It is strange to think back upon our previous lives and to marvel at how utterly different our present is from our past. Growing up in Hawaii in the early 90s, weekends were the sole domain of God. At my family’s evangelical church, my four younger sisters and I heard many Sundays of bible lessons—stories that never ceased to astonish and amaze me with their imaginative scope. Of many biblical stories that shaped my earliest view of the world, one in particular I find compelling even years after I first heard it read. This is the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who wanted to know what he could do to get to heaven.
As the story goes, Jesus instructs the man to uphold the commandments—do not murder, do not steal, honor your father and mother. The rich man insists that he has kept all these since boyhood. To this, Jesus gives a startling reply:
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
(NIV Mark 10:21, Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)
Upon hearing this, the rich man goes away, incapable of imagining a life without his great wealth. I’ve always found it odd that the rich man didn’t stick around long enough to hear what Jesus next tells his disciples, or that Jesus hesitated to reply, revealing the rich man’s devastating fate only after he was out of earshot: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24, Luke 18:25).
It’s taken me two decades to understand why, for me, the story of the rich man is so unnerving: its hell-bound villain is a profoundly decent man. The bible has no shortage of stories about pillagers, murderers, rapists, and thieves—but this man is not one of them. In fact, if we had been in the rich man’s position, might we have done the same, disobeying Jesus to preserve our wealth?
A moral imperative to give
I know that I wasn’t the only child made to listen to that bible story, which was recounted with seemingly infinite variation in Sunday school, Bible club, Bible camp, Good News club, and during family devotion meetings. While church attendance among Christians living in the West is in decline, nevertheless 77% of Americans still self-identify as Christian and subscribe to a Christian worldview. Similarly, both Australia and the United Kingdom boast majority Christian populations.
For Christians—who make up the majority of people living in the Western developed world, and a sizable minority worldwide—giving resources to help the world's poorest people is not merely a moral recommendation. On the contrary, if we are to take Jesus’ words seriously, giving to the poor is nothing short of a commandment, as much a moral imperative as the commandment against murder. So why does it seem that Christians, and American Christians in particular, rarely talk about financial obligations to the world’s poorest people?
Photo credit: Shreya Goswami
The politics of Christian giving
Why is global poverty conspicuously absent from the roster of American Christian political interests? Are American Christians neglecting global poverty due to a lack of resources, or perhaps because of political indifference? The answers might surprise you.
First, American Christians don’t overlook effective poverty relief organizations because of a lack of Christian money and resources. In fact, a 2012 Chronicle of Philanthropy study showed that people living in deeply religious parts of the country—in Utah, Idaho, and the bible belt states—give significantly more of their income to charity than do those living in more secular and Democratic states like New York and Massachusetts. But the study also found that most of this money went to religious organizations such as churches rather than directly to those living in extreme poverty. When religious giving is excluded, heavily Christian areas of the country clock in some of the lowest percentages of charitable giving.
Second, Christians do not overlook poverty relief efforts because of political apathy. On the contrary, the American Protestant right prides itself on its political activism, rallying around issues like abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. These Christians operate under a “pro-life” stance, defending the unborn, the unconceived, and the terminally ill. But only rarely do these same Christians discuss the political issue that poses one of the greatest threats to billions of lives worldwide: extreme poverty. The World Bank estimates that currently 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, and 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day. In terms of the sheer number of lives lost to malnourishment, disease, lack of clean water—the conditions of extreme poverty—it seems undeniable that efforts to reduce worldwide poverty should be the key political issue at the forefront of the American pro-life agenda.
Christ-like generosity and effective altruism
Christians have no reason to regard effective altruism as incompatible with their religious beliefs. Indeed, the priorities of Christian ethics and effective giving reveal striking overlaps. The Protestant academic Eric Gregory argues for the benefits of a Christianity open to empirical research on effective aid: “Christians should pay attention to the best social-scientific and economic literature to find ways to reduce poverty and make empirical judgments about how best to provide aid. They should also engage the best philosophical work in ethics” (Gregory 21). Similarly, the Roman Catholic scholar Charles C. Camosy maintains that “Peter Singer and the Roman Catholic Church are stunningly similar when it comes to articulating our duties to the poor,” in that both claim that it is “morally wrong not to provide aid” (Camosy 141, 142. See also p. 145, 175).
On the topic of effective giving, both Christians and the nonreligious can benefit from dialogue with each other. For Christians–those of us whom Jesus directly commands to give aid to the poor–what does it mean to learn that that we as a group give less to aid relief organizations than those who have no moral obligation to heed Jesus’ words? For those of us who call ourselves secular progressives, can we make lifestyle changes that would enable us to pledge larger percentages of our salaries to help those living in extreme poverty—percentages that match or even exceed the amount given to churches by our country’s most devout?
Of the many things I’ve struggled to reconcile between my present and my past lives, it’s a relief to know that my desire to give is not one such source of contention. In a small way, giving helps us remake our present into the kind of world that we can joyfully inhabit. Indeed, giving to the world’s neediest people might just be the closest we’ll get to the redemption that the Gospels’ rich man so desperately sought.
Learn more about how effective giving can improve life for the world’s poorest people here. Find out how much you could give based on your after-tax income using The Life You Can Save’s interactive calculator.
Resources and further reading:
Charles C. Camosy, “Duties to the Poor,” Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2012), pp. 137-177.
Eric Gregory, “Agape and Special Relations in a Global Economy: Theological Sources,” Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy, ed. Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), pp. 16-42.
Toby Ord and Eric Gregory, “Session 5: Responding to Global Poverty,” Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer (Conference Archive), McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics & Public Life; Christ Church, University of Oxford, May 19-20, 2011.
Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Biblical Study (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977).
Peter Singer, “Christians, Riches, and Camels,” Free Inquiry 22.3 (2002): 9-10.