Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of the keynote speech delivered by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson at OutGiving, hosted by The Gill Foundation and Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 2005. In 2003, Robinson was elected the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.
In this talk, I want to help you to remember the good that giving away money does, and to invite you to reflect again on why you give.
Two caveats: I don’t care so much about how much you give, but about how much of what you have that you give. America gives a lot of money overseas, but it’s actually the next to the stingiest industrialized country in the world. So it’s not the dollars that matter to me, it’s what portion of what you have do you give and what does it do to your soul?
Second of all, I will really beg your indulgence and ask your permission to be just a wee little bit religious, because that’s who I am and I can’t tell my story without bringing that into it.
Guilt is a terrible reason for giving, but gratitude is an extraordinary reason for giving. I don’t care what religion you are or if you have no religion at all. The spiritual health of your soul is measured by how blessed you feel.
My giving is based on feeling blessed. I grew up in Kentucky. I’m the only member of my family to have escaped. I grew up poor and I consider that a great blessing. I didn’t live in a house with running water until I was 10, so if you wanted water you’d crank it out of a cistern. If you wanted hot water, you put it on a pan on the stove. My parents were deeply religious. They were tobacco tenant farmers, sharecroppers — about as close to slavery as white people have come to in this country.
I weighed 10 pounds when I was born and I have a tiny little mother. She had RH negative blood and the next to the rarest kind and there was none of that blood around, so they couldn’t do a C-section. It took six doctors and forceps to finally deliver me. I was completely paralyzed on my right side and my head was all crushed in. The doctors came out and told my father that they needed a name for my birth and death certificates.
So he took the name that they had picked out for a girl, Vickie Jean, and just changed the spelling, figuring it wouldn’t matter on a tombstone. So my actual name is V-I-C-K-Y G-E-N-E. I still can’t use my credit cards without people saying, “I’m sorry, sir. You can’t use your wife’s credit card.”
As I hope is obvious, I did live. I was paralyzed for about a month and then they gave me to my parents to take me home. They were told I would never walk or talk or have any use of myself. On the night before my consecration as a bishop, my mother — who had always said to me that she believed God had saved me for something — gave me a little card, and all it said was “Now I guess we know what it was.”
Pretty astounding. How could I not be grateful? How could I not feel blessed?
How thankful are you? How blessed do you feel? Probably all of you have worked hard. Some of you inherited money because of an accident of your birth. Some of you benefited from the best schools, travel and social standing. Every time you write a check, a large one or a small one, let it be a reminder to you about how grateful you are for how blessed you feel.
There are two bodies of water in Israel, in Palestine. The Sea of Galilee is fed by the snows of the mountains and it’s a wonderful sea teaming with life, partly because water flows out of it just as fast as it flows into it. And there’s another body of water in that place that keeps all the water for itself. And it is called Dead. It is not teeming with life. It feeds on itself until there is nothing left.
That’s the kind of option we all have. Our giving needs to be in response to this gratefulness that we feel. The most surprising thing for me in terms of my own giving was to discover when I finally made the decision to be a tither that I was the greatest beneficiary.
There’s a lot in scripture about leprosy. It was a much-feared disease in Biblical times, and one of the very interesting things about leprosy is it does something to the nerve endings in your hands and feet. Much of the disfigurement that you see in lepers comes from the fact that they can’t feel pain in their hands and their feet. So you can put your hand on a red hot stove and it doesn’t communicate to your brain that your skin is literally on fire.
I think the reason it’s used in scripture so much is that we all want to insulate ourselves from the pain of the world. The trick is to stay connected to the world so that we feel the pain and then to make some kind of response to it.
There are two kinds of giving, but I like to think of it as downstream giving and upstream giving. It’s not enough to pull the drowning victims out of the river, you need to walk back upstream and find out who’s throwing them in. So there’s both downstream-giving that actually takes care of victims of oppression. And then there’s upstream-giving — walking back upstream to do justice and to promote systemic change to find the underlying causes that are causing all this.
The religious right is upstream, throwing people in the river and it’s time we named it for what it is. It’s time we took the Bible back. It’s time we took our faith back and stopped having to apologize for being Christian or Jewish or Muslim without having to explain, “No, we’re not that kind of a Jew, we’re not that kind of a Christian.”
I think right now for gay and lesbian people it’s easier to come out to someone as gay than it is to come out as Christian. We have allowed ourselves to be hijacked. Part of what I’m trying to do in my ministry is use my skills and my office to say that there are Christians in this world who feel differently about these issues. It takes religious people to fight back against religious people.
So is all this easy? No. Will it require hard work? Absolutely. Will it require sacrifice? Sometimes. Is it dangerous? Right now, probably. It probably is going to be dangerous work before it’s over. But even that becomes part of the blessing. I’ve learned a lot in these last two years. I’ve never had a lot of experience with threats in my life. There were all kinds of death threats, especially just before the consecration.
But here’s how the difficulty and the distress, even the danger, can become a blessing. We had a plan that if a bomb or gunshots went off, the fellow dressed as a deacon right behind me, who was fully armed, was to try to get me out of the building. It takes three bishops laying hands on another person to make them a bishop. And we had three bishops designated to be gotten out of the building along with a photographer and a secret location to go to, so that if I was still alive, they would be able to lay hands on me, make me a bishop, and we could prove it with a photograph, so that at the end of the day the consecration would not have been stopped. Then we went over and did this amazing thing and nothing bad happened.
I am sick of so much talk these days about security. The security issue is meant to scare us. That’s exactly why it’s there. Our anxiety is even color-coded! We are told it’s a yellow day. It’s an orange day. It’s a red day. We’re not told how to make the anxiety go away, how to protect ourselves, or where it’s going to happen or how. We’re just meant to be more anxious. Because when we’re more anxious, we’re willing to give up more of our rights and more of the things we ought to be about.
When you’re wondering if you’re giving enough, I have this theory. You have to give enough to get your soul’s attention. So my rule of thumb is when you’re writing out the check, if you don’t get a lump in your throat, it’s not big enough. You have to put enough zeros down to get your soul’s attention, to remind yourself how really blessed you are and how you really don’t need all this money.
There’s a wonderful theologian who’s one of my favorites, Frederick Beuchner. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotations from him: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
The world’s hunger is so great. But so are our resources. Find your own deep gladness, and then let it respond to the world’s deep hunger.
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.org