The case for compassion

I was speaking with a friend on the topic of my new blog and though he was generally supportive (as he always is), he was also somewhat critical of my WALL-E and the Welfare State post.

He suggested I missed a lot of nuance on the topic and that I came across as cold and uncompassionate. Upon reflection, I’ve concluded he was right (as he usually is).

I rode fairly roughshod over a tough topic and perhaps focused too much on one edge of a blade at the expense of the other.  After spending a week in this space reflecting and writing on the importance of Easter and of the new upside-down, inside-out Kingdom it created (see Upside-down, Inside-out or Good News), my last post may seem to stand in conflict.

So how do I reconcile opposition to a welfare state with an upside-down, inside-out Kingdom?  How do I reconcile the system of gaining through giving with an opposition to vast government programs for the poor?   How can it be appropriate to respond to the profligate giving of God (giving even his own son!) with reluctance to give of ourselves?

Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you…” (Matthew 26:11).

It’s worth exploring some nuance as to our role living along-side them.


In Genesis, Moses delivers God’s message of creation that gives us three important clues as to who we are as people.   First, God tells us that He created us in his image—“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  Second, God gives us work that is significant—“Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 28b).  Third, God tells us He is pleased with us, even before we had done anything!—“God saw all that he had made, and it was good.” (Genesis 1:31a).

The first humans were molded by the hands of the God of History, were given a task of significance and were pleasing to God. The implications are limitless but allow me to point out two as they pertain to the case for compassion: the value and the responsibility of each human.  God Himself created us and is pleased with us—pointing to the inherent value and significance of each human life.  He has also given us a responsibility that suggests what we do on earth matters.  It is nothing less than the Creator telling us that we are precious to him and asking us to care for His creation—to care for one another.

Said another way, we learn in Genesis we were made to have a relationship with God first, then with one another.  When we reflect on the inherent value of every individual and the task God has given us, it follows that our relationship to one another must include service to the poor and disenfranchised.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said.  It’s unavoidable but to conclude that we must care for one another.

But how?


There are two main frameworks through which we can address social or community challenges.  We can take responsibility and work together towards solutions or we can lay off responsibility to some larger institution(s).

Mark Steyn, the Canadian satirist, recently wrote a column in his Happy Warrior space for The National Review (The Spirit of Liberty, April 6, 2009).  In it, he tells the story of a town in which the highway department condemned two small bridges.  Steyn explains that for the first bridge the town applied “…for funds under the 80/20 state/town formula: The bridge has yet to be constructed and in that time the cost— including the town-funded 20 per cent—has almost doubled”.

So they repaired the second bridge themselves for less than half the cost of the first—coming together, donating time and money and solving the problem as a community, quickly and efficiently.

It’s obvious in this case that a community solution was quicker and cheaper; Steyn goes on to make the larger case that it’s always quicker and cheaper.

I would suggest it’s more than just quicker and cheaper—it’s more satisfying.


The poor will always be with us and it is our God-given responsibility to take care of them.  As part of this we certainly need state programs to help those who truly cannot help themselves.  I am pleased to have some of my tax dollars going to that end, but two finer points must be addressed.

First, it’s imperative that we distinguish between those who have less and those who are truly in need.  We will destroy society before we make everyone’s lot in life equal through redistribution.  There is a big difference between helping the poor and trying to put everyone on the same economic plane.  Commonsense should be enough to prevail here (though recent populist sentiment suggests it may not be).   Second, my concern even of helping those who are truly in need is that we are all too inclined to lay that responsibility off to an institution so that we aren’t required to get our own hands dirty.  As I stated in my previous post:

“One of the perverse consequences of the state taking on the role of the Great Equalizer is that Charity (empathy) itself starts to become the purview of government rather than people. I would suggest the hope for meaningful empathy ultimately diminishes to the extent we ask the government to be its Executor. Empathy is better administered in our schools, places of work and communities, in our churches and synagogues—in our lives. The cold (re)distribution of government rations does nothing to humanize either those who give or those who receive. It’s dehumanizing to both, and discouraging to the giver” (see Wall-e…).

Dependence on the State as the primary institution of charity is ultimately destructive to all involved: society as a whole which was my focus in writing Wall-e and the Welfare State—but also to the “giver” and perhaps most importantly, those in “need”.

SOCIETY:  I refer you back to Wall-e and the Welfare State (here); I think I said there all I would wish to say here.  In short, the laying off of responsibility for community and individual needs to state or federal agencies leads to the slow bleeding away of personal responsibility—and loss of liberty is not far behind.  In time, this is a proven path to significantly degrading a liberal democracy to the point where it becomes unrecognizable.

THE GIVER:  God didn’t give us work because he couldn’t get it done without us. He gave us work because of what he wanted to do in us. Caring for God’s creation includes, and is in fact driven by, caring for one another. It’s life-changing work—so much so that often the lines between giver and receiver blur and disappear.  When giving to others, we often find we have been recipients as well (see: upside-down, inside-out or get a copy of  Same Kind of Different As Me – Ron Hall & Denver Moore).

A state that convinces its people that taking care of the poor and disenfranchised is a responsibility (that it somehow is better equipped address than the people) rather than a privilege is stripping meaning from their lives.

THOSE IN NEED:  Need is a slippery notion.  It’s often difficult to determine what someone needs by looking at them.  It can even be hard to distinguish the needy from the content. Sure the hungry need food, the thirsty need drink and the homeless need shelter.  But isn’t there more to life?  I don’t think Jesus ever looked at someone with an outward need like hunger and saw just that physical hunger.  I don’t think he looked at the outwardly satisfied and assumed theywere without need. He knew people’s needs were deeper Meeting physical needs is critical, as Maslow’s hierarchy suggests, for one cannot focus on anything else until his basic needs are met.  But we were built for more than that and we will find it only through relationship—that elusive thing the State can never offer.

The State can provide food, clothing and shelter but it will never offer the friendship or the listening ear that we can offer one another.  And it has proven inept at empowering people to meet their own needs which is how we help people regain their dignity and rebuild their lives—not by creating a program for them or institutionalizing them, but helping them grow out of their need—and walking along-side them as they do.

In the end, personal responsibility is bigger than just you.  It means you must look to the needs of your neighbor also.  It’s meant to be harder than paying the government to do it, not easier.  But it’s humanizing and brings with it the hope of addressing deeper needs.  We want to help people recover rather than subsist; grow rather than stagnate. It’s a challenge, not a cop-out.  It’s the privilege and the responsibility God gave us when He called all of us His children.  God works in us by working through us. In many ways, it’s what we were made for.


(A bit of an aside): My brother and I ran the 2001 New York City marathon together.  For each of us, it was our first.  Our goal was to run the 26.2 mile course—Staten Island, to Brooklyn, to Queens, to the Bronx, to Manhattan—under four hours.  A few miles into Brooklyn (mile 5 maybe), he began to labor.  Within a few miles of that, he was suggesting I should go on without him—he thought he was slowing me down.  But we had agreed long before that we would start and finish the race together.  I was going to stay with him no matter what.  We walked occasionally throughout the day, slowed significantly in the later stages and frustratingly missed our four-hour goal by less than a minute—but we crossed the finish line together.

Over the years we have often discussed that day.  My brother thinks he held me back and that I would have easily beaten our goal if I had left him.  I have never been sure that was true.  Every time we slowed for him, it helped me.  And in many ways, I think I felt stronger at the end because we stayed together, because I stopped and walked with him.

My only other option was to let him fall behind to run alone and put him in the hands of the City to be picked up and carried home if he didn’t make it.

My brother would say I outran him that day.  The truth is, his performance was heroic to me.  He was hurting for 20 miles—but he finished.  I still think of his gutsy performance when I am struggling during a run.  I was proud to run beside him.

We shared a tremendous sense of accomplishement and brotherhood when we stood together at the finish.


When pressed by his critics on the issue of taxes, Jesus famously said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  So if pressed between paying taxes and giving charitably, clearly we must do both.  Still, we should not mistake social welfare as a substitute for a hand reached out in service and friendship—a race run along-side one another. I stand by the notion that:

Empathy is better administered in our schools, places of work and communities, in our churches and synagogues—in our lives. The cold (re)distribution of government rations does nothing to humanize either those who give or those who receive.

May we never hope our personal responsibility away, lest we lose a piece of our purpose and humanity in the process (and likely our liberal democracy as well).


He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God—Micah 6:8

  1. Nice follow up to the WallE post, I agree that the cold “government” doesn’t humanize, but it’s also important to remember that the government is and should be made up of people, and if done properly, a government agency (with people) can be compassionate too. Done properly is the key phrase

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