“We have the best government money can buy,” quipped Mark Twain. It’s a quote that’s often repeated today in Washington, DC. As catchy as it is, however, on its face it seems rather unlikely.
. . . it’s not big donors that are the backbone of our Church—it’s the “little people” who are faithful year after year . . . When we give preference to the rich we dishonour the sacrificial contribution of the poor.
The US Federal Government takes in more than $US3 trillion in revenue annually. State and local governments take in another $2.7 trillion. But the richest person in the world, Bill Gates, is worth a mere $US76 billion—only 1.3 per cent of the annual tax revenue taken in by government entities every year in the US. If Mr Gates wanted to “buy” the government, and if he was willing to give his entire fortune, the US Federal Government alone would blow through it in under a week and hardly notice the difference.
So what was Mark Twain talking about when he said people can buy the government?
The problem that legislators face is this: although they control a vast reserve of money so large it’s almost unfathomable, nearly all of it is dedicated for general governmental expenditure for items like the military or health care. Pity the poor legislator salivating at that untouchable surging river of cash flowing ever so close to his fingertips. Instead he has to go out and raise funds for his re-election campaign and other pet projects. And a smart donor knows the influence a little donation can have.
Why does it matter? Because remember that huge river of cash? Someone has to decide how precisely to spend it. Which company should build the next fighter jet? What regulations should govern the handgun industry? Who should be placed in key positions in the department overseeing the pharmaceutical industry? And each one of these decisions has a profound impact on the fortunes of industries and individuals. That’s why so many people in the know believe giving a little money to a legislator is a very smart investment.
But what does this have to do with our faith? The “golden rule” applies inside the Church as well as outside. You remember the golden rule, don’t you? “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Which makes the issue of fundraising in the Church a patch of quicksand into which many a good person has fallen.
But how could a donor influence a Church that brings in a total of close to $US3.3 billion in tithes and offerings globally each year? The same way a legislator is influenced—donors give to projects that aren’t funded through the regular system. And the champions of those projects become very quickly dependent on their donors. Adventist self-supporting ministries may be even more vulnerable to the distortions that come from trying to please wealthy donors. Want to see an Adventist dance? Just have a big donor play the right tune.
The natural urge to please wealthy donors should be resisted. Why?
First, God does not need big donors to do great things. He moved in far greater ways when we were poor and ill-resourced than now when we are rich. Our deficit is spiritual, not fiscal.
Second, giving is a privilege, not a favour. Treating a donor like they are doing God a favour grossly distorts reality.
Third, we must be exceedingly careful that we don’t let money cloud our judgement or buy influence. There’s a reason Scripture says the love of money is the root of all evil. It corrupts within the Church just as effectively as outside it.
Fourth, it’s not big donors that are the backbone of our Church—it’s the “little people” who are faithful year after year, often ignored like the widow giving her mite, while we name things after and make a great fuss of those who are well off. The average Adventist gives around US $190 per year. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But multiply that by 18 million people and you find your billions. When we give preference to the rich we dishonour the sacrificial contribution of the poor.
Fifth, the book of James says we “sin” if we provide the rich deferential treatment.
God doesn’t need our money. We need to give it. It’s a privilege. And when we give we should ask for nothing in return. And if someone wants to give to the Adventist work and receive accolades or influence in return, we have an obligation to politely refuse; to not only save ourselves, but them as well.
James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.