While away, my little post about my new phone triggered a tsunami of comments, initiated by Michael's sneering remark. As usual, Jerry Fresia seems to be the person who understands me the best. But I thought perhaps I would attempt to stand back a bit from the snarking and countersnarking and address an underlying question that is both legitimate and urgent.
If one is genuinely concerned about the plight of the vast numbers of desperately poor people, and about all the other evils and injustices in addition to poverty that afflict so many men and women, there are, it seems to me, two ways in which one can respond. The first is to take to heart the counsel of Jesus in Matthew 19:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
17And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
18He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
21Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
This is essentially an injunction to become a saint [or at least what Catholics would call a saint -- the early Protestants used that term in a somewhat different sense.] Stripped of its religious significance [for Jesus is really counseling sainthood as a way of earning eternal life, not for its own sake], this is an honorable calling, one that deserves our admiration and praise on the rare occasions when we encounter it. Let us be clear what is involved in following Jesus' advice. Giving away what one hath means not getting married, not having children, not pursuing a career, not seeking higher education, not running for public office. It means, as Jesus well understood, a form of what was once called dying to the world, for all of these things -- marriage, parenthood, education, career, secular public service -- involve commitments that conflict with the injunction to give away to the poor what one hath.
What then is the alternative, for those of us who have chosen to remain of the world, to marry, raise children, pursue education and a career, and in many other ways participate in the public and private life of the modern world? Here is my answer.
Choose a way to build your commitment to the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and excluded into the fabric of your life. There are endlessly many ways to do this, and since each of us is only one person, we must resign ourselves to having only the tiniest marginal effect in the world. Perhaps Bill Gates can take it as his personal goal to eliminate smallpox from the face of the earth, but the rest of us must be content with rather more modest goals.
What can one of us do? Well, choose a career that commits you to doing work that you believe helps others, whether it is medicine or law or teaching or working for a charitable organization or doing any of the other countless things whose effects are positive rather than negative. Give a portion of your income to others, either by supporting political movements whose goals you embrace or by donating money to charities, or by directly offering some of what you have to those in need. Will it be enough? No, but if you succeed in integrating your charitable giving and your positive actions into your on-going life, I can report that when you reach the age of eighty, you will be able to look back over your life and see that you have at least tried to make a difference.
As for anguishing over buying a smartphone: Guilt is in fact a very ineffective motivator. Since it is painful to feel guilt [leaving aside the moral masochists among us], we quickly find ways to avoid the feeling, with the result that any burst of eleemosynary generosity prompted by the guilt quickly evaporates.
Since Michael posted a comment on my blog, he must have access to a computer or other device. Presumably, it cost him something to use it [even if he is posting a comment from an internet cafe]. Can he justify the expense of that small amount of money simply to gratify his desire to épater les bourgeois? Shouldn't he have donated that small sum instead to OxFam? You see where this foolishness leads.