Thursday, October 13, 2011

Interview: Thomas Crisp and the Sin of Affluenza

My good friend Thomas Crisp is a professor of Philosophy at Biola University. We became friends because we share a similar passion for issues of justice and following Christ into community with the poor.

Recently, Thomas wrote an influential philosophy paper entitled "Jesus and Affluence" which I was fortunate enough to read. After considering the arguments in this paper, I asked Thomas if he would agree to an interview where we could discuss the paper in a more conversational manner and allow me to post the results on my blog. He graciously agreed to this and here is the first part of my hour and a half interview with Thomas.

The basic argument in his paper is based on a premise by philosopher Peter Singer which states that "If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so."

Additionally, Singer goes on to support this concept with the following:

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. One day, you
notice that a small child has fallen in the pond and is
having trouble staying afloat. You look around and see that
you are the only one who can help. You can easily wade in
and save the child, but after a moment’s thought, you
realize that, if you do, you’ll ruin the rather expensive
shoes and slacks you’re wearing and be late for work. You
pass by and the child dies.

Quoting from the paper, Thomas concludes:

"Surely your conduct here is abominable. But why? Because, says Singer, it’s a fundamental principle of morality that, if it is in your
power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so. Cases like the pond case make this principle plausible. Singer's conclusion is severe: if it's right, our prodigious spending on luxury and frill (fancy houses, boats, cars, clothes, dinners, vacations, etc.) is morally wrong."

"Singer proposes that his argument, though demanding in its
implications, fits nicely with some of our most respected ethical
traditions. For example, it fits nicely, he suggests, with Jesus’
teaching on wealth and poverty. Jesus, he proposes, is an ally of
his argument."

With this basic idea in mind, Thomas and I sat down to discuss these implications further.

KEITH: Briefly, talk a bit about your inspiration for this paper.

THOMAS: I’ve been wrestling with the Peter Singer argument for years now.

KEITH: In what way are you wrestling with it?

THOMAS: The implications are so demanding and so radical. I was kind of hesitant to follow the philosophical argument to where it may lead.

KEITH: Some people would say that your problem is that you’re taking philosophical concepts and actually attempting to put them into practice. They’re just philosophical arguments.

But, you’re like me in that respect. If the principle is true you need to let it guide your actions.

THOMAS: Exactly. That’s kind of how you and I got acquainted. I had this kind of epiphany – a kind of second conversion experience – where the Gospels presented themselves afresh to me as Jesus saying “If you want to follow me you have to love the vulnerable; you have to give yourself in love, and quit being like the rich man in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus who dressed himself in purple in fine linen every day while poor people lay starving at his doorstep."

KEITH: I love that in your article you point out something that I don’t think I’ve seen before, which is that in the parable when the Rich Man asks if Abraham can send Lazarus back to warn his brothers – that what he wants his brothers to be warned about is not to live the way he lived, (ignoring the poor). I think usually we assume that what the Rich Man wants his brothers to be warned about is not to reject Christ as Messiah, but that’s not even in the parable at all. The whole point seems to be, if you ignore the poor as the Rich Man did, you’ll end up on the wrong side of the judgment. So, the whole point of the parable is not to live as this man did; not to amass wealth for yourself and ignore those living in poverty around you. Frankly, until you pointed it out to me I didn’t see that this parable is a warning for us not to ignore the poor.

THOMAS: That’s right. That parable, and other teachings of Jesus, presented themselves to me afresh, in a powerful and life-changing way. So, as a result I dropped all of my scholarly projects and work and decided I needed to write and think about issues that matter. I couldn’t afford to waste my time with interesting puzzles anymore.

KEITH: What kind of projects were you working on at that time?

THOMAS: Issues of the philosophy of time and abstract metaphysical arguments about time and the nature of space. All very interesting, but it started to feel like fiddling while Rome was in flames. So, I wrote a letter to Nicholas Wolterstorff who is a really thoughtful Christian philosopher who writes on Justice and asked him, “Where is there need for a philosopher to help out on issues that matter for the vulnerable?” He said, “Well, there’s need all over the place. There’s hardly any Christian philosophers working on these topics so I recommend you find something that’s of interest to you and dig in.”

KEITH: See, that’s shocking to me. There are not a lot of Christian philosophers writing and thinking about Justice? I mean, I would understand if philosopher’s in general didn’t want to explore this area, but Christian philosophers – if they’re not wrestling with these practical issues of love and justice – then what are they wrestling with? These issues of “What does it mean to follow Christ and put His teachings into practice in the world today” seem to be the paramount issue that all Christians (philosophers or otherwise) should be concerned about. Are they also working on issues like time and space and reality?

THOMAS: Yeah. There’s been a flowering of Christian philosophy in the past 30 years or so, but it’s mostly been focused on metaphysics, epistemology and physics, and not so much on social ethics.

KEITH: So, are you thinking of going deeper in this new direction?

THOMAS: Oh yes. I had a book project that I had been working on for 3 years or so and I trashed it and cleared off most of my commitments to pursue the ethics of poverty and peace and violence. So, since I had been wrestling with the Singer argument forever I decided to focus my attention on this. Singer says that you shouldn’t be too scandalized by the radical conclusion of his argument because some of our most respected ethical thinkers have been saying the same thing for thousands of years. Jesus, for instance.

KEITH: He doesn’t develop that assertion?

THOMAS: He gives a couple of verses of Jesus and he quotes Aquinas on the issue, but that’s all. So, I thought I’d start with Singer’s argument and I wanted to see if he was right about Jesus being in agreement with his assertions. So, I decided to start with the Love command that Jesus gives us.

KEITH: One of the things I wanted to ask you to expand more on is the idea of the command to love God and to love others being tied to the Jewish concept of Shalom, which as you point out is more than simply "Peace".

THOMAS: The original context of the command to love your neighbor as yourself is taken from Leviticus 19 and it shows up after a series of specific commands like, 'be sure to leave extra on your fields after the harvest so the poor can glean from it' and 'don't trip a blind man or curse a deaf person', 'be sure to pay your laborers on time', 'rebuke your neighbor so as not to partake in his sin', and all kinds of commandments about how to treat one another well in the context of community. After this long list of such commands you finally get this "so love your neighbor as you love yourself' and Wolterstorff points out in his forthcoming book that the neighbor-love command there is meant to be a summary of all these other commands.

This got me to thinking, "Is there anything that these specific commands (leading up to the summary command) have in common?" What I see is that, to live in accord with these commands would be to engage in the Shalom community.

The Old Testament version of Shalom as you find it in the prophets, in the Law, in the Psalms, is as a community in which there is enough. There's enough food for everyone, there's enough safety from harm, there's enough justice for all, there's enough celebration where everyone is included and people care for each other.

KEITH: The idea is that everyone is included in everything the community enjoys; peace, safety, food, drink, clothing, shelter, etc.

THOMAS: Yes, everyone is included in these "enoughs".

KEITH: And the point of this is that if someone is not included in this then it is not truly Shalom. The community has no Shalom (peace) if certain people are not also being fed, or sheltered, or clothed, or welcome. So, those in the community who might have enough for themselves might say, "We have Shalom" but God would look at them and say, "You have no real Shalom because you're not including everyone and welcoming them into my peace."

THOMAS: Yes. In the true Shalom community, the poorest of the poor must be included in the "enough". The vulnerable, disabled neighbor is included in the "enough". There's only real Shalom (peace) when everyone is included in the community and shares in the "enough".

So, it looks like the list of commands in Leviticus 19 which are summarized by the love your neighbor as yourself command are intended to be a snapshot of what it looks like to live in a Shalom community. If you're living in a community of "enough" or Shalom you'll be leaving extra in your fields for the poor to glean, you'll be paying your workers on time, you'll be doing all of these things.

KEITH: You'll be honoring the lame, taking into consideration those who are blind and deaf in your community...

THOMAS: ...caring for the disabled, being honest in the courts, and ensuring that all in the community have enough food, shelter, safety, justice, and so forth. This is arrived at by obeying all these commands.

So, that made me think that the love that is being enjoyed and shared in this Shalom community is the love that seeks to include your neighbor in all of this, in the same way you are inclined to seek your own inclusion. We're naturally inclined to seek our own inclusion in this community of "enough" and we want our loved ones to be included as well, so we must also seek to include everyone in the community so that there can be true Shalom and everyone can enjoy the same love, peace, safety and justice.

That, then, made the Parable of the Good Samaritan collide in a new way for me. One of the interesting passages in the Old Testament where you see the notion of Shalom offered is in the book of Judges where there's the story of a sojourner who's making his way through the town and no one will take him in for the night. So, he's sitting in the town square and an old man comes to him and is shamed when he realizes that his community has not extended hospitality to this stranger. He quickly says, "Shalom to you!" and he takes him into his home and cares for all of his needs. He includes him in the peace of their community by showing him hospitality.

KEITH: Yes, it's not just saying "Peace to you!" and going on your way. Or as James says, "If you see a brother or sister poorly clothed and lacking in daily food and say only 'Go in peace (shalom) be warmed and filled' without giving them the food or shelter they need, what good is that?" (James 2:16). The actions must match the sentiment. We must bring them in.

THOMAS: Bring them in to the community of care, the community of enough.

So, it looks to me like the Parable of the Good Samaritan is alluding to this same passage in Judges. If you read that and then hear Jesus you immediately see that the Samaritan is including the man on the side of the road into the community of Shalom. Then Jesus says, "Go and do the same." Who are we supposed to love? Who is our neighbor? If the command to love our neighbor as ourself really is about Shalom, then the Parable of the Good Samaritan means that anyone you run across who is in need - or who is outside the community of enough or Shalom - needs to be brought into that community.

KEITH: I love what you pointed out about the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus says, "Go and do likewise" as the punchline of the story, you say, "We should imitate the behavior of the Samaritan...note though, the Samaritan in the story does not love his benefactor, he does not love only the member of his own community, he loves someone outside of his community." He's a Samaritan who is loving a Jew - someone outside of what would be considered "his community" and Jesus says, "Love like that."

The genius of this parable, to me, is that once you pick out all the nuances of what Jesus is doing in this story it takes on so many layers of meaning. Not only is the Jewish man the bad guy in this story, if you will, but because he's made the hated Samaritan the one showing Shalom, again to someone outside his own community, it's like an unspoken challenge that basically says, "Don't let the pagans, or the Samaritans outdo you in this Shalom." It's like he's saying, "Surely you can love even as much as an unbeliever can. Whatever this Samaritan did, as extravagant as it might seem, we can certainly, at minimum love as least as much as someone like that, can't we?"

As I was reading it again it seemed like such an in-your-face challenge.

THOMAS: That seems right. If it is a parable about Shalom and it's showing us who we need to include in this "enough" community, then when you look back at the Leviticus 19 passage it seems to have evolved out of this love command. The command is not just to share the Gospel, but to include people in the Shalom community where everyone has enough shelter, justice, and all the rest. Who am I to do this for? Anyone who is in need.

KEITH: I think it's a good point to make because I've been in conversations with people before who will say that going to this extreme of putting people in motel rooms or buying them food or letting them sleep on your couch, those steps are secondary and of lesser importance. What those people really need is the Gospel. So, if you really want to love them the way Jesus means it when he says, "Love your neighbor as yourself" then you'll tell them that they're going to burn in hell forever if they don't say a prayer. But, if what you're suggesting here is true and if Jesus is really summarizing these Levitcal commands and all of the Law and Prophets with the command to "Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself" then it seems the love command is really about showing actual compassion and demonstrating a love that results in shared food, shelter, and clothing. It's not consistent to share the message of the Gospel without also seeking the Shalom of the whole person.

I think this is why Jesus points out that the second greatest command is "like unto the first" greatest command. Loving God is intertwined with loving others. If we say we love God and hate our brother we're liars, according to the first letter of John, or "If you see a brother in need and do nothing how can the love of God be in you?" (1 John 3:17)

So, these concepts of loving God and showing actual, tangible love to people in our community cannot be separated. We express love for God when we express love for a neighbor, and vice versa. It then seems that it's very much about putting them up in a motel, or buying them groceries, or giving them the shoes off your feet, or whatever their immediate need might be. That IS loving God and that IS loving others.

THOMAS: I think that's right. I think that's why it makes perfect sense for Jesus to say, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor" and why at the Judgment Jesus will say, "You fed me when I was hungry and you clothed me when I was naked". Of course those are the things that you should do if you are seeking to obey the heart of the Law and the Prophets. If we're seeking the Shalom of our community then of course we're going to be feeding people.

KEITH: You and I have talked about this before, and I love how in your paper you point out something controversial. When Jesus commands the Rich Young Ruler to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor we usually hear objections from modern Christians that this command was only made to this specific person and not to every disciple of Jesus.

THOMAS: Not true. Jesus says to the disciples in Luke 12:33, "Sell your possessions and give to the needy" and in Luke 14:33 he says that "anyone who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." In Matthew 6:19 he says to the disciples that they should not "lay up for (themselves) treasure on earth" but to lay up "treasures in heaven."

KEITH: So, Jesus did say to the disciples...

THOMAS: He DID say to them, "the way to lay up treasure in heaven, the way to do it is to sell your possessions and give them to the poor."

KEITH: So, that teaching and Singer's argument, have radical implications don't they? As you point out, if Singer is right, and if Jesus agrees with him, then for someone who says "I'm following Christ," these are pretty frightening and challenging realities. So, the next question is, "Where do I draw the line?" I mean, do I just need to go to eBay and sell everything now? Do I have a massive garage sale and empty out my house and then become homeless myself? Is that what Jesus is requiring of me?



Ryan said...

Thanks so much for doing this interview! Prof. Crisp's is a wonderful story and his work is so important as well. It's just unfortunate that the interviewer speaks more than the interviewee.

Keith Giles said...

Yes, that is annoying isn't it? What can you do?