The Shallow Pond Dilemma

It seems appropriate in this time of gluttony and the consumer frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday, to talk about the ethical dilemmas of the financial choices we make.

A long time ago, I listened to Episode #100 of the Diet Soap podcast and it sparked a lot of thoughts and conversations, mostly with myself, about the nature of charity and justice and how to get from one to the other. More recently at Hope Fellowship we’ve been reaffirming our membership and commitment to the values of our little ekklesia . The last couple weeks has been teaching and discussing the value of tithing and sharing. While we can always do better, I really appreciate that we attempt to tackle one of the most touchy subjects with a little more depth, transparency and thought…how we deal with our finances. So, I thought I’d tackle some thoughts from the podcast and current conversation on the difference between charity and justice and why we should all be Mother Theresa.

The Shallow Pond Gets Deeper
In the podcast the host, Doug Lain, shares an analogy from the ethicist Peter Singer. He imagines that you are standing at a shallow pond where you see a child that has fallen in and is going to drown. The pond is shallow. So, you have no risk of injury yourself, but you have on an expensive pair of fancy shoes that you don’t want to get all muddy. In this situation it seems ridiculous to choose to preserve the muddy pair of shoes instead of the child’s life. But Singer argues that this is what we do all the time through the consumer choices we make. So, his conclusion goes something like, “You should give the money you would spend on fancy shoes to Oxfam or Unicef to take care of a starving child.”

So, Singer has highlighted the ethical dilemma involved in how we deal with our finances in light of inequality in the world. However, there are some problems with Singer’s analogy. The limit of what Singer can imagine people doing is giving lots of money to charity. Charity is the ultimate act of an utilitarian ethic. So, within the confines of an unjust social structure the best we can do is charity. Justice requires something more radical. The guest, Ben Burgis, argues that Singer’s own analogy undermines his ethic of charity,

If you go with Singer’s argument then and embrace his conclusion, then, not only should we give to charity, but even living a comfortable First World lifestyle is morally unacceptable.

Singer’s analogy presents an individual ethical dilemma where you are face to face with a choice, but when you are shopping you’re part of a mass. We don’t really make consumer choices on a purely individual basis. Within our capitalist framework we insist on the individual ethic, but there are spaces where we don’t act as individual agents, but as a collective. The forces of the economy and consumerism that create and reinforce injustice and inequality are not face to face with us when we make purchases in the supermarket or a store. As Doug Lain points out,

If you want to have a more ethical system you can’t stay within the context of that system…To ask people to invest in Oxfam instead is to ask them to do something counter to the ethics of the culture they’re in.

The Counter-Cultural Ethics of God’s Economy
This is partially the purpose of how the church is supposed to function. It intends to be an alternative to the way the world organizes itself. The hope and purpose is to embody the ethic of the reign of God that we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways is by committing to share our resources with this particular community. This takes different forms. One is the tithe, where ten percent of goes to the common treasury of the church. Far from absolving us, this practice is meant to invite us further in to how this is used in the life of the church and its mission in the world. But in many ways the tithe is really the lowest common denominator form of economic participation in the life of the people of God.

In a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus challenges us to engage systems of domination with creative nonviolence, he offers this final, perhaps most radical, word, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:42). This verse challenges our most precious possession, control. When faced with how to best use our resources, this verse challenges our addiction to those resources and the power and privilege of deciding how they are used. Elsewhere, Jesus tells the rich young man that following him requires divesting himself of all his possessions and give to the poor, enacting Jubilee in his own life (Mt 19:16-22; Lk 18:18-30). There is a radical principle here summed up in the Psalms and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that God is the only absolute owner. Followers of Jesus are called to hold their possessions loosely as things to be used for God’s purposes and not their own accumulation or comfort.

The next post will attempt to think about ways that we can live out these ideas in our daily lives.

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