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Hans Tiefel Lecture: "Helping Our Severely Poor Neighbors"

On October 17, 2023, Dr. Bharat Ranganathan delivered the annual Hans Tiefel Lecture on Religion and Ethics. Dr. Ranganathan is the Rabbi Sidney and Jane Brooks Assistant Professor of Social Justice and Religion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In his lecture, Dr. Ranganathan identified some of the moral, political, and religious dimensions of severe poverty and presented various ways to respond to poverty. He argued that affluent people have an obligation to assist severely poor people through institutional reform and interpersonal giving.

He began his lecture with a narrative of Annawadi, India, where extreme poverty exists alongside extreme wealth. In Annawadi and the broader Global South, severe material inequality precludes and weakens education for hundreds of millions of children and leaves adults chronically under- or un- employed. It is a place where disease and hunger arbitrarily and prematurely terminate lives, and where unlucky Global Southerners have no other option but to worry about what suffering tomorrow will bring. Annawadi and elsewhere in the Global South present one version of reality, but is there another?

It is a core Christian conviction that God commands us to love our neighbor and show mercy for those who suffer. Religious ethicists must strive to make sense of these commands considering the extreme and widespread suffering to which severe poverty gives rise. Indeed, responding to indigence is not merely a technical problem; rather, it is a moral, political, and religious one, requiring us to reflect on what it means to recognize others as our neighbors and to prove ourselves neighbors. These questions—humanistic and philosophical, moral and religious—are at the heart of Dr. Ranganathan's concern. To answer these questions, he employed Catholic Social Teaching and Rawlsian philosophy.

Overall, Dr. Ranganathan presented an insightful analysis of affluent individuals' obligations to assist the severely poor, drawing on various theological and philosophical arguments to support his point. Many of Dr. Ranganathan's remarks and analysis were based on his research for his upcoming book projects, On Helping One's Neighbor: Religious Ethics, Obligations to Others, and Severe Poverty (Cambridge University Press) and Religion and Social Criticism: Tradition, Method, and Values (Palgrave Macmillan).