Columnists > Voices

The Singer challenge

Why don't Christians give to help the poor?

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

How would you respond to a declaration by a famous atheistic philosopher that he gives over 10 percent of his income to anti-poverty efforts, followed by a challenge: Since the Bible says so much about helping the poor, why don't more Christians go and do likewise? Yes, it's time again to thank Princeton's Peter Singer (WORLD, Nov. 27, 2004, and Oct. 25, 2005) for pushing readers to offer five kinds of responses.

Some wrote that Mr. Singer (a defender of infanticide, euthanasia, bestialism, and necrophilia) must have public-relations reasons for giving: "Mr. Singer is getting something out of telling us all about his charity. He can be proud now. . . . He can feel good about it and that is a reward, too." That argument, in essence, goes as follows: Princeton gives him a large salary for promoting monstrous ideas but he may not want to be seen as a monster, so he does the equivalent of buying himself a nice meal with his ill-gotten gains and leaving a large tip.

Others commended Mr. Singer's charitable sense but counterattacked by writing that he is ignoring three important considerations. To summarize that argument: Congratulations, but you are unusual, since the average evangelical gives more than the average atheist. Congratulations, but are your charitable choices effective ones, and are you spending time as well as money? Congratulations, but if you care about the poor why are you contending that the most helpless among the poor be killed?

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Still other respondents noted that Mr. Singer was illogical in asking others to follow his lead: If there's no God, why shouldn't everyone do what is right in his own eyes, no matter how cruel? That's a good point, since Mr. Singer certainly is acting with existentialist schizophrenia when he gives to help the poor but also recommends killing the helpless. But that craziness does not negate his critique of Christians for not practicing what Christ preached.

A fourth set of commenters refused to accept Mr. Singer's presuppositions but acknowledged that he has a point, since more Christians should be involved in helping the poor. Several quoted 1 Peter 2:12: "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation." No, good deeds don't save us, but they do point to the reality of the Savior's great deed.

Overall, though, the responses I liked best were from people who responded to Mr. Singer's gambit by citing their own behavior but then pointing out what was really important. One reader described his impressive donations and volunteer work but then concluded, "This game of do-gooder tit-for-tat is a lot of fun . . . but that's not the point."

Here was the point he emphasized: "Of course there are atheists who are exceedingly generous, just as there are Christians who disregard Scripture by giving nothing and ignoring the poor. What does this prove? Nothing, that's what. We are all hypocrites, including Mr. Singer and including me. I will rest on Christ and His grace to save me, and the good things I do are just icing on the cake, acts of obedience to show my love for God and for the things that He loves."

That's the crux of Christianity, but we often substitute a humanistic version. I put "God helps those who help themselves" into Google and had 74,700 hits, but J.I. Packer's three-word summary of the gospel-"God saves sinners"-registered only 643. By this measure the doctrine that we are helpless sinners is over 100 times less popular than the concept that we start and God finishes, yet the road less traveled is the straight path.

Peter Singer's charity is commendable, but I suspect that Jesus would not tell him to give all that he had to the poor; that's something Mr. Singer could do in his own strength. Good deeds are a blessing but they can also be a curse if they lead us to think that we are capable of saving ourselves. Peter Singer's hardest task would be to realize that he is wrong to invent his own ethics, and that he should instead "rest on Christ and His grace."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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