Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Spiritual Deduction

I pay more taxes than I should.

I know this, and I do not doubt that it makes me a fool.

I was reflecting on it just last week, as I drove a day's worth of meals to my route for the Meals on Wheels program.  It's a small circuit I ride, varying between eight and eleven miles depending on who has been added to my route.  I know that every mile I drive can be tallied, and then counted as a charitable deduction.  Over the course of a year, it would add up, perhaps to a couple of hundred dollars worth of mileage, which would translate into a couple more twenties in the family bank account come tax time.

To accomplish this, I would have to keep a log.  Every time I went out, I would register my mileage in the log, and it would tell me just how much I stood to benefit from my bringing of meals and a cheery greeting to the homebound.

Cha-ching, would go Turbotax.  I think it actually does make that noise.  Cha-ching.

I can't bring myself to do it.

Oh, we do take advantage of our other deductions for giving.  The forms arrive from the synagogue and the nonprofits we support, and I put them in the year's tax file along with our 1099s and Dubya-Twos, to be entered during tax season.  I know it serves a public benefit, and I grasp the rationale for deductibility from the standpoint of the state.

But as I go from door to door, bearing food for those who need it, I do not want to be distracted.  As I act, I do not want to leaven my love of other with a little splash of self-interested book-keeping.   It changes my focus, shifting me from serving for the joy of it to serving for the profit of it.  It alters my perspective, turning me from a sense of duty towards neighbor and nation and towards my own self-interest.

Why should I care?

It's that Jesus.  That pesky, pesky Jesus.  But that he had never talked about giving at all.  What he taught matters to me, though, given that I've dedicated myself to spreading what he taught.

Before pursuing my call to ministry, I was steeped in the rarified thought-leadershippy echelons of the nonprofit world for a decade.   I came out of that experience wondering at the ferocity with which the interest groups of the insanely rich defended that deduction.    Folks with wealth that would make Croesus blush would protest that limiting the charitable deduction would force them to cut their giving.  Why would I put a small portion of my billions into a foundation that will trumpet my name if I don't get benefit from it, Lovie?

But giving out of self-interest is not, by the definition of the word, "philanthropy."  If it is not done for love of other human beings, it moves outside of the root meaning of the word, unless the anthrope you most philia is your own bad self.   Nor is it "charity," because it is not done from the foundation of love of other.

It's changed.  It feels like the involuntary "voluntarism" required of our children as they are forced by well-meaning school systems to rack up their community service hours.  Does that teach the essence of what it means to volunteer, to do a thing from the heart of your will?

And yes, it is complicated.  Good things do come from giving that's self-interested.  The hungry are fed by the grandstanding egotist, just as surely as they are fed by the saint or the bodhisattva.  Acclaim and profit can drive giving, just as surely as the coercion of the law can force civility.

Whichever way, I just can't do the log.  Fool that I am, it would...deduct...from my joy in the doing of the act itself.