Time and again the value of straightforward charity to the poor is called into question. Effective altruists carry on the tradition of progressive philanthropy when they use their money to strategically change society. Compared to the dream of ending homelessness altogether, they argue, a simple cash gift to a homeless person is a waste of resources. Famously, the Gates Foundation has neglected homeless people living near their offices in order to focus on the “root causes” of homelessness.
In such a context, it is refreshing to hear the reminder of Pope Francis that we should “just give cash” to the homeless. Rather than worry that a homeless man may take a cash gift and squander it on drugs or alcohol, we willingly part with cash in an exercise of indifference towards mammon, trust in God, and love towards neighbor. Love offers itself freely to those in need. The only way for love to be love is for it to be unconditional. If it is tied to particular outcomes, such as immediate reform of life, it crosses the line from love to manipulation.
This leads to an important question that arises in the missionary context. Hindu nationalists often accuse Christian missionaries of using material benefits to lure the poor to conversion. So-called “rice Christians”, they argue, declare themselves followers of Jesus for the sake of aid.
No doubt, it is important to avoid manipulation in such a context. Missionary work, if it takes the form of providing material aid, must be offered freely in love—not as a strategic effort to reform society, but with a certain trust in God and detachment from outcomes.
Charity has its basis in the idea that each person is made in the image of God. It follows that we seek each person’s material well-being without any conditions attached. It also follows that we leave to their conscience whatever conclusions they wish to draw from charitable efforts and whatever actions they choose to undertake after receiving aid.
This last point cuts both ways. Missionaries must not expect conversion, knowing that such an outcome is the work of God in the heart of each human being. On the other hand, real charity is an undeniably strong witness to the truth of Christianity. It is an affirmation that even those small and insignificant in the eyes of the powerful matter. In the context of heroic charitable missionary work, it should not be surprising that people anywhere in the world choose to believe in the God who commanded his followers to act in such a way. It is the paradox of charity that in its “ineffectiveness” and detachment from outcomes it brings about the change of hearts that no amount of “societal reform” and social engineering can impose from the outside.
Both effective altruism and the Hindu nationalists remove agency from those in need. The effective altruists come up with a plan for how society should be reformed and get to work without buy-in from those to be affected. The Hindu nationalists deny the poor the possibility of being moved by charity to conversion. Conversion, they suppose, cannot be a sincere interior response to an encounter with love and generosity, but only something brought about by coercion and manipulation. In both cases, the poor are seen as raw material to be acted upon, not as free persons made in the image of God.
Because it is a question of interior transformation, charity makes the world less predictable. Social reform can be planned. We can draw up architectural designs, laws, school curricula, city maps, and media campaigns. The modern world has a vast apparatus to get across its messages, immediately persuade vast swaths of people, and to effect visible, lasting changes in our environment. However weak charitable acts may appear in comparison to Big Change, we have no idea what will result when people moved by love think for themselves. It is therefore no surprise that effective altruists and Hindu nationalists alike see charity as an obstacle to their plans. For both seek to manipulate a utopian outcome into existence. Effective altruists wish to create a world without “nasty surprises.” Hindu nationalists wish to create a monolithic Hindu state, ironically using 19th century European philosophies and 20th century American techniques to achieve a centralization, homogenization, and loss of cultural variety unprecedented in Indian history.
Such plans for social reform and nation building reduce man to raw material to be manipulated towards a desired end. It is the role of charity to keep alive the memory that man is created in the image of God, called not to manipulate and be manipulated, but freely to give and receive love. If the world envisioned by effective altruists and Hindu nationalists is one in which interior conversion is not possible, then count me a rice Christian, open to “nasty surprises.”