Jesus and Affluence: Reply to Ballivian

Kind thanks to Joel Ballivian for his comments on my paper, "Jesus and Affluence," and for the invitation to contribute a blog post in response. (And further thanks to Joel for patience with my glacial pace in getting this to him!)

I begin with a brief précis of my paper then turn to Joel's comments.

Peter Singer's widely discussed "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" concludes that the affluent are morally obligated to donate large portions of their wealth to humanitarian causes. He suggests that this conclusion, though demanding, fits nicely with some of our most respected ethical traditions. For example, it fits nicely, he says, with Jesus’s teaching on wealth and poverty. My paper looks into this latter claim. I start with an exposition of the second love command ("love your neighbor as yourself"), arguing that in its original setting in Hebrew Scripture (Leviticus, chapter 19), it is a teaching about shalom: the property possessed by a community to the extent that all in the community—not just the strong or clever—enjoy sustenance, safety, freedom, and dignity. The teaching, I urge, is that the Israelites are to seek their neighbor's inclusion in shalom community (for short: seek their neighbor's shalom), putting pursuit of neighbor shalom on a par with pursuit of their own.

I argue then that the Jesus of the synoptic gospels extends the scope of Leviticus's concept of neighbor to include anyone in need and in reach of one's care, so that, for Jesus, the import of the second love command is that one must put neighbor shalom on a par with one's own, for any neighbor in need and in reach of one's care. An implication of the command thus interpreted, I propose, is that one can't properly live in luxury whilst others in reach of one's care go without basic life goods. So I claim: Jesus's love teaching makes demands on our excess wealth quite similar to those of Singer's famine and affluence argument. The paper concludes by treating two objections: that the second love command, as I have interpreted it, is too demanding to be taken seriously, and that the second love command, so read, is not demanding enough to be taken seriously.

Such are the main contours of my paper. Joel isn't convinced (click here for Joel's initial response). If I'm reading him aright, he grants my read of Jesus's love teaching, on which love requires putting pursuit of neighbor shalom on a par with one's own. He thinks, though, that, unlike Singer's argument—which implies that spending on luxury and frill is never permissible—Jesus's love teaching implies that spending on luxury and frill is sometimes, perhaps often, permissible. This because maintenance of the morally significant relationships at the heart of any plausible conception of shalom (relationships of friendship, marriage, family, etc.) will often require spending on non-necessities (occasional gifts, celebratory meals, and the like). Were I, for example, to never buy a gift for my child or never spend on a celebratory meal with my spouse, on grounds that the money would be better spent on the poor, I would thereby do damage to these relationships and to the shalom of those to whom I bear these relationships. The second love command's injunction to put pursuit of these neighbors' shalom on a par with my own entails at least some spending on luxury and frill, contra Singer's argument, which proscribes all such spending.

By way of reply, I agree. As I tried to argue in the paper, my read of the second love command licenses special care for one's children (and by implication, other morally significant relations): "when things are going according to plan, parents care for their children in special ways, in ways that go beyond the ways they would care for strangers." Moreover, so I claimed, the second love command licenses occasional celebration, even extravagant celebration, and I pointed out in a footnote that, on this point, Jesus's love ethics would seem to diverge from the ethics of affluence implied by Singer's argument (at any rate, the ethics implied by the stronger of the two versions of the argument presented in his original paper). So far forth, I find myself in solid agreement with Joel.

Where I disagree is in thinking that all this implies that "when it comes to an ethic of charity and sacrifice, ...the differences between Jesus and Singer are greater than the similarities." Jesus's love teachings require an overall lifestyle of sacrificial simplicity, one that does mostly without luxury and frill: they require that one sell one's possessions in care of the poor, that one not store up excess wealth, that one eschew dressing in "purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor day after day" whilst neighbors starve on one's doorstep. Insofar as Jesus's teachings require such things, their requirements are similar—very similar—to those of Singer's argument. Not identical, granted: Singer's and Jesus's views may well differ on the legitimacy of occasional celebratory extravagance of the sort requisite for shalom. But insofar as both require lifestyles of overall sacrificial simplicity, there are, I maintain, strong similarities between them.


About the Author: Thomas M. Crisp (Ph.D., University of Notre Dame) is Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. He has published widely on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion, and is co-author (with Michael J. Loux) of Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, 4th edition (Routledge).

#Theology #PeterSinger #ethics #morality #shalom