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Must we love all equally?

September 5, 2016

This past Sunday I heard what is for me one of the most challenging Gospel passages of all:

Great crowds accompanied him on his way and he turned and spoke to them. “Anyone who comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and his own life too, cannot be my disciple. No one who does not carry his cross and come after me can be my disciple. And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, anyone who saw it would start making fun of him and saying, ‘Here is someone who started to build and was unable to finish.’ Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who was advancing against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple without giving up all that he owns” (Luke 15: 25-33).

At those words my skin bristled. What are we as Christians to make of such a stark commandment? To be followers of Jesus are we really called to give up everything, to renounce all attachment to friends and family, to follow Jesus so devotedly that nothing else matters?

For many Christians the answer to this question appears to be a sheepish “no.” Indeed, the European Protestants who lay the foundation for modern-day capitalism – in which corporations are legally considered people, maximizing profits is a legal obligation, and debt is the foundation of the financial system – clearly did not take this Gospel passage literally. I cannot imagine that the American Christians who have thrown their support behind Donald Trump do either.

Often, when this Gospel passage is read, priests dance around it or avoid discussing it altogether (my parish priest devoted his entire homily this week to a reflection on the second reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, which is also challenging but not to the same degree). Some of my Christian friends also evade this calling, invoking the idea of a plurality of vocations (“There are many gifts, but the same spirit,” Corinthians 12:4) and suggesting that this summons to asceticism was not directed toward all. Still others suggest that this and other aphorisms of Jesus (“You must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Matthew 5:48) are deliberately meant to be difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. Christianity demands so much of us that we are sure to fall short; we are bound to experience ourselves as sinners, completely dependent on God’s unearned grace to save us.

And yet, throughout two thousand years of Christian history there have been people who have put this call to renunciation into practice. Eager to follow Christ with utmost devotion, monks and nuns have renounced filial attachments as well as earthly pleasures in obedience to this command. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest examples of this commitment; in more recent times, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa come to mind. In my own hometown of Buffalo, NY, two individuals – a cancer researcher named Norm Paolini and a restaurant owner named Amy Betros – became locally famous after they sold all of their possessions to establish St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, a refuge where the city’s poorest could receive food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual guidance. Is this degree of renunciation, this extreme self-denial what we are ultimately called to if we truly are to follow Jesus?

About five years ago I unexpectedly met this charge. As an educator, I see myself as part of a helping profession. I pursued this vocation convinced that in teaching I would have the power to change lives, and I still believe this. However, unexpectedly a close friend challenged me. “If you weren’t teaching, someone else would be doing it in your place, and probably just as well as you. The only way you can say you are making a difference is if you can prove that you are better at teaching than all the others who do it.”

My friend had recently discovered 80,000 Hours, a nonprofit organization that gives career advice to people who want to make the highest possible impact. This organization – and a plethora of others like it – have startled people with such sayings as, “If you want to make a difference, don’t become a doctor or aid worker. Get a job on Wall Street.” The idea is that, in becoming an investment banker and earning a high salary – but willfully living more like a monk – one might support a dozen charity workers or aid workers. One’s impact would not feel direct, but it would be exponentially higher.

80,000 Hours and the other organizations like it form part of a growing movement that goes by the name of Effective Altruism (EA). Largely inspired by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, this movement brings Enlightenment-era utilitarianism and nineteenth-century positivism into the present day. Though it is a “big tent movement” and does include some self-identified religious people among its ranks, its default premises are quite secular. It aims to do the greatest good for the greatest number, with good being mostly defined in corporal terms  rather than spiritual ones– eradicating disease, prolonging life, protecting future generations from existential risks (like climate change, nuclear war or dangerous artificial intelligence).

When I encountered this movement five years ago, my first reaction was one of distaste, and admittedly,  that attitude has remained with me ever since. I am critical of EA’s focus on money as the best way to do good and its assumption that in order to have an impact we must work purely within the capitalist system (rather than striving to resist or change that system). I am wary of EA’s utilitarian tendency to see the people it is helping primarily as individuals rather than as embedded members of communities and its seeming indifference to art and culture (while saving human lives from premature death is a noble and worthy goal, what about saving the things that make life worth living?) I am skeptical of its belief that we might eliminate all human suffering (and if we could, would that even be a good thing?) Finally, I am suspicious of some EAs’ unwillingness to get their hands dirty, to become vulnerable enough to meet directly the people they aim to help. From the comfort of their Oxford classrooms or San Francisco offices it is easy to devise elegant mathematical systems that reveal their impact…But unless they go and visit the malaria-stricken African villages they claim to be helping, can they really be certain that they are doing good?

That said, there is much to admire in EA. They are one of the few movements that truly aims to treat all humans as equally deserving of care and support. While some EAs seek out marriage and family – and nearly all seek out friendship – they refuse to treat those close to them as more important than those far away. They are also one of the few movements to embrace animal rights as important and to see the alleviation of animal suffering as an important goal. They are calculating, but as Jesus urges us today, in a certain sense we need to be calculating. They are like the builder who is determined to finish the tower.

The irony is that, while most do not profess to be Christian, in terms of following the teaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel they are more Christian than many who claim that title. We may critique them, avoid them, dislike them, but, just as Jesus has done, they offer a challenge that cannot be ignored.

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11 Comments
  1. September 6, 2016 8:17 am

    nice,very insteristing.

  2. September 7, 2016 10:21 am

    Here is an article that critiques effective altruism more, er, EFFECTIVELY than I have been able to do. I am really curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter. Do you think that EA is the way to go? Why or why not? https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/peter-singer-charity-effective-altruism/

  3. September 7, 2016 3:45 pm

    This is timely. Like you I listened to the homily with interest, hoping to get a better understanding. I thought our priest danced around the issue.

    My criticisms of EA are:

    First, chequebook philanthropy of the EA kind tends to be a formula for absolving one’s conscience.

    Second, it is easy because it lacks personal involvement and thus commitment.

    Third, it is remote and so lends itself to inefficiencies, ineptitude and corruption.

    Fourth, money is in many cases the wrong remedy.

    Fifth, it does not promote personal growth.

    Charitable work should in the first place be local, where money is not always the answer. We need to see, hear and feel their suffering so that we can respond with love and the suffering can then feel our love. I also think this immediate exposure to the world of suffering is a necessary part of our personal growth.

    It is in the giving of love that we give the greatest gift. It transforms us and gives the sufferer greater confidence(because they thereby learn they are worthy of love) so that they can claim back their lives and thus recover from their suffering.

    • September 9, 2016 1:03 pm

      Labnut, overall I agree with you. However, the last point about personal growth is an interesting one. Many EAs would say that their approach does promote personal growth. They are regularly meeting and putting on seminars with this aim in mind:

      http://rationality.org/

      But others might ask…Is personal growth really that important in terms of charity? Do we engage in charity for others or for ourselves? Might it be better to seek personal growth in another way while focus our charity-energy simply into doing the most effective, efficient job possible?

      I am just playing Devils’ Advocate.

      • labnut permalink
        September 9, 2016 1:39 pm

        But others might ask…Is personal growth really that important in terms of charity?

        Society is a dense network of relationships. The health of society depends on the quality of those relationships. What we contribute to each relationship strand is dependent on our sense of ‘otherness’, i.e. our compassion, empathy and sense of awareness of the needs of others. By ministering on a personal level to the needs of others we are strengthening and growing our sense of ‘otherness’, which is under threat from the prevailing culture of hedonism and narcissism. If enough people should start doing this the whole focus of society will change. Instead of being so self-aware we must become more other-aware. This will transform society far beyond the suffering.

        And this ties in nicely with your question about the meaning of Jesus’ words because I maintain this is what Jesus really meant. He is challenging us to move our focus from our needs to the needs of others and the most extreme example of that is to give up our family ties. By using such an extreme example He is bringing home to us the great importance of moving from self-awareness to other-awareness.

        I don’t believe for one moment that Jesus meant this literally for the vast majority of Christians since society would no longer function.

  4. brian martin permalink
    September 8, 2016 7:51 am

    Fundamental critique- we are social beings. We are called to be in relationship with others. In my outreach work at a local homeless shelter I learned that it is in the relationships that spirits touch. I can send a thousand dollars to a program…but my life will never be touched in the same way as being in relationship with someone else…and their life will not be touched in that way either. A retired Lutheran minister who volunteered as a chaplain at the shelter once described the shelter as the narthex (entrance way) to the Church. I think in a different way, relationships are the spiritual narthex to the Body of Christ

    Put another way…I donate money that pays for the apartment for a homeless person…they are no longer homeless…but they either have no one visiting them, being in relationship with them (except perhaps other homeless people) or they have no one helping teach them healthy boundaries, and they end up back on the streets. This is a repetitive cycle that I have observed over about 15 years of working with homeless people.

    • September 9, 2016 12:59 pm

      Brian, I agree with you, but just to play devil’s advocate… The argument behind EA is that by focusing locally we are not helping as many people as we could. We could help more people in other parts of the world by sending money (so that local charity workers in relationship with the communities) will be able to do more and better work. How would you answer those who say that your measurable impact could be much greater than it currently is?

      • brian martin permalink
        September 10, 2016 11:48 am

        If we look at things from a utilitarian standpoint, it seems to me to become less than…it reduces people’s need to their physical needs…and it doesn’t work. An example is farming methods…in the name of humanitarian outreach, we convince native peoples to turn away from sustainable agricultural practices and introduce monocultures…so that they can earn money and be part of the modern economy…not caring really that it is extractive in nature…opening the land to erosion..and the people and resources to exploitation. I suppose in a perfect world the measurable impact could be greater than it currently is…and I have read critiques of Chritianity and the money spend on Mega Churches, and I agree in theory that that money could be used to help the poor. I just find it interesting that the focus is always on the poor elsewhere. So the kids from the local Catholic churches here go on “mission trips” to some big city each year…to help the poor. Just imagine how that money and energy could be used locally to help the poor in our own community. But that isn’t sexy enough, it isn’t entertaining enough. Lets face it, most people don’t seem to want to be in relationship with the other…despite our calling as members of the body of Christ to do so.

  5. labnut permalink
    September 8, 2016 2:06 pm

    Brian Martin, well said.

  6. September 9, 2016 1:04 pm

    I would also be curious to hear people’s thoughts on the Scripture passage itself. What do you think Jesus meant (given his context) when he said, “Anyone who comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and his own life too, cannot be my disciple.” And, if EA is not a correct way to applythis idea in our own context…What is?

    • brian martin permalink
      September 10, 2016 11:56 am

      I suggest that this may be best understood in terms of attachments. Think attachments in the Buddhist sense…where the idea is that unhealthy attachments cause suffering. I believe that Jesus is saying that anything that we love more than him, any attachment that gets in the way of our being disciples to him, those are unhealthy. I would interpret it as we need to hate unhealthy attachment to earthly things. As far as how to apply this…that is another question. I will try give an answer later.

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