Sunday, March 29, 2009

I'm Warning You, Don't Read This!

The following are excerpts from a book I'm reading entitled "The Life You Save".

In the Christian Tradition, helping the poor is a requirement for salvation. Jesus told the rich man, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor." To make sure his message wasn’t missed, he went on to say that is is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He praised the Good Samaritan who went out of his way to help a stranger. He urged those who give feasts to invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. When he spoke of the last judgment, he said that God will save those who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, and clothed the naked. It is how we act toward “the least of these brothers of mine”: that will determine, Jesus says, whether we inherit the kingdom of God or go into the eternal fire. He places far more emphasis on charity for the poor than on anything else.

Not surprisingly, early and medieval Christians took these teachings very seriously. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, proposed that those with a surplus should share with the needy: “Your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality.” The members of the early Christian community Jerusalem, according to the account given in the Acts of the Apostles, sold all their possessions and divided them according to need. The Franciscans, the order of monks founded by Francis of Assisi, took a vow of poverty and renounced all private property. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval scholar whose ideas became the semi-official philosophy of the Roman Catholic church, wrote that whatever we have in “superabundance”—that is, above and beyond what will reasonably satisfy our own needs and those of our family, for the present and the foreseeable future—“is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance.” In support of this view, he quoted Ambrose, one of the four original “Great Doctors” or teachers of the Church. He also cited the Decretum Gratiani, a twelfth-century compilation of canon law that contains the powerful statement, “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry: the clothing you shut away, to the naked: and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.”

Note that “owed” and belongs.” For these Christians, sharing our surplus wealth with the poor is not a matter of charity, but of our duty and their rights.

Today, some Christians are seeking a renewed focus on the message of the gospels. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners, likes to point out that the Bible contains more than three thousand references to alleviating poverty—enough reason, he thinks, for making this a central moral issue of Christians.

I write this book with two linked but significantly different goals. The first is to challenge you to think about our obligations to those trapped in extreme poverty. The part of the book that lays out this challenge will deliberately present a very demanding—some might even say impossible—standard of ethical behavior. I’ll suggest that it may not be possible to consider ourselves to be living a morally good life unless we give a great deal more than most of us would think it realistic to expect human beings to give. This may sound absurd, and yet the argument for it is remarkably simple. It goes back to that bottle of water, to the money we spend on things that aren’t really necessary. If it is so easy to help those in real need through no fault of their own, and yet we fail to do so, aren’t we doing something wrong? At a minimum, I hope this book will persuade you that there is something deeply askew with our widely accepted views about what it is to live a good life.

The second goal of this book is to convince you to choose to give more of your income to help the poor. . . I should say up front that I believe you should be giving more than 5 percent, and that I hope you’ll ultimately move in that direction.

Many people get great pleasure from dressing stylishly, eating well, and listening to music on a good stereo system. I’m all for pleasure—the more the better, other things being equal. . . . But my argument does imply that it is wrong to spend money on those things when we could instead be using the money to save people’s lives and prevent great suffering. The problem is that we are living in the midst of an emergency in which 27,000 children die from avoidable causes every day. That’s more than one thousand every hour. And millions of women are living with repairable fistulas, and millions of people are blind who could see again. We can do something about these things. That crucial fact ought to affect the choices we make. To buy good stereo equipment in order to further my worthwhile goal, or life-enhancing experience, of listening to music is to place more value on these enhancements to my life than on whether others live or die. Can it be ethical to live that way? Doesn’t it make a mockery of any claim to believe in the equal value of human life?

OK . . . it’s me, Dave, writing now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you and tell you not to read this.

I have been haunted by Peter Singer's words in this book for the past two weeks. I will confess that I do not really want to hear them with my heart. I want to keep what I am reading bouncing around in my mind because as long as these words do not move into my heart, it is not necessary for me to choose. Choose? Yes choose. This man is calling me to act on the areas of Jesus' teachings and the life-style choices of the early church that I would just as soon ignore and I must admit, have done a pretty good job of ignoring for more than three decades.

And another thing . . . Why should I listen and give any consideration to such a blatant, clear-cut, no excuses, take-no-prisoners challenge from this man who has been described as “The Most Dangerous Man on Earth” AND whose views on poverty and how we can eradicate global poverty have been called stupid. Aren't the Christians who describe and accuse Peter Singer of these things correct? After all, he is an atheist!

To be continued . . .

1 comment:

pepperdeaf said...

Hi Dave. Dan Teefey here. I heard a summary of this book on NPR a couple weeks ago. It is on my book list and look forward to reading it. It is interesting how God can use someone that is generally in opposition to the Christian community to convict us of deep truth.