Proudly, and with a twinkle in his eye, the member told me that he had put an extra contribution in the offering plate: a tithe of the goodly sum that he had won in a superbowl pool. That remained a humorous point between us and is revived each year he asks if the church were now willing to pay him a tithe of the money he has subsequently lost. Good question. The question, though, raises the question of the morality of the church accepting money from evil or questionable sources. That is, can money be so "tainted" that the church ought not to accept it?
We do place value on the source of money: we make our child return money that the child stole. Should not we draw the same line for the church? Would we want to accept money stemming from drug dealing or fraud? When is money 'clean' and when is it 'tainted?
In 1905, Congregationalists proudly announced the arrival of an unexpected gift--$1,000,000--from John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller, though, was also at the center of a boiling controversy about the power of the new American 'plutocrats'.
Instead of the expected thanks from church members, controversy followed, and the next year was spent fending off critics. Like bureaucrats today, the leaders denied culpability and said that they were only the passive recipients of Rockefeller's unsolicited benevolence, until it was learned that the church leaders had been pursuing Rockefeller's gift for several years.
Congregational minister Washington Gladden, minister of First Congregational Church of Columbus, Ohio, and a prolific writer (author of the hymn "O Master Let Me Walk with Thee") had written ten years earlier about "tainted money." He made it memorable when he invoked it against the Congregational leaders. The phrase lived with Rockefeller to his death.
Gladden had the conviction that money is not neutral but had a sacramental quality. When we give our money, our character is reflected in the gift. In contrast to today, Gladden wrote not only about the gift but also wrote about the giver.
Tucked away in our own church's history is a gift from gambling's winnings. The editor of the Houston Chronicle, a member, played in a regular mid-week poker game. One evening was particularly profitable, and not wanting or needing the money, he gave it to establish our Plymouth Library.
The story of the phrase "tainted money" is not just about gifts. It's about integrity.
The question of integrity is unlikely to bother the church today. As one friend said to me, "Money, like people, can be redeemed by the church," a facile rationalization we all seem willing to live with. Still, I wonder.
--Robert H. Tucker
18 January 1999