Effectiveness vs. Affection

My sophomore year of college, I traveled to London with friends. There were four of us–three with majors in philosophy and one in economics. With that mix, one stop on our trip was clear–University College London.

When we arrived on campus, we knew who we were looking for, but not where to find him. “Excuse me,” we asked, “can you tell us how to get to Jeremy Bentham?” A professor, very posh and British in a grey three piece suit, smiled and told us: “Go to the third floor, right down the hall, and you’ll see him on your left.”

Just as we’d been told, Bentham was sitting in a small atrium, dressed in 19th century garb and enclosed in a glass case. Though his bones were real, his head was made of wax. His skin covered skull, having been poorly mummified, sat in a case beside him. We’d heard that it is occasionally stollen by students for a macabre soccer match.

Bentham, who died in 1832, has resided at University College since 1840. And as odd as his bodily resting place may be, Jeremy Bentham is a philosopher whose ideas are still very much alive. If not his name, you likely know some version of his famous dictim: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” It was a philosophy that came to be known as Utilitarianism and it was the perfect moral vision for the industrial age in which it was born.

Morality, for Bentham, was a math problem. The goodness of any action could be calculated and he worked, later in his life, on creating a machine that would do just that. And though we might scoff at such an attempt, the idea that we can quantify goodness can be found all around us in ways that are both subtle and explicit.

Whether public or private, for profit or not-for-profit, governmental or non-governmental–effectiveness is measured by meals served, people housed, diseases cured, profits made, investments returned. It is a simple logic and it appeals to managers of all kinds–from educators to business people–who repeat the phrase: “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.”

Judas was a utilitarian. He was a man who counted costs and calculated benefits. For him the world could be broken down into units of goodness, calculated choices of what was best (even if that was lining his own pockets). His concern was not for specific poor people, but for “the poor,” the generalized needy who could be served in units that can be counted in meals delivered, beds filled, healthcare units distributed. For him a lump of nard is an object contained within a market value–easily converted into an abstract price that could obtain an abstract good–a great deal of happiness for a great many people.

But Mary knew another way. She acted not from utilitarian logic but from personal love, not from calculation but from care. Mary does not love the poor, the abstract masses, any more than the good Samaritan went out searching for a man beaten in a ditch. She loves the one in front of her, the one she knows is valuable beyond all measure. To anoint his feet with a pound of aromatic oils from the Himalayas, whatever the cost, was only a token of the infinite; an immeasurable value she learned to see in him, and recognized in all those others she met, on streets and in doorways, in prisons and on sickbeds, who shared his human form, his God given breath.

Hers is the human way–properly humble, limited in object and infinite in depth. Mary does not seek to solve a problem on the scale of the world, the poor, the climate–the abstractions of the greatest number. Instead she works on the scale of human affection–the neighbor and the neighborhood, particular places and particular people with concrete needs. Her act of excess is one she learned from her teacher.

Jesus certainly had the power to do good on a massive scale, but he chose instead to heal the people he encountered, those that came to him, those who brushed by him in the crowd, the ones whose friends or family members came calling in desperation. Jesus certainly cared for all those others; his desire was to love the whole world. But to do that he lived in the backwater of an Empire, working for a few short years, ministering to a fraction of humanity. In loving those in front of him so fully and personally, Jesus gathered a people to join him in his way. Such a people of particular and abundant love, Jesus taught and the church still hopes, will change the way all humanity relates to one another, from effectiveness to affection.

I can think of no better example of this than Dorothy Day, one of the great American Jesus followers of the recent past. Once, a wealthy woman came to the house of hospitality for the poor that Dorothy operated in New York.  She donated an expensive diamond ring to Dorothy’s cause. It could easily be sold for a great deal of money and could fund the feeding and housing of many people. Day put the ring in her pocket and thanked the woman for the donation. Later, a mentally ill woman who was one of the most troublesome regulars came by. Day reached into her pocket and gave the woman the diamond ring. The other volunteers and staff were incredulous. “You could have payed her rent for a year with that ring,” they complained. Day responded that the woman could do what she liked with the diamond. She could sell it and pay for her rent, take a trip, or simply wear it. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

The abundance of God’s good gifts are plentiful, but they are available only if we follow the way of affection, only if we care for those who are in front of us out of the fullness of our love. When Jesus corrected Judas for his complaint, saying that “the poor will always be with you,” he meant it, I believe, as a conditional truth. For Judas, calculating the greatest good that can be done with limited resources, the poor will always exist. But if we follow the way of Mary, though lack and limit and disease may continue, “the poor” as a category will disappear into the particular people in front of us, the people we call by name and to whom we can give in extravagance whenever we have a pound of nard in the closet or a diamond ring in our pocket. Amen.

Ragan Sutterfield