To begin, I want to make it clear that I’m an atheist, and I’m probably going to say some things in a weird and offputting way. But I’m writing this essay anyway because I think it’s important.
In Luke 16:19-31, there’s the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
We, all of us in the developed world, are the rich man, and the developing world are the Lazaruses at our doorstep. North America and Europe have sixty percent of the world’s wealth and about twenty percent of its population; Africa has fifteen percent of its population and four percent of its wealth. How many of us have bothered to give them the crumbs from our table? Or do we just let the dogs lick their sores?
But we’re good people. We don’t ignore the developing world because we don’t care about them. It’s just hard. Lazarus was an actual beggar and if you fed him he would be fed, sort of by definition. Donating to charities in Africa is much more difficult. How do you know whether the money you donate is going to do any good? How do you know it’s not going to get stolen or used to prop up a dictatorial government? What if you give them something and all it does is take away jobs from local Africans? It’s a lot easier to give to your local church or soup kitchen: it might not do as much good, but at least you know it’ll do something.
But what if you knew?
GiveWell is an organization that does extensive study of which charities actually help people. You might be used to programs like Charity Navigator, which let you figure out whether a charity is doing good things with your money or just buying their boss a big car. GiveWell takes it a step further. If you could donate the same amount of money and save ten lives instead of one life, wouldn’t you want to do that? That’s nine more people! I’ve used GiveWell to guide my donation decisions for years, and I’ve always been impressed by their conscientiousness, intelligence, and clarity; I encourage you to check out their reports on their top charities.
One thing I want to make clear: a lot of Christians are understandably reluctant to give to secular charities, because they’re afraid that it will go to causes that are against their values, like abortions or the distribution of condoms. That’s the advantage of GiveWell’s transparency: you can see exactly where your money’s going and know that you’re not buying anything you’d disapprove of. Right now, GiveWell’s top charities are the Against Malaria Foundation (which buys malaria nets), the Schistosomiasis Control Institute and Deworm the World (which cure tropical diseases), and Give Directly (which gives money to poor Kenyan families), none of which a good Christian ought to have any problems with.
In Matthew 25:31-46, there is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
And notice what it doesn’t say.
It doesn’t say “the least of these, who go to my church.” It doesn’t say “the least of these, who live in my country.” It doesn’t say “the least of these, whom I happened to encounter in my day-to-day life.” It says “the least of these.”
It says that every one of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world– every one of the billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day, the eight hundred million people who go hungry, the five percent of babies who die before their first birthday– is Jesus Christ. When you give money to the Against Malaria Foundation, Jesus sleeps under the malaria net; when you give to Deworm the World, Jesus can play for the first time in years, no longer languishing from worms; when you give to Give Directly, Jesus has food to eat tonight, Jesus has a tin roof to keep out the storms, Jesus has school fees to send his daughter to get an education.
On the other hand, can you imagine, on Judgment Day, looking into the face of your Savior, who died on the cross to save you from sin, and saying “well, I really needed that new flatscreen TV”?
Notice, also, that the Scripture doesn’t talk about saving souls. The Great Commission matters, but so do the everyday practical details of life– having food in your belly, medicine for your illness, clothes on your back. Bringing people the Good News is important, but so is charity and caring for the poor. Throughout the Bible, God expresses his love for the widow and orphan, the poor and hungry.
I would like to encourage you to take the Giving What We Can Pledge. Based on historical precedent– including the Christian tradition of tithing– the GWWC pledge requires you to give ten percent of your income to effective charities like the Against Malaria Foundation, the Schistosomiasis Control Institute, and Give Directly. I think it’s, well, what Jesus would do.