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effective altruism and our neighbors

October 21, 2013

There’s an abundance of need in the world.  1.1 billion people in the world do not have access to clean water.  19,000 children die from preventable diseases caused by extreme poverty every day.  About 655,000 people died from malaria in 2010, more than 90 percent of them in Africa.  More than 300 natural disasters have occurred each year over the past decade.

There’s an abundance of need in our individual communities.  Our neighbors are victims of domestic abuse.  They are working minimum wage jobs and not earning a living wage.  They are chronically ill but uninsured and can’t get help.  They are hungry.  They can’t read.

How can we justify where we give?

Thirty dollars to a malaria organization will provide 30 mosquito tents.  The same $30 could be given to an organization that equips underprivileged kids for back to school– but this time instead of helping 30 people, the donation will just cover one backpack and set of school supplies.

In the TED video above, Peter Singer makes the case for evaluating our altruistic actions through the lens of maximization of accomplished good.  His thesis is that effective altruism “combines both the heart and the head.”  Our empathetic hearts motivate us to altruism and our heads ensure our gifts are effective and well-directed.  The goal is not just to do some good, but as much good as possible.

But I think God calls us to more than an economic equation.

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same. (Luke 3:11)

So do I advocate giving to the Against Malaria Foundation or sponsoring communities through WorldVision, both of which are highly effective organizations?  Yes.  Absolutely.  I don’t just advocate giving to them. I do give to them.

But…

Sometimes, I actually think its pretty easy to write a check (or it was in the 90s…. now its automatic debit from my credit card, but whatever) to these global organizations.  Or even to the ones here at home with a broad reach- like the food bank.

Its hard, emotionally and physically, to actually face the need around us.

To look into the hardened eyes of a little boy that is failing 5th grade because he is abused at home.

To sit at the food pantry and hold the hand of an angry mother who can’t feed her children because she doesn’t have enough money.

To stroke the hair of a desolate woman who is terminally ill.

These things challenge us.  They aren’t easy, clean things.  They don’t fit into neat little slot in our calendars.

But we are called to radical, consuming love.  To step in to our neighbors’ lives and correct the injustices.  To be in community.  To show up.

The reality is that we can make a difference with gifts to effectively run organizations.  But we can’t substitute those gifts — the saving of a bazillion people with one well-placed donation — for profound compassion for our neighbors.

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