My journey to effective altruism has been a long one, but it has fundamentally changed the way I see Jesus’s call to love others. I had the privilege of growing up in rural China to Christian parents. This, and being mixed race, has undoubtedly shaped the way I see the world.
China particularly shaped my understanding of poverty and international development. In the West, politicians often talk about a trade-off between market freedom and state power. But in China, ordinary people are at the mercy of both capitalist forces and government control far more than we are here. Bulldozed land, mass economic migration and cities built overnight were all the result of (often corrupt) collusion between businesses and government. And yet China’s embrace of free trade meant that many of our friends, whose parents were peasants, saw their life chances completely turned around: a child born in China today will a live longer, healthier and more comfortable life than their parents or grandparents. In China I encountered severe poverty, but also felt tangibly the enticing promise of progress.
After some time in the English school system, I ended up studying PPE at Oxford. In my first term, I was struck by the size of the homeless community which lived outside our grand university buildings. I found myself embarrassed by the irony of student political discussions about social justice, which we’d enjoy over three course dinners in beautiful dining halls, while homeless people braved the winter outside our college walls. I was active in the Christian Union, but its primary focus was on evangelism rather than reaching out to the poor.
This was except for a group of four or five Christian students who, every Friday, made sandwiches for the homeless community and went out to spend time with them. I joined them, and over time the group grew and developed. Many of us asked the question: why aren’t Christians doing more about social injustice? Homelessness in Oxford was a natural place to start, but injustice runs much deeper and much wider. We were convinced that if God cared about justice for our homeless neighbours in Oxford, he also cared deeply about our global neighbours. We formed a group called Just Love, which aims to ‘inspire and release Christian students to pursue God’s call to social justice’ and now operates at seventeen UK universities.
Helping set up a charity made me realise how important effectiveness is. Most people I’ve met in my life – and particularly Christians – want to do good and make a difference. Engaging with social justice can be incredibly rewarding: serving on homeless outreach helped me as well as the homeless. It feels good to make a hot drink for someone whose walk in life is so different to mine. Perhaps it also assuages some guilt, or provides a satisfied sense of having done something good. It’s nice to feel a part of a morally right cause, a radical political movement and a less embarrassing church
But the more I have engaged with charity and social justice, the more God has taught me a valuable and in some ways obvious lesson: It is not about me. As Christians, we rightly try not to be selfish – that’s intrinsic to loving people. But in my experience I have found it possible to be consciously unselfish and yet remain completely self-centred: to see charity as primarily about me and my calling; the story God has written where I save the world (perhaps with a little help from my friends).
Even without such grand ambitions, it’s easy to fit charity around our own needs and wants: giving out of guilt, prioritising those who happen to be local, or doing social justice in order to be part of a fashionable ethical ‘culture’ – which comes with a certain hippy-aesthetic, but not much else. The worry is that we have made charity another consumer good: something that we can buy to take away guilt or give us nice feelings. But God has a bigger vision for what charity can be, and unsurprisingly, it’s not about us.
I find effective altruism helpful in challenging self-centred charity, since the focus shifts entirely to be about those whom we are trying to help: the victims of injustice. Effective altruism asks one simple question – how can we use all our time, resources and talents to make the most impact? God has given us brains – as well as antibiotics, apps and economists – which are there to be used. At its core, effective altruism is a radical proposition: that we, whatever our talents and skill sets, really can make a difference to those around us. My faith tells me that the people at the heart of charity are the victims, the ‘least of these’ whom Jesus loves. And if these individuals are really our priority, then our response shouldn’t be driven by what feels good or seems convenient, but should focus on ensuring impact for those we are trying to help. We should take this challenge seriously, because if we get effectiveness wrong, the lives of real people made in God’s image are at stake.
Since leaving university I have worked in politics and community organising. I’d love to say that my job saves thousands of lives and most of my income is donated to effective charities, but I am not always as effective or as altruistic as I hope to be. However, effective altruism has undoubtedly changed the way I approach life. I try to ask myself each day how my actions can best ‘love my neighbours’ – not just those in Bethnal Green, where I live, but my global brothers and sisters too.
– by David Lawrence
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