually grow  – finding ways to be more forgiving, humble, generous, content, joyful, aware, strong, gentle, devoted, courageous and hopeful people – to name just a few of the message topics we’ve considered over the past year.  In paying forward for each of these things, we are not helping something as small as the Gathering or any individual person.  We help improve the world.

And this faith community is a perfect place to engage in the work we are called to do.  Ultimately, we share here to express our deeply held beliefs that people matter and that it is up to each of us – rich and poor alike – to do our part to help build a vision of heaven where none are hungry, where all are celebrated equally, where each can live joyfully and in peace.  The Gathering not only stands for those ideals, it actively works to practice them.  Let us not give back but, instead, pay forward to a better and happier future for all humanity.

I wish all of us a joyous, blessed and generous Thanksgiving holiday.