March 30, 1995

On Our Duty to Others

In Peter Singer's 1972 essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," he makes the assumption: "... suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad," and the claim: "... if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."

Mr. Singer appears to base the claim on the deontological grounds of Religious Absolutism, although this is an inference, as he does not state it directly. He observes that one may reach his assumption by several different routes, and identifies the claim as "almost as uncontroversial."

My first inclination was to support the claim, for I am enjoined by St. Paul, in I Corinthians 13, to love (agapeo) others, an action verb; I am to hold a sincere concern for others which must be worked out in practice, not merely spoken. Yet, upon reflection, I do not support it; it is supererogatory. My arguments are based both on utility and Christian idealism.

Mr. Singer's arguments are curiously mechanical. Christ told only one person to sell all he had and give the money away, and he was told, in addition, to join the roving band! Surely, if this were to be a universal maxim, applicable in all times and places, it would have been argued more in the sacred texts. It is not. Examples abound in scripture of people "dear to God" who were very well off -- David, Solomon, Abraham, Lazarus, and others. Paul writes to "rich people" explicitly (I Tim 6:17) without a suggestion that they impoverish themselves for the poor. Mother Teresa may well have been called to do so, but it does not follow that everyone has been similarly called.

The Singer claim also gives no limits on helping others. There are no third party considerations. If I drain myself for the poor, what then of my dependents? What then of me -- am I to cast myself as a burden on others? What of my dependents? How much do I hold back?

More seriously, the Singer claim gives God no credit. If I don't act, someone will die. That places me at the head of the solution. In charge. I'm not comfortable there; I know better.

Finally, the claim leaves people open to foolishness -- such as the church ladies who supposedly visited Mother Teresa, insisted in staying overnight with her "to save money," and came down with dysentery the next day, negating their good intentions.

The missing piece in the puzzle, I assert, and Singer, raised in the Christian faith, might be questioned why he did not discuss it, is that the Christian has direct access to God, and thus is able to receive direct "marching orders." Thus, I add to Singer's claim, as follows, to make it useful:

SINGER: " . . . if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."

BURGESON: "We must recognize, however, that our ability to recognize such situations is greatly impaired by our finite humanity; we see the future but dimly; rightly choosing between alternatives is impractical at best; often impossible. It is necessary, therefore, to have direction, and that needs to be from God. The Christian, therefore, will establish communication with the Almighty, ask for and expect direction, and when direction comes, execute it as faithfully as he can, remembering John Locke's words in his letter on Toleration: "Whosoever will list himself under the banner of Christ, must, in the first place and above all things, make war on his own lusts and vices." Note that Locke puts that condition first!

It sounds easy. And error-producing! Different people will hear different directions. Some will even hear bad directions, the Christian Segregationalists of the 60s, for instance. It is a messy process, and consensus is not to be expected. But it is, I assert, the only one that makes any sense. Locke suggests property limits, in CONCERNING CIVIL GOVERNMENT (section 30), but he wrote in an era of population sparseness, and his viewpoint may be of limited usefulness in today's complex world. Locke's God, however, is our God, too. Capable of giving direction, when asked.

I feel strongly on this subject, and will tell a personal experience to argue for the claim as revised. It was in the late 60s when my wife and I wrestled with it most deeply. Christians for ten years, we tithed because that seemed "right," but we were living well, we had a roof overhead, decent clothes, offspring, etc. And there were children "out there" starving! The question was not "should we act," but "how and to what extent should we act?" We began modestly, by sponsoring a boy in a Taiwanese orphanage. All it cost us was a little money and a letter now and then. Nice to do -- not the answer. It was a mechanical solution.

One day we realized that we had been focussing on the wrong question. "How do you feed all the starving children in the world" was not the question God was asking us. Instead, it was, "How do you take care of just one?" Not "feed," but "take care of." Not money, but commitment. At that point, genuine communication began. In 1972, after much prayer, we adopted a Korean orphan to add to our own five children. This was the part the Lord wanted us to play. A life commitment to a person; time and energy and sweat and tears and laughter and Little League and PTA and emergency trips to the hospital, not just money.

Life then was good. We knew the Singer arguments, and we were doing "what we could." We stopped asking the Lord about such things. Bad decision! He had more in mind! In 1973, we bought an unfinished house, moved into the shell and began work. It was much more work than we had anticipated. Finishing construction became our top priority. One Sunday, to save time, we skipped our home church for one closer to home. The Sunday School class was hosted by a guest missionary, only there for that one particular Sunday. He directed our thoughts to Psalm 127. Weary with house-building, it was as if God were speaking. He was.

Vs 1. Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor
      is futile who build it. ...
Vs 2. It is useless for you to be early in rising
      while being late in sitting up,
      eating the bread of toil, ...
Vs 3. Behold, children are a legacy from the Lord;
      the fruit of the womb is His reward.
Vs 4. As arrows in the hand of a mighty man,
      so are the children of one's youth.
Vs 5. Blessed is the man who has his quiver full of them.
Home at noon. Carol went for a walk. I had an "inner view" of two more children, a brother/sister, who needed salvaging. I could "see" them! Sat down; wrote a letter to the adoption agency. Carol came home with the same "marching orders." We gathered the children for a family council; all carefully signed the letter with us. Mailed it.

As 1973 went along, we prayed for these unknown children. Gradually they became real -- we could "see" them. Nothing mystical about all this -- just everyday communication from One who loves us. One hundred percent subjective and one hundred percent genuine. Then, on January 14, 1974, a letter came from the agency: "Sorry. We have no appropriate brother-sister pair for you." We were devastated. What was wrong? Had we engaged in collective wishful thinking?

On January 23, 1974, our response to the agency, carefully drafted, and certainly prayed over, was that we would wait; they did exist; they would show. Documentation received later show that David, 4, holding the hand of his sister Mary, 2, orphaned during the winter of 1973-74, walked into the Seoul office of the agency on January 25, 1974, two days after we posted our reply. They arrived at our home to join our family on May 30th, 1974. Both are, today, vibrant young adults, with family roots, out of the nest and soaring on their own life journeys.

Our children tell us they remember well the 1974-1976 years. Short resources, powdered milk, an elderly station wagon with "glass" body, an unfinished house. They were good years though; we missed no meals. Nor did we get marching orders to adopt more children. Several years later, with some of our older children out on their own, we had foster children. Again, the feeling of "mechanical" was back. We were older; the Lord was not using us that way anymore.

If the Christian faith is anything, it must be everything; if God is "personal," then He will honor requests for direction. Like all children, we will sometimes go astray, sometimes misunderstand His voice, but if we sincerely strive to listen, we will not often find ourselves far off the path. The words of Jesus on this subject, in John 14:21, have spoken this to me:

In summary, I have argued against Singer's claim, as stated, and in favor of a modification of the claim, and I have directed my arguments only to those sympathetic to the claims of Jesus Christ. I have no word for others.

John W. Burgeson

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