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31 October 2014

Self-serving altruism

Self-serving altruism

An alarm app called iCukoo, released this week, allows you to donate to charity as a penalty for hitting the snooze button. This triggered my reflection on the nature of our contemporary neighbourly concern. The general pattern seems to be the use of something trivial, entertaining, self-serving or self-promoting to raise awareness and money for charities.

Take the success of $100 million raised by the ALS ice-bucket challenge as an example, or the annual Movember campaign that starts again tomorrow. In spite of impressive donations, there are some unsettling issues concerning this contemporary altruism.

The funds raised from these challenges may not be an indication of the viral campaigns' success or our generation's generosity. Rather, it's an indication of our self-promoting, self-congratulating, entertainment-centric and narcissistic culture. This may sound harsh, but I have observed a disturbing level of one-upmanship among charity participants - a bigger bucket with more ice, a more extravagant moustache –the list goes on. Have these charities caught the compassion of people or is it simply people finding the attention they receive on social media and the need to belong irresistible?

I must confess that I find myself guilty of this kind of narcissistic behaviour on many occasions. Therefore, I'm not showing my condemnation. Rather I'm critiquing our collective sad state of affairs.

The result cannot be a justification of our motives and the means of our actions. Do we have to entertain and bait people into giving? This self-interested way of thinking is the toxic script of our contemporary capitalistic society. We have a distorted view of our God-given humanness and we fail to reflect the image of God.

If we are not careful, everything becomes a commodity that can be bought or sold for gain, including ourselves. The ice, moustache and money are merely a small price to pay for self-promotion. However, by treating one another as commodities, we devalue ourselves.

Another unsettling concern with our contemporary altruism is that we can be so easily detached from the sufferers involved. In Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, theologian William Cavanaugh describes the hallmarks of our globalised, consumeristic world as detachment from our products, their production and their producers. In other words, with the product in our hands, we don't know or don't care who made it or how it was made. When the connection is reduced to the bare encounter between the consumer and the product, the connection to other people falls away.

We may believe we are connected to something or someone, but in fact we have no deep attachment or commitment to the charities or the sufferers. When so much energy is devoted to participation and the mechanisms are set up in such a way, it makes building deeper attachment much more difficult. Certainly things don't need to be that way.

Campaigns such as Tearfund's Water Challenge or Global Poverty Project's Live Below the Line, are much better at making that connection, as they allow the participant to relate to the experience of the sufferer.

While we cannot ignore our human limitations, we need to rethink how we should extend our neighbourly love to others. Jesus presented a kind of neighbour love that truly takes up the victim's perspective. It orientates towards the centre of the other and shows a compassion that knows no boundaries. The care of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 offers not a model of moral obligation, but of exaggerated action grounded in compassion that risks much more than could ever be required or expected.

Furthermore, in Isaiah 58, the care of the wounded, the hungry and the poor and the liberation of the oppressed is a deeply relational act. As good as financial giving is, I'm reflecting on how I can go beyond a detached self-serving way of "helping" the needy, spending ourselves (Isaiah 58:10 is a communal act) and being more personally invested in those who need a neighbour.


Wien Fung is a pastoral worker at the Chinese Church in London