Welfare reformers must remember that true compassion aims at changed lives and lasting results.
Five to six P.M. is the guiltiest hour of the day in big cities across the country. That is when most working people walk to parking lots, bus stops, or subway stations, heading home. That is when those without homes thrust out their hands in hope of getting quarters or dollar bills before heading back to their shelters or makeshift beds. That is when most of the better-off avoid eye contact with these most visible poor.
How should Christians react? We have many would-be instructors. Day after day, morning talk shows and newspapers tell us to be “compassionate” toward the poor. The Washington Post uses the word compassion as a synonym for governmental spending said to help the needy. So do some socially conscious Christian groups. Secular agencies pass out material help without offering spiritual challenge. So do many “ministries.” Often, instead of bringing the homeless to the supper of the Lamb, we smile while they eat and run. And the impersonal procedures of many “compassionate” antipoverty programs resemble feeding time at the zoo.
More Than Bread
Where can we find a more humane and effective approach? Both the Bible and stories of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century church’s response to poverty can help us.
Biblical compassion differs radically from the kind that offers bread alone. First, biblical compassion stresses personal involvement. The Latin roots of the word itself suggest this: com (with) plus pati (suffer). Jesus himself showed compassion by coming to earth to suffer with us. He did not, contrary to Bette Midler’s recent song, watch “from a distance.”
Such biblical teaching has many practical applications. It may be good to send money to a charity, but it is not compassionate activity. Legislation may be wise or foolish, but it cannot be compassionate. Compassion means adopting a child, suffering with an adult trying to reform, or (like the Good Samaritan) binding up the wounds of a mugging victim.
Second, biblical compassion always offers spiritual challenge. Jesus’ healings always pointed to salvation. So must our helping, or else there is no difference between Christians and the world. One book of daily devotions for 1992 uses the passage from Acts 3, “silver and gold have I none; but such as I have I give you,” to advocate handing a sandwich to a homeless person. But sandwiches for the homeless in large cities are readily available; Peter offered the crippled beggar in Acts the opportunity to walk and praise God. Biblical compassion always yokes good works to God’s Word.
Third, and perhaps most confusing to some Christians, biblical compassion demands accountability on the part of the recipient. Sometimes people ask whether it is right to demand anything of charity recipients, since God gives us salvation as a gift. The objection is that we are putting conditions on our good works while God loved us unconditionally. But that objection reveals a confusion between evangelism and works of compassion. The call to repent and believe is directed to all who will hear. It is indiscriminate. But compassion discriminates.
We know this because the Bible repeatedly explains the process of compassion. For example, Nehemiah tells us, “When [the forefathers of Israel] were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers” (9:27; all Scripture quotations from NIV). Crying out is essential: As Psalm 103 notes, “The Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
God’s refusal to be compassionate at certain times makes the pattern even more evident. Isaiah 27:11 describes Israel as “a people without understanding; so their maker has no compassion on them.” Nor is the biblical definition of compassion relevant only to Israel: The Ninevites surprised Jonah by listening to him, and “when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). The recipient of compassion must at some point act: In Jeremiah, God tells Israel, “You have rejected me.… I can no longer show compassion” (15:6). We truly help the needy only when we suffer with them and when we help them to cry out.
In the New Testament, the message is equally strong. In Matthew 15, Jesus feeds the four thousand men, along with women and children, only after they have listened to him for three days. In Mark 6, when Jesus sees five thousand men who have run from nearby towns to see and hear him, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Instead of feeding them immediately, “he began teaching them many things” until it was late in the day; then he multiplied five loaves and two fish so all ate and were satisfied. Jesus did not feed all those who lived in Israel, though he could have. He fed the ones who came to hear him.
The Problem Of “Rice Christians”
Christians who confuse evangelism and works of compassion often make two kinds of errors. Some Christians make the wrong kind of demand. They make the giving of compassionate help conditional on acceptance of Christ. That error leads to the problem of “rice Christians”—those who convert only to receive material help.
Other Christians go too far the other way by making no demands at all. They often end up subsidizing the sinful lifestyles of those they want to help.
Biblical compassion means loosed chains, not loose change. Therefore it is right for gospel missions to ask homeless men and women to listen to the Good News before dinner, though it would be wrong for them to demand a profession of faith in exchange for stew. It is fine for shelters to demand that residents give up alcohol if they have a problem of abuse. It is wrong for Christians to give money to homeless men who are highly likely to use it for drugs or alcohol.
Furthermore, if we do not strongly unite the three aspects of biblical compassion—personal involvement, spiritual challenge, and accountability—we tend to end up supporting liberal or conservative rhetoric rather than biblical reality.
Non-Christian liberals love to talk about personal involvement, but they forget challenge of any kind, particularly spiritual. Just as some espouse theological universalism—the idea that if all are not saved, God is unfair—so liberals emphasize what I call “social universalism,” the idea that if all are not saved from poverty, society is unfair.
Non-Christian conservatives, on the other hand, love to talk about challenge (without a spiritual component), but they do not stress patient suffering with. They tend to fall into “social Darwinism,” the idea that only those who prove their economic fitness deserve to survive.
American Christians prior to the twentieth century vigorously fought social universalism. For example, Charles Chauncey in 1752 preached a sermon on Paul’s famous maxim for the able-bodied in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” He stated emphatically that “the Command in my Text is plainly a Statute of Heaven, tying up your Hands from Charitable Distributions to the slothful poor.”
Chauncey spoke of “distinguishing properly between those needy People who are able, and those who are unable, to employ themselves in Labour.” He concluded that “it would be an evident Breach of the Law of the Gospel, as well as of Nature, to bestow upon those the Bread of Charity, who might earn and eat their own Bread, if they did not shamefully idle away their Time.”
Other ministers also were direct. Cotton Mather told his flock how to act toward able-bodied idlers: “Don’t nourish ’em and harden ’em in that, but find employment for them. Find ’em work; set ’em to work; keep ’em to work.” Mather took some of the truly needy into his own home, and his successors also emphasized discerning between the helpless and the hapless. In the nineteenth century, Buffalo minister S. Humphreys Gurteen criticized the “mindless love” that led some liberal Christians to “give blindly at the approach of distress, real or feigned, mistaking the flutter of satisfaction, which ever follows an act of benevolence, for the smile of Heaven.”
In the last third of the nineteenth century, however, Gurteen and other Christian leaders had to fight hard against social Darwinism as well. Christians then knew that man’s sin makes thorny work necessary, and that undercutting the need to work pushes many into sinful indolence. But whenever evangelicals set up programs to help those who had fallen into drunkenness or addiction, they were criticized by social Darwinists who demanded a “benefit purging of the social organism … nature removes things which have survived their usefulness.”
Christians in response argued that a person created in God’s image, however much he may have defaced that image, cannot be a “thing.” The Brooklyn Christian Union called social Darwinism an enemy of “the spiritual law of sacrifice” taught in the Bible and summarized most completely in the mercy of “the Father who spared not His Son for us.”
Striding the path between social universalism and social Darwinism, Bible-based charities offered the able-bodied homeless spiritual challenge and “work tests.” Transient men willing to chop wood for an hour or two generally received two meals and a night’s lodging. Women typically received seats in “sewing rooms,” with the garments they worked on going to their own families or to disaster victims.
When Charities Just Say No
Suffering with continued to be evident in every major city during the closing years of the nineteenth century. Today, social workers rejoice if they can reduce their client load to 25 or 50, but the typical client load for volunteers a century ago was 2. In Baltimore, the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor had 2,000 volunteers who in 1891 visited 4,025 families. At one Boston organization during a typical year, 895 volunteers cared for 2,094 families.
Despite pressures to embrace social universalism, the charities were willing to say no at times. The Boston volunteers found 18 percent of the families “worthy of continuous relief” because of old age, incurable illness, or orphan status; 23 percent “worthy of temporary relief” because of accidents, illness, or short-term problems; 33 percent either able to work but involuntarily unemployed, or “shiftless or intemperate where reform may be hoped for”; and 26 percent “unworthy” of support because relatives could be asked to help or because there was no “desire to change.”
In contrast to social Darwinism, the classification of “unworthy” did not mean giving up: Reform, in Christ, could be hoped for. Boston volunteers helped 185 families save money and 144 alcoholic men make progress toward temperance. Suffering with made the difference for female alcoholics as well: “500 people in a year take 500 of these broken-down women into their homes, sometimes with their babies, and give them a new chance.”
The record of these Bible-based groups even amazed skeptical journalists. Reformer Jacob Riis wrote about how a “handful of noble women” in New York City “accomplish what no machinery of government availed to do. Sixty thousand children have been rescued by them from the streets.” Even muckraker Ray Stannard Baker saw “demonstrated again and again the power of a living religion to reconstruct the individual human life.”
Early in the twentieth century, however, churches that were moving toward a universalistic theology began to embrace social universalism as well. The “social gospel” emphasized material provision for all over spiritual challenge. Reacting against such liberal trends, churches that remained theologically correct sometimes stopped being doers of the Word.
It is always hard to hold together doctrines that may appear to be opposed: Christ as fully man and fully God; God’s love and God’s justice; the One and the Many in Trinitarian thought. When groups emphasize one aspect and neglect others that are equally crucial, heresies emerge. In the twentieth century, the ideas of caring for the poor and challenging them have often been pitted against each other.
And yet, concepts of suffering with, spiritual challenge, and mutual obligation should be inseparable for a Christian. Only suffering with allows helpers to know the precise challenge that is most needed at any particular time, and gives them the position to offer it. But in the twentieth century, as bureaucratic provision has replaced care and challenge, antipoverty programs have failed.
Social Darwinist Backlash
Two factions have formed in society at large. The dominant policy of social universalism is producing a new social Darwinist backlash. Newspapers report growing hostility toward the homeless. A recent USA Today headline noted, “For Homeless, Streets Are Meaner: Public Fed Up, Frustrated.” The article mentioned specific instances from cities across the country. As indiscriminate givers see nine-tenths of their aid used for drugs or alcohol, many stop giving, and some of the truly needy find faces frozen in scorn.
Christians also see the failure of the modern welfare state generally and programs concerning homelessness specifically. If all are guaranteed provision regardless of behavior, then for many there is no incentive to improve behavior. The causes of homelessness are not all addressed by reference to personal responsibility, of course. But much more can and should be done to give incentive for personal change. Indeed, not to do so is to court disaster. When anything goes in homeless shelters, then anything will go. Knives and drugs come in the door, and soon the nonviolent are afraid to enter. Last winter in Washington, D.C., at least five homeless individuals died from exposure. They chose to sleep on cold streets and not in the warm jungles that “compassion” has created.
How should rich Christians in an age of governmental failure react? Certainly not by embracing social Darwinism, but also not by sticking with social universalism. Instead, we can learn from compassionate nineteenth-century Christians who took the narrow path of what could be called social Calvinism.
Buffalo minister Gurteen, for example, was criticized by those who thought true charity should be unconditional. He responded, “Is it, we ask, a very hard-hearted thing for the public to require an equivalent of labor, from those who are able to give it, in return for the relief which they receive? Is it unchristian? Is it not in the sweat of his brow that man is to eat his bread?”
Gurteen then asked another hard question: “Is it charity toward our neighbor to give on the strength of every well-thumbed letter of doleful tale, when by so doing we are only rendering easier the downward path of a fellow creature?”
When Money Alone Is Stingy
There is a better way. First, we need to know God’s will concerning compassion. A change in how we fight poverty is needed, but Christians need to be clear about the reasons for change. Some governmental and private welfare programs need to be challenged not because they are too expensive—although clearly, much money is wasted—but because they are inevitably too stingy in what is really important: treating people as people.
Second, we need to know ourselves. Many American Christians have grown up with personal peace and affluence, to use Francis Schaeffer’s phrase, as the great goal. We like the way welfare systems and big philanthropies remove the burden of basic material care from our consciences and protect us from the mean streets that we traverse only by day.
Third, we need to act. Relatively affluent Christians should pray for and look for ways to know the poor, not just feel sorry for them. Here are some good places to start: Live in a poorer neighborhood, attend a nonyuppie church, or volunteer at an inner-city gospel mission that has not made salvation less important than sandwiches.
The evaluating question asked by one Christian a century ago—does a particular program to help the poor “make great demands on men to give themselves to their brethren?”—is still the right one to ask. Each of us needs to ask that question not in the abstract, but personally. We need to ask ourselves: Are we offering impersonal money, but not our lives? If we talk of crisis pregnancies, are we actually willing to provide a home to a pregnant young woman? If we talk of abandoned children, are we willing to adopt a child?
Most of our twentieth-century schemes, based on having someone else take action, are proven failures. It is time to learn from the Bible and from the warm hearts and hard heads of our predecessors, and to bring that understanding into our own lives.
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