Just Lifestyle: Four Options

I’d like to propose a little thought experiment.  Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of two familiar but explosive realities. First, about God:

  • God loves justice.  God’s heart is broken by poverty and human suffering.  Jesus is the Head, and we are the Body—we are God’s hands and feet on earth, showing the world what Jesus’ compassion looks like. This is beautiful.

Second, about the world:

  • The world includes more than two and a half billion people surviving on less than $2 a day.  Almost half the world’s population has no realistic opportunity to encounter God’s love in Christ.  This is intolerable.

So the question I want to ask is: when it comes to our financial lifestyles, what would a genuinely just lifestyle look like?
Standard Christian teaching on stewardship looks something like this:

  • Be honest, work hard and don’t get into debt.
  • Tithe 10% to your local church.
  • Put some extra money in the offering when there’s a big earthquake or famine or tsunami in the news, and perhaps sponsor a child in Africa on a monthly basis.

But when I take an honest look at this conventional advice in the light of the first two realities, I can’t help feeling that it’s a thin, watered-down echo of God’s ideal for a just lifestyle.

Here are some more radical approaches that I think might be closer to the mark:

1. John Wesley—founder of Methodism, one of the most influential evangelicals ever

2. Ralph Winter—missions leader, founder of the US Center for World Missions

3. Mother Teresa—missionary to the poorest of the poor, Nobel Prize winner

4. Peter Singer—secular utilitarian philosopher

  • Context: Global poverty, especially famines
  • Big idea: We are responsible for suffering we fail to prevent if we have the power to alleviate it, regardless of geographical, national, or cultural distance.
  • Concrete action: Buy only the necessities of life, and give away the rest (Singer reckons “necessities”= approximately $30,000 per household annually).


What do you think? What would a just lifestyle look like for you, given God’s compassion and the world’s poverty?

26 thoughts on “Just Lifestyle: Four Options

  1. love the famous names. winter, wesley, teresa are always used as examples of evangelism and missions. it’s nice to see their views with poverty and how we in wealth should live.

  2. Hey, it’s good to see a site devoted to this very important issue.

    Widespread life-threatening poverty is clearly an urgent humanitarian concern, and I’m in total agreement that we affluent folks act immorally if we ignore it entirely. (And I agree I’m affluent even though I’m living on a grad student stipend, on globalrichlist.com considerations.) But I wonder if radical giving is really the required response.

    What do you think about a “do your fair share” view? The idea is simple. Figure out how much money is needed to completely eradicate life-threatening poverty. Then divide that burden fairly among *all* the affluent. Figure out your share, given your income. Your obligation is to give just that amount. Any contribution above that is supererogatory.

    This is, by the way, Liam Murphy’s view, defended in his 2000 book, _Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory_.

    • Hi Ang, great to hear from you! I can’t wait for your first book–I’ll be the first to buy it, whether I can understand it or not 🙂
      Two thoughts:

      1. The “radical” positions exemplified by Wesley, Winter, and Mother Teresa have been extremely common–perhaps the most common teaching on financial stewardship–throughout the history of the church. Perhaps only in our consumeristic age do they seem radical. But a truly Christian response to global poverty, for me, should indeed be radical.The various New Testament teachings on money set a standard far more “demanding” than most secular ethical positions. Just to name three examples of many, the New Testament calls for radical sharing as a sign of the coming Kingdom of God (Luke 3:11 etc.), challenges us to imitate Christ (who became poor for our sakes) through generous giving (II Cor 8:9), and suggests that eliminating poverty within the global Body of Christ (!) should be a goal of our giving (II Cor 8:13-15, cf. Acts 4:32-34).

      2. Concerning the “fair share” view, I thought Garrett Cullity’s Moral Demands of Affluence (a book you first recommended to be, if you remember) made a strong argument that the “fair share” view fails in the real world because most people actually will not do their share and thus we are still faced with extremely challenging choices like “I can go out to a nice dinner tonight, or for the same price I can save the life of someone in desperate need.” At least by utilitarian standards, that view wins the day, IMHO. The “fair share” view seems to fare better if within a Kantian approach to ethics–would you agree? You know much more about philosophical ethics than I.

      But either way, do you think the “fair share” position could be defended by a Christian who was striving to have their lifestyle and morals shaped by the gospel?

  3. I’ll have to think more about the perspective from Christian teaching. I’ve been doing the philosophy thing so much that it’s actually been a long time since I last examined the issue scripturally!

    You’re right that utilitarianism leads to radical conclusions about our obligations to give. But this is not the only radical result we can get from utilitarianism. Utilitarianism also instructs you to kill a healthy person when you can use his organs to save five dying patients. (Only one person dies, and five people are saved, so this maximizes utility.) It also instructs you to punish an innocent person for a crime he didn’t commit, as long as doing so will deter enough other people from committing crimes. (Again, this is a brute utility calculation: only one person is punished, but if that means thousands of criminals are deterred, you maximize utility overall.) These are crazy conclusions; their craziness gives us good reason to doubt utilitarianism in general.

    There are ways to patch up utilitarianism so it doesn’t give us these crazy conclusions. But those moves also seem to eliminate the radical conclusions about giving.

    The value of Peter Unger’s contribution to this discussion is that he uses non-utilitarian arguments to support the same radical conclusions about our obligations to the poor. But I think Unger also gets crazy conclusions: if we apply his methods consistently, we find that ourselves concluding that we should lie, cheat and steal in order to give to the poor. Unger himself accepts this conclusion, but I take it to be a reason to doubt his methods.

    I’m personally attracted to the fair share view, but you’re right that it runs into a severe problem when we start to notice that most people aren’t doing their fair share. If poverty still remains, it still seems I’m obligated to do what I can to eliminate it, even if I’ve already done my fair share. So we have reasons to think doing the fair share just isn’t enough, when others aren’t doing the fair share.

    So in the end, I think I have a clear sense that I should do *at least* my fair share. I also think it’s clear that it’s not enough to do just my fair share (since others are not doing theirs). But I lack a convincing argument that takes me to the radical conclusions you endorse without, at the same time, taking me to other unappetizingly radical conclusions (e.g., I should start lying, cheating and stealing for the poor).

    Maybe taking the scriptural perspective is just what I need. 🙂

    • Speaking of Scriptural perspective, have you read by Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B Hays? It’s my favorite book on doing biblically-based ethics, and it’s provided much of the theoretical framework I use for thinking about economic discipleship. Do you have any favorites in this area?

  4. Gary,

    So, I’ve had a bit more time to think through this from a Christian view again (taking into consideration the passages you cite).

    I think Luke 3 et al establish clearly that affluent Christians must share what they have with those in need. So the issue is “how much?” and “how radically?” As far as I can tell, scripture does not deal explicitly with our situation: we see not only deprivation in our local and nearby communities, but because of technology we know of the deprivation widespread across the globe.

    So we have to apply biblical principles and ethical thinking to figure out our own obligations. And I’ve already noted why philosophical argument alone has failed to take me to the radical views you present.

    It struck me that 2 Cor 8 might be relevant, particularly when Paul repeatedly appeals to “ἰσότης” in vs. 13-14. Is this best translated as fairness (ESV) or equality (NIV)? And if Paul is establishing a principle of *fairness*, is the fair share view the right application of Paul’s principle to our situation? The interpretive question is made all the more delicious by Paul’s invocation of reciprocity and his tying in the story from Exodus 16 (about gathering manna).

    If we can show that Paul is establishing a principle of *equality*, then I think we’re well on our way to radical conclusions. *Extremely* radical conclusions, I suspect.

    It’ll take me a while to figure out what I think about this…. Any thoughts?

    I don’t know if I can recommend any Christian books which examine the obligations of the affluent to those suffering extreme deprivation. (All I remember was being very disappointed during all the Christian/Biblical Ethics classes I took.) I haven’t read the Hays book; I’ll try to check it out.

    • Hi Ang, I’ve let much of this excellent discussion pass me by so let me just jump back in here.

      You’ve pinpointed a passage that I think is indispensable to this whole issue. II Cor 8-9 is often used in sermons on financial stewardship–and it should be, since it is the longest, most involved discussion of the topic in the New Testament. What is often not noticed is that Paul is advocating for sharing between rich and poor segments of the global church, not for putting money in the collection plate to pay the local congregation’s bills.

      In the view of many exegetes, in vs 13-15 Paul is *at least* arguing that in the global Body of Christ, everyone should have enough to live on, just as was the case in the distribution of manna. There is also a strong case that he’s universalizing the practice of the Jerusalem believers who freely shared among their possessions with each other to the extent that “there was no poor among them” (Acts 4:34–another OT reference, this time to Deut 15:4)–before the famine struck, anyway.

      As one commentator says, “It is difficult to imagine how such an assumption—so radical in the present situation of enormous disparities in wealth between Christian communities—could function in the contemporary church without being literally revolutionary.” (Sondra Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation, 87)

      We are back to a “radical” position again, as Ed says below.

      • Hi Gary,

        I suppose it’s hard for me not to see things from the “fair share” perspective. I think everything turns on the target.

        If the target is just that everyone should have enough to live on, then I don’t see that things are that revolutionary. The UN already has elimination of poverty as a target, and expert analysts think the target can be reached if each country contributes 0.7% of their GDP. That doesn’t seem all that much of a sacrifice. In fact, the fact that the UN has issued this target means the planet has already agreed (in some sense of the word “agree”) to do this thing.

        The problem is just that not everyone’s following through. You recover radical conclusions only when you start to ask a different question: how should we respond when we find others not doing their fair share? And it’s not at all clear to me that Paul addresses this second question in the passage.

        In my view, you get clearly radical conclusions from 2 Cor 8-9 only if you can argue for a different target.

        Instead of a target of “everyone has enough to eat”, suppose we get a target of “everyone has equal wealth”. This is radical. If the target is equality, the fair share view tells us to divide the entire pot by the total number of people, and the result is what each person may fairly consume.

        With $60 trillion global GDP and 6 billion people, then equality means each person get $10k per year. That means, even on the fair share view, each of us acts badly if we spend more than $10k a year.

        That’s revolutionary. I don’t know of any major group that advocates this.

  5. To me, even the translation of the word as *fairness* argues for a level of giving which is considered radical in contemporary Western society.

  6. I think it helpful in this context to rescue the church’s classical definitions of justice and charity:

    Justice is the virtue of giving each person what he is due (fairness). It’s demands can be reasoned and articulated through natural revelation (philosophy) and can be shown to be binding on all people. I.e., if it is just, you can require it of everyone, whether he admits or submits to the Lordship of Christ. (Of course, in practice, you can have a mighty fine argument about what those demands actually are.)

    Charity (agape love) is the grace of loving other people as God in Christ has loved us. When we speak of “the gospel” (good news), we primarily mean the story of just how deeply & radically God has chosen to love us (e.g., John 3:16). The more we realize that, the more we will be both called and empowered to love others with the same attitude of Christ Jesus, who humbled himself and endured even death. Charity cannot be demanded of someone else as a right, only encouraged as a road to freedom & joy.

    Picking nits? Maybe. But I think we need some way to distinguish between what _everyone_ is called to do to relieve poverty (“justice”, in my terminology) and what _I_ am called to do in joyful obedience to God’s leading me ever deeper into his loving heart (“charity”).

    Gary has seen me tilt at this windmill before. But I think you are being unfair (however unintentionally) when you title your piece “Just Lifestyle” and then ask Ang if his views on justice are compatible with “the gospel.” The gospel is an assault on justice, which is why the Sermon on the Mount is so disturbing. Thoughts?

  7. Ed: Here’s one way of specifying what you’d owe under the “fair share view”. Let x be the total amount of money of all affluent people, added together. Suppose it’s the global GDP, or $60 trillion. Let y be the total amount of money needed to eliminate extreme deprivation. Let’s imagine it’s $1 trillion. Let z be the total amount of money you personally make.

    Then you’ve exhausted your obligation to the poor once you contribute z*y/x. (1/60 of what you make).

    Do you think that’s considered radical in contemporary Western society?

    (this is a “flat tax” calculation: each affluent person pays the same percentage from his or her earnings. I actually think the fair distribution is graduated: we’d make the super-rich shoulder a larger amount than this, and the modestly-rich pay less than this.)

    RG: You’re ok with nitpicking? Yay, the philosopher has found an audience!

    I like to draw the distinction rather differently than you. It may interest you that many political philosophers, myself included, like to draw a distinction between giving people what they are *owed* and giving people what they *need*.

    In professional contexts, I prefer the term “humanitarian aid” to describe our giving to alleviate the urgent needs of those suffering extreme deprivation.

    I prefer the term “economic justice” to describe what, if anything, rich countries owe poor countries–assuming (counterfactually) that there is no extreme deprivation, and assuming that the rich countries got rich fairly (not by exploiting or robbing from the poor countries).

    My main philosophical interest has been economic justice in this sense. The question there is whether it’s fair to have massive inequality even when everybody’s basic needs are met, and nobody cheated to get rich. I spend most of my time imagining a world where nobody cheats, nobody’s hungry, and everyone’s got medical care, but there are still countries with, say 100x the per capita GDP than others.

    Anyways, there are a wide range of views possible, in increasing radicalness. Let me define “live affluently” as making choices like: 1) buying a $100,000 (or $20,000) car when a $10,000 car would do fine, or 2) eating a $50 (or $10) dinner when a $5 dinner would do fine.

    Here are some possible views. In all the following, I will assume you make enough money to live affluently, and you earned your money without lying, cheating, etc.

    A) You’re permitted to live affluently, period.

    B) You’re permitted to live affluently only if you contribute your fair share. (see above for an example calculation)

    C) You’re permitted to live affluently only if nobody suffers extreme deprivation. (people suffering from easily preventable disease, malnutrition, etc.)

    D) You’re permitted to live affluently only if everyone else is able to live affluently.

    E) Nobody’s permitted to live affluently, even if everyone could afford to do so.

    How radical are you guys? I’d like to see if B) is biblical defensible. Peter Singer is at C), I think. A position called “cosmopolitanism” says D). Ascetics go for E).

  8. RG: I forgot to respond directly to your question.

    Here’s a distinction I accept: I agree that there’s a difference between [1] what God requires from everybody and [2] what God might demand only from some people.

    I think it’s clear that there’s a difference between [1] and [2]. God can give specific instructions to specific people that don’t apply to everyone. [Silly example: God might tell Bob he needs to marry Jill. If he does, I’m sure this won’t mean *everyone* needs to marry Jill! :)] My interest, by the way, is entirely in [1].

    But you *also* seem to think there’s a difference between [3] what God requires from every non-Christian and [4] what God requires from every Christian. Do you think there is?

    If so, I disagree. Do you have a simple, least controversial example of such a difference? I can’t think of *any*….

  9. Ang, to answer your questions:

    1) I do think the idea of an additional universal tax at 1.7% for the purposes of alleviating extreme poverty is considered radical in contemporary Western society. If you tried to pass such a bill in Congress (or even any state), you would have practically zero support except for a radical fringe. This assumes the most favorable of circumstances, that somehow you could magically guarantee that the money is distributed efficiently and equitably, with no losses due to corruption, etc…

    2) I am between (B) and (C). I think (C) is defensible from both a humanist and a Christian worldview, but I can’t do it. (B) is not enough because not everyone does their fair share.

    Finally, and this is not meant to be a criticism, I’m not sure why you spend most of your time imagining a world with perfect fairness, when you admit that the majority (if not entirety) of history is the opposite?

  10. Ed:

    The UN made a more accurate estimate of what it will take to eliminate poverty (as part of G8), and instead of 1.6%, they set a target of 0.7%. The US is nowhere near that. But I think some countries are: e.g., the Scandinavian countries.

    I’m between B) and C), too. But I don’t think (C) is clearly defensible, from either Christian or secular worldviews. (And I think I have better reasons for rejecting (C) than “I can’t do it”)….

    Why do I imagine a world without poverty and without a history of injustice? Mainly because that’s where the most interesting arguments are, and it’s also where I’m most likely to be able to advance the discussion. (Hey, it’s a living….)

    But seriously… there’s a good chance that, with some luck, pluck, and the right technological advances, we can eliminate most extreme deprivation—perhaps even within our lifetimes. (Check out the UN millennium development goals.) But even if we come close to eliminating extreme poverty, I think it’s clear that large inequalities in standard of living will remain.

    At that point, the philosophers will be ready (I hope) with good arguments about the Next Big Economic Justice Issue: is it fair for children born into rich countries to have much better opportunities than children born into poor (but not starving) countries? It’s great that we’ve given everyone food and health care: do we also have an obligation to give everyone an equal opportunity to flourish?

  11. Oh: one nice feature of adopting the “fair share” view is that it really transforms the problem of poverty. If we each individually owe only 1.6% of our income to the poor, the problem is no longer “oh shoot, look at all those starving people: because there are so many of them I can’t have nice things”.

    Instead, it’s “oh shoot, look at all those people not doing their fair share: because there are so many of them I can’t have nice things”.

    I think this is a healthier way of looking at the problem.

  12. I got my info mixed up: the 0.7% giving target was suggested to, but not adopted by the G8.

    Lesson: don’t trust a philosopher when it comes to empirical facts. 🙂

  13. Thanks for the link, Ang. I’m a bit surprised to find that some Scandinavian countries are actually matching or exceeding the 0.7% target. Unfortunately, their GDP is minuscule relative to the U.S. and Japan (two countries which have not committed to the target, much less enacted into law).

    I’ll amend my statement to say: “In the U.S., the idea of raising our international aid level from the current 0.22% to the recommended 0.70% to do our fair share of eliminating abject poverty — is radical to most U.S. citizens, and advocated only by fringe groups. The idea of wealth distribution for absolute equality is even more radical/revolutionary, and would be considered insulting to the vast majority of Americans.”

  14. Ed: Of course, if the fair share view holds for individuals, then all you need to do to exhaust your personal obligation to eliminate poverty is to pay to the UN fund your share of the amount that the US Government hasn’t already paid. Which is .7%-.22%=.48% of your yearly income. If you make $100,000, that comes to $480.

    That’s not radical at all. In fact, it seems too easy.

    Now, we can say that the simple fair share view is wrong. We can say that people who have already paid their $480 are still obligated to take up the slack left by those who don’t pay their $480. That’s when we start getting radical.

    And the big question for me is: what does the Bible have to say about doing *this*: paying other people’s debts on their behalf?

  15. The difficulty with this discussion thread is that you can’t divorce how much we give with what effect the dollars have. We can give our fair share or even more, but that doesn’t mean the poor are actually better off. A ton of aid never reaches the population it’s meant to serve. So if we focus just on our side of the giving equation, we’re easing our consciences but not doing much good!

    For a long time, the philanthropic sector and governments measured the worth of their work based on the output of “dollars given”. That’s now changing and everyone’s talking about impact. Because in the end, since what we we really care about is reducing poverty, then we should measure our giving based on our effectiveness. Most people would agree that it’s much better to give $100 and have that money do a ton of good, than to give $1M and have it completely wasted.

    Figuring out how effective our dollars are is a tricky and thorny thing but if we focused on that side of the equation, I wonder if we would become less preoccupied with the “How much should I give?” question.

  16. Ed: the Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that 61% of Americans think we spend “too much” on foreign aid.

    But when asked what percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the median estimate was 20%.

    When asked what percentage was preferred, the median was response 10%.

    The reality: just under 1%.

    After being informed that the actual amount is 1%, 13% still said we spend too much.

    If we took the survey respondents’ preferences seriously, and started spending 10% of the federal budget on aid, we’d exceed the UN target 3x over (taking us from from .22% of GDP to 2.2% of GDP). Poverty would be history rather quickly….

    The report is here:


    (see pp. 6-8 of the pdf report for details).

  17. To better clarify what I believe as radical, let me make some off-the-cuff estimates of what percentage of Americans I believe would agree with the following statements:

    “Americans should do more to help developing countries” : 30%

    “Americans should sign the agreement to commit to increasing dev. aid to 0.7%” : 15%

    “Americans should enact laws to raise taxes or reallocate domestic spending to increase dev. aid from 0.22% to 0.7%” : 3%

  18. Ed: I really should have noticed this earlier, but I only just realized there are two distinct issues that affect how radical we judge a proposal to be.

    The first is our proposal about our moral obligation: what we actually owe to the poor. Here, I remain convinced that the fair share view is *not* radical. Telling someone that makes $100K a year that all he owes to the poor is .7 percent, or $700, just doesn’t seem to me to be asking that much.

    The second is the proposal to use the force of the state to *coercively require* everyone to do their moral duty in this case, through taxation. This, I can agree, would be resisted in American culture.

    I think Liam Murphy supports the use of state power here. But for the Christian, you’ve raised a *new* question: does the Bible support such use of state power?

    Also, we can ask: Does the Bible support the use of *ecclesial* authority to require churchmembers to contribute what they ought? (Eg, discipline those who fail to give?)

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