Secular utilitarianism 1 – Agape 0; the problems with Baber’s scheme

Is it just me that worries about Harriet Baber’s Church Times musings?

A few weeks ago  Harriet suggested, or stated, that ‘it is time to separate ethics from religion.’ 

This week she goes one step further, entering into the field of applied ethics arguing that charity should, largely be devolved to the state, through the creation of a Ministry of Good Works. Her aspiration is that the state will take up the majority of the slack leaving a ‘minor role’ for the Church.

Referring to Jesus (which she does only once, and right at the end of her article) she reflects that ‘as far as I can see, he was interested in ends rather than means – in making people better off by whatever means were most effective.’ I am not sure I agree, I think Jesus was concerned with both ends and means, but, that he wanted his disciples to be just that; his disciples. And what did his disciples do? The New Testament suggests they did an awful lot of charity.

The problem with Baber’s approach is that it totally ignores the Church’s twin mandate to: act as a prophetic voice, always looking out for the needs of those at the margin of society and, to be the arms of God’s love in the world. The Church would lose its ability to act as salt and light, in other words.

It  risks turning ‘good works’ into yet another election gimmick. A ‘wise’ minister for good works would presumably support the most popular, election winning, causes. ‘Charitable investment’ would flow into the types of sector capable of producing quick wins and a short-term, demonstrable, return on assets employed. Risk would be avoided, the most vulnerable ignored.

Charity, as a distinctively Christian virtue (and we only have three cf. 1 Corinthians 13) would have been relegated into the political abyss.

Secular utilitarianism 1 – Christian agape O. 

But, what really irritates is the sweeping assumptions Baber makes. Consider this:

‘Charities are sophisticated operators. They search extensive databases that include my profile, gleaned from my history of Amazon transactions, and Facebook likes; they know the sort of projects to which I’m likely to contribute………operating in the market charities spend lavishly on marketing. They have to……..they employ legions of administrators and clerical workers to do research, maintain websites, and produce junk mail.’

Is this an accurate picture? Well, yes there are a large number of mega charities who do this sort of thing. But, overall, no. Most charities are managed on a wing and a ‘prayer.’ The majority of charities are run from garages and back bedrooms. And these charities make a significant and lasting difference to the lives of those they serve. And the people they serve are often found in the least glamorous of contexts. Baber’s analysis is really far too big picture, ‘philosophical’ and, abstract.

Let me give another example: her claim that charities perceive themselves as members of the ‘charity market.’ For sure this might be true of the mega charities who actively pursue a ‘share of wallet.’ But, its not true for the thousands and thousands of smaller charities who don’t regard themselves being in competition with other charities but rather as servants of the forgotten and marginalised. These charities largely promote their beneficiaries interests through a very old fashioned strategy; story telling.

But lets’ have a look at Baber’s other motivation for the creation of a Ministry of Good Works: self-interest.

‘I would prefer a Ministry of Good Works, funded by taxes (they may rise) to do the work these charities do. The creation of such a government agency would instantly cut junk mail in half, and wipe out millions of non-profit bureaucrat’s jobs. Since we all want some say about how our money is spent.’

Baber’s scheme is theologically suspect because it would seek to separate the ‘rich’ from the ‘poor,’ in real, physical and relational terms; undermining the common good (or common wealth).

For, what Baber fails to recognise is that redistribution of financial or material assets is only a part of what Christians refer to as charity. Effective, transformational charity is always animated by love, and love is relational. For the Christian,charity also seeks to bring another entity into the equation: God.

If Baber were to talk to small Christian charities she might discover something truly amazing, nay miraculous: despite managing on a shoe-string, through God’s grace, it seems that meagre rations are blessed and produce truly amazing dividends. A few scraps can indeed feed many (cf the Feeding of the Five Thousand; Matthew 14, 13-21).

One final thought: under Baber’s scheme, confident that the Minister of Good Works is catering for every, electorally popular, work of charity we run the risk of institutionalizing the role of the rich man in the famous parable of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19–31). Dives basic problem is that he failed to see, for himself, the poverty that existed right under his nose. And it cost him his salvation.

Now there’s a sobering thought!

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