This past Sunday I heard what is for me one of the most challenging Gospel passages of all:
Great crowds accompanied him on his way and he turned and spoke to them. “Anyone who comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and his own life too, cannot be my disciple. No one who does not carry his cross and come after me can be my disciple. And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, anyone who saw it would start making fun of him and saying, ‘Here is someone who started to build and was unable to finish.’ Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who was advancing against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple without giving up all that he owns” (Luke 15: 25-33).
At those words my skin bristled. What are we as Christians to make of such a stark commandment? To be followers of Jesus are we really called to give up everything, to renounce all attachment to friends and family, to follow Jesus so devotedly that nothing else matters?
For many Christians the answer to this question appears to be a sheepish “no.” Indeed, the European Protestants who lay the foundation for modern-day capitalism – in which corporations are legally considered people, maximizing profits is a legal obligation, and debt is the foundation of the financial system – clearly did not take this Gospel passage literally. I cannot imagine that the American Christians who have thrown their support behind Donald Trump do either.
Often, when this Gospel passage is read, priests dance around it or avoid discussing it altogether (my parish priest devoted his entire homily this week to a reflection on the second reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, which is also challenging but not to the same degree). Some of my Christian friends also evade this calling, invoking the idea of a plurality of vocations (“There are many gifts, but the same spirit,” Corinthians 12:4) and suggesting that this summons to asceticism was not directed toward all. Still others suggest that this and other aphorisms of Jesus (“You must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Matthew 5:48) are deliberately meant to be difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. Christianity demands so much of us that we are sure to fall short; we are bound to experience ourselves as sinners, completely dependent on God’s unearned grace to save us.
And yet, throughout two thousand years of Christian history there have been people who have put this call to renunciation into practice. Eager to follow Christ with utmost devotion, monks and nuns have renounced filial attachments as well as earthly pleasures in obedience to this command. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest examples of this commitment; in more recent times, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa come to mind. In my own hometown of Buffalo, NY, two individuals – a cancer researcher named Norm Paolini and a restaurant owner named Amy Betros – became locally famous after they sold all of their possessions to establish St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, a refuge where the city’s poorest could receive food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual guidance. Is this degree of renunciation, this extreme self-denial what we are ultimately called to if we truly are to follow Jesus?
About five years ago I unexpectedly met this charge. As an educator, I see myself as part of a helping profession. I pursued this vocation convinced that in teaching I would have the power to change lives, and I still believe this. However, unexpectedly a close friend challenged me. “If you weren’t teaching, someone else would be doing it in your place, and probably just as well as you. The only way you can say you are making a difference is if you can prove that you are better at teaching than all the others who do it.”My friend had recently discovered 80,000 Hours, a nonprofit organization that gives career advice to people who want to make the highest possible impact. This organization – and a plethora of others like it – have startled people with such sayings as, “If you want to make a difference, don’t become a doctor or aid worker. Get a job on Wall Street.” The idea is that, in becoming an investment banker and earning a high salary – but willfully living more like a monk – one might support a dozen charity workers or aid workers. One’s impact would not feel direct, but it would be exponentially higher.
80,000 Hours and the other organizations like it form part of a growing movement that goes by the name of Effective Altruism (EA). Largely inspired by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, this movement brings Enlightenment-era utilitarianism and nineteenth-century positivism into the present day. Though it is a “big tent movement” and does include some self-identified religious people among its ranks, its default premises are quite secular. It aims to do the greatest good for the greatest number, with good being mostly defined in corporal terms rather than spiritual ones– eradicating disease, prolonging life, protecting future generations from existential risks (like climate change, nuclear war or dangerous artificial intelligence).
When I encountered this movement five years ago, my first reaction was one of distaste, and admittedly, that attitude has remained with me ever since. I am critical of EA’s focus on money as the best way to do good and its assumption that in order to have an impact we must work purely within the capitalist system (rather than striving to resist or change that system). I am wary of EA’s utilitarian tendency to see the people it is helping primarily as individuals rather than as embedded members of communities and its seeming indifference to art and culture (while saving human lives from premature death is a noble and worthy goal, what about saving the things that make life worth living?) I am skeptical of its belief that we might eliminate all human suffering (and if we could, would that even be a good thing?) Finally, I am suspicious of some EAs’ unwillingness to get their hands dirty, to become vulnerable enough to meet directly the people they aim to help. From the comfort of their Oxford classrooms or San Francisco offices it is easy to devise elegant mathematical systems that reveal their impact…But unless they go and visit the malaria-stricken African villages they claim to be helping, can they really be certain that they are doing good?
That said, there is much to admire in EA. They are one of the few movements that truly aims to treat all humans as equally deserving of care and support. While some EAs seek out marriage and family – and nearly all seek out friendship – they refuse to treat those close to them as more important than those far away. They are also one of the few movements to embrace animal rights as important and to see the alleviation of animal suffering as an important goal. They are calculating, but as Jesus urges us today, in a certain sense we need to be calculating. They are like the builder who is determined to finish the tower.
The irony is that, while most do not profess to be Christian, in terms of following the teaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel they are more Christian than many who claim that title. We may critique them, avoid them, dislike them, but, just as Jesus has done, they offer a challenge that cannot be ignored.