Relationships, as you will have heard in many sermons, are at the heart of Christianity. In Genesis, ‘it is not good for man to be alone’, and thus we have friendship, family and community. Jesus appoints twelve close friends to build a church and ‘love your neighbour’. And perhaps most evocative of all is the image of God as constant, triune relationship, ‘three in one’.
The importance of relationships to Christians is also probably the most common reason given for not engaging with effective giving. Quite simply this is the accusation that effective altruism takes relationship out of charity, replacing it with abstract utility maximising; whereas for Christians, giving is often seen as an extension of our relational love for our neighbours.
To use an example, many Christians might prefer financially supporting a missionary family they know well, or a local church food bank, over donating to a large secular charity which helps unnamed people in places far away – such as the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). Even though many Christians would admit that AMF has a bigger impact in terms of lives saved or improved, they value their relationship to the charitable organisation or the objects of charity so highly that the relational aspect wins out.
In other words, when many Christians reflect on how they give, multiple priorities are revealed. Not only do they care about the impact the giving has on the lives of individuals receiving aid, and also the impact giving has on key relationships they value. At first sight, this seems fairly harmless. But the issue arrives when there might be a conflict or ‘trade-off’ between the two: for example, ‘relational’ thinking might encourage you to donate to your local church roof campaign. But in terms of impact, the same money could have a much bigger impact if spent fighting malaria overseas.
Effective altruism challenges us to reconsider how we value ‘relational’ aspect of giving, and to take seriously the ‘actual impact’ aspect. As a result of this trade-off: relational giving comes at a cost, often hurting the global poor most. How should Christians respond? Here are some thoughts.
First, as Christians we can have a broad, inclusive view of what it means to ‘love your neighbour’. All people, everywhere – regardless of whether they share your church roof – are made in the image of God and are objects of his love and care. Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan turns the concept of ‘neighbour’ upside-down. Relationally, nothing connected the Samaritan to the dying man he saved: they were of different races, religions and social statuses. What mattered was his actions: he loved the man despite the lack of obvious relationship, and this made him a neighbour.
Similarly, although we may not personally know, contact or even see the recipients of our charitable giving, this does not mean our giving is in vain. On the contrary, choosing to bless our global ‘neighbours’ despite the distance of geography and lack of relationship is truly valuing them in the way the Good Samaritan does.
Second, the Bible makes it clear that giving is meant to be a costly thing. The Widow’s offering to the Temple costs her ‘all she has’. Jesus tells the man who obeyed the Law to the letter to ‘sell all your possessions and give to the poor’. He warns of those who give in order to gain public approval; instead, your ‘right hand should not know what your left hand is doing’.
This ties into a third, deeper point: giving is not about us. It’s about those we are trying to help: those who go hungry, who in Matthew 25 symbolise Christ in their need of clothing and food. Of course, it will always be tempting to make it about us. After all, giving can – and perhaps often should – be fun: it feels good to buy a homeless woman a cup of tea, put up a ‘Toilet Twinning’ sign in my bathroom, or write my missionary friends a cheque so they can go to Uganda. But we mustn’t confuse this good feeling for the thing itself.
The important thing about giving isn’t how it helps our relationships, our feelings or even our spiritual lives. Genuine concern for our neighbours leads to selflessness – something we might want to call ‘altruism’ – which may reap little benefits for oneself, and in fact may even be costly. But perhaps radical, sacrificial altruism is God’s vision for what giving could be. Perhaps taking seriously Jesus’s command to ‘love thy neighbour’ means broadening our scope of charity to include not just those we know, or who are local, but giving all we have to love our global neighbours.
– by David Lawrence