Can We Afford To Be Successful?

The Dave Mathews Band has a song named Funny the Way It Is; the chorus points to something very perceptive, it goes something like this:

Funny the way it is
If you think about it
Somebody’s going hungry
Someone else is eating out
Funny the way it is
Not right or wrong
Somebody’s heart is broken
It becomes your favourite song

The second chorus is as perceptive as the first:
Funny the way it is
If you think about it
One kid walks ten miles to school
Another’s dropping out
Funny the way it is
Not right or wrong
A soldier’s last breath
His baby’s being born

If we take a moment to sit back and watch the world go by, we see that the world is much larger and more complex than the world we may have created for ourselves. An expensive car with expensive people each minding their own business, a poor man with his poor family each minding the other’s business – an accident, one feels sad and the other runs to help. It is obvious that there are certain liberties humans enjoy beyond mere economic gain.

Increasingly, studies are pointing out that people with little seem happier and money is not the best criterion to measure happiness or even success. The world has finally realised that Jesus was right when he said; reaching ‘heaven’ for a wealthy man is as difficult as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.1If “Heaven” is taken to mean success or happiness. This has only led us to conclude that everybody needs help. Indeed Funny the way it is!

We all agree that money is of some value; at least it helps us buy health care, food and education.2Empirical studies have pointed out that economic growth contributes little or nothing to the improvement of education and health care. Hence recommendation is that each separate goal be given a separate analysis to see what in fact does promote it. This is discussed elaborately in Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, eds., Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997). In her book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future (2007), Martha Nussbaum points out, in India Economic growth, during the India Shining campaign, had little to do with the provision of health care and education to rural India However, not everyone has the means to buy these invaluable commodities. Now the question arises, how do we help those who don’t have access to health care, food and education? And what can we do to make the lives of people who have the power to buy them more fulfilling? There are probably many things one can think of but I would like to begin by looking at two – the purpose of wealth and a perspective on people – then conclude with an example of a Christian who had this purpose and perspective.

The Purpose of Wealth

The New Testament has a lot to say about money. Some texts can even be disturbing; for instance, the passage where Jesus asks the rich young ruler to share his wealth with the poor and Paul’s command to Christians in his letter to Timothy, “tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and should give happily to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given them”. Paul seems to suggest that prosperity comes with a responsibility; we prosper keeping in mind the condition of the least advantaged. In other words, we work hard and become successful for the benefit of those at the bottom.

This might be very nice to talk and preach about, but difficult to listen to and practise. Do we feel this uneasiness, as Lewis says, because, ‘we have departed from the total (Christian) plan… each of us wants to make out that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself’? He goes on to say, ‘you will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian: everyone is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest’.3C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 85.

Justifications against the idea of sharing the spoils are numerous. A popular one is; ‘everyone has the opportunity to work, why must I share my hard earned money?’ The political philosopher, John Rawls, points out that if the rich have made it, it is not purely because of their hard work but due to several other external conditions.

Rawls gives us three reasons why we cannot claim that we are the reason for our success: family backgrounds, the present economic conditions and birth order.4Though there may be some points of contention with Rawls on some of his other views, yet for a more informed discussion on the Difference Principle, see, John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971) and The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

First, he says you cannot take credit for the family you are born into or the social and mental conditions that have encouraged you to strive and achieve your goals. 5Indeed there are those who have risen above these limitations but it is not fair for us to make exceptions the rule. Studies have shown that poor prenatal experiences affect the health and productivity of a child. 6Annie Murphy Paul, “How the first nine months shape the rest of your life: The New science of fetal origins,” TIME Magazine, October 4, 2010, p. 38.

Second, you have been born at a time society appreciates your natural abilities and talents. There was a time when there was a demand for farmers and primary school teachers, whereas today the demand in society is for a supply of doctors, lawyers and engineers. Now that society has given you this opportunity you must return the favour by supporting those who are less fortunate; who happen to have talents and abilities that our present society fails to recognise. You have been given the opportunity to shine because others have forgone theirs. Very much like the case of Hannibal, of whom much less is known in comparison to Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar, who gained fame by opposing him.

Third, Rawls points out that psychological conditions, like birth order have a role to play in our success. Michael Sandels, professor at Harvard, in his class on Rawls, confronted a student who disagreed with Rawls using a simple classroom demonstration. Considering that to be eligible for Harvard a student must fulfil certain high criteria, he asks his students, who by birth order were first, to raise their hands. To everyone’s surprise a majority of the class raised their hands, including Sandels, and the student who disagreed.

These three reasons, John Rawls believed, should convince us that we are not entirely responsible for our success, and therefore must share some of our wealth with the poor.

The rhyme we learnt and continue to teach our children, ‘Baa Baa black sheep have you any wool? Yes sir, Yes sir, three bags full, one for my master, one for my dame, and one for the little boy who lives down the lane’, should remind us that resources are to be shared.

‘The only safe rule for Christians’, Lewis says, ‘is to give more than we can spare’. That now said, sharing wealth without the right perspective of people is pointless.

A Perspective on People

Jesus commands us to love others as much as we love ourselves. This business of loving ‘others’, I suppose, includes all sorts of people especially people who give us a hard time and those whom we have enough reason not to love. If we can love ourselves despite the unlovable attitudes and feelings it should be possible to love those whom we find disagreeable.

For some of us, loving others might be an easy thing to do but to love them as much as we love ourselves is an altogether different thing. 7It would be a rather dangerous thing if a masochist or a sadist followed this dictum without being transformed by the love of Christ. A person at the mercy of this man or woman will find the experience a living hell. In staying true to his idea of love he will suffocate you. When Jesus said this he didn’t say it with the hope that we could all get mushy and form a hippy movement; far from it! He said it with the hope that we would push ourselves in the way we treat the poor, the disabled, a household servant, a beggar, a coolie, a subordinate, a colleague, the elderly, our spouses, our parents or our children.

It is very easy for us to be satisfied in the small mercies we offer to the less advantaged just because they have the ability to adapt their preferences and appear happy. ‘A person who has had a life of misfortune, with very limited opportunities, and rather little hope, may be more easily reconciled to deprivations than others reared in more fortunate and affluent circumstances.’ 8Amartya Sen, The Standard of Living, ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 45-46. A man or woman in this condition might appear happy and grateful because of the favour shown. This can be very misleading for both. We might go away feeling we have done our bit without taking into consideration the extent of their deprivation.
Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, states it clearly when he says, “The hopeless beggar, the precarious landless labourer, the dominated housewife (or husband), the hardened unemployed or the over exhausted coolie may all take pleasures in small mercies, and manage to suppress intense suffering for the necessity of continued survival, but it would be ethically deeply mistaken…” 9Amartya Sen, The Standard of Living (1987), pp. 45-46.

We are at fault when we think we have done our bit for a person when we have actually not given them the freedom to make a reasoned choice and to achieve their desired goal to the best of our abilities. We must not be satisfied with throwing small mercies. Jesus participated in the lives of people and helped them accomplish their desired goals. He does not want us to stop with giving aid, but wills that we too participate in the lives of these people and help them accomplish their desired goals as much as we would like to accomplish ours. Money alone does not help accomplish these goals. We must shift the focus back to the quality of human life and living. 10Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 24.

Let us take for instance the state of the disabled. There are approximately 600 million people living with some form of disability. Out of these 400 million live in the developing world and often come from poor backgrounds. 11Amartya Sen, Idea of Justice (London: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 258. This further hinders their ability to earn a living. So what can we do to help them reach their desired goals?

A person may be rich yet unhappy, talented yet poor; both cannot achieve their desired goals. This situation is captured beautifully in the movie The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Nicholson is a billionaire who is unhappy and Freeman, though brilliant, is reconciled with his profession as a poor mechanic. The two are diagnosed with a terminally ill disease but decide to go on an expensive and meaningful journey helping each to fulfil the other’s desired goals. Can we think of creative ways to provide the tools to convert income or ability into an opportunity to help people reach their desired goals?

Though it is easy for us to feel smug and unaffected, the challenge of loving others as much as we love ourselves looms large leaving us uncomfortable, responsible and obligated to those who are around us. Difficult as it may be, we cannot dismiss it; rather, we should struggle and hope to achieve it. Just as a child struggles and begins to walk to the delight of her parents and herself.

We too must be good Samaritans learning to walk the extra mile to the delight of God and man.

Christians with a Purpose and a Perspective

There are a few among us who have walked the extra mile and have left an indelible mark in history; Christians with a purpose and a perspective.

One such person in whom such purpose and perspective met was Mother Teresa. Dominique Lapierre, author of City of Joy, arrived with his wife after the success of his book Freedom at Midnight with the royalty earnings hoping that Mother Teresa would be able to use it effectively in her work among the poor in Calcutta. He was in for a pleasant shock.

Mother Teresa, on hearing his proposal, enthusiastically said: ‘Dominque, God has sent you. Please take your cheque to the Rev. James Stevens. He is doing good work, but his home is on the verge of closing down, and he is in desperate need of money.’ The Reverend did not have to send his 150 children affected by leprosy back to their slums. Dominque Lapierre continues to view his success as an opportunity to benefit the least advantaged and regularly participates in the lives of the children.

Although Mother Teresa had sufficient use for the money herself, she was willing to give it away to another struggling protestant NGO. What a day to be when Christians will not only share opportunities with smaller upcoming competitors but will also launch programmes that will help in the development of their individual capabilities.

Three points to consider:

1. Do Christians and Christian organisations, businesses, schools, colleges, hospitals and NGOs perceive the possibility of sharing their wealth?
2. Do they see the need to give people the freedom to make reasoned choices and enable them to reach their own desired goals?
3. Whatever your profession is, can you use it to provide creative solutions to enhance the capabilities of individuals?

We need Christians who shock the world like Jesus did. The sacrifice of Christ became a channel for ‘God’s heavenly breath to breathe through our being’ so we can be enabled to achieve our desired goals. Now as His disciples Christians can see themselves as channels of the resources they possess, and they can see themselves as His hands and feet, helping people accomplish not only the eternal aspect of their desired goals but also of their desired goals here on earth.

“Grant that I may reach them;
Grant that I may teach them,
Loving them as Thou dost love;
O give Thy love to me”.12For the full poem, Give Thy Love to Me, see, Amy Carmichael, Mountain Breezes: The Collected Poems of Amy Carmichael (Pennsylvania: CLC Publications, 2001), p. 252.

 

About

Daniel Thejus (Bobby)

Dr Daniel Thejus (Bobby) is an Adjunct Speaker with Life Focus Society. After completing his undergraduate course in Economics, Politics and Sociology, heeding the advice of a Jesuit novice, he completed his Masters in Philosophy earning a gold medal from Madras Christian College. His passion to understand the times led him to do a Ph.D. from Madras University where his research focused on Amartya Sen’s idea of Justice, Identity and Democracy. His interest in Theology peaked with an MLitt in Analytic and Exegetical Theology from St. Andrews University, Scotland. Apart from his research interests, he is interested in speaking about the interaction between eastern philosophies and theology. Bobby enjoys interacting with people in any setting. His interests range from popular culture, human flourishing, justice to philosophy. Bobby is married to Ruhamah, and they currently live with their two young children in Scotland.

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