Category: Effective Compassion

The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.

In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.

Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.

Blog author: jarmstrong
Friday, January 12, 2007
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In the great discourse regarding the separation of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus refers to the kinds of actions, done in obediential faith that works through love, that demonstrates those who truly love him and those who do not. I have heard a dozen different ways of explaining, or explaining away, these verses over the course of my lifetime. Many consign them to Israel and how we treat the Jews. Others say they must be narrowly limited to the actions of the apostles themselves. Others say this is about doing these deeds for those who are being persecuted for being followers of Jesus. And still others say that only if we know the person we are helping to be a “brother or sister” does this text truly apply. There is some element of truth in each of these ideas, as there often is in such exegetical debates.

But I wonder, as I often wonder about such things: “What do we miss by this kind of narrowing of interpretation? And, further, what do we gain by opening the text up to a wide angle view of all our actions done for Christ, in faithful discipleship?” It seems to me that when verse 36 says, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” the whole point is that such actions done for Christ to any person made in God’s image are done to Christ. This is essentially how Mother Teresa of Calcutta understood this text in her Indian context and thus how and why she practiced what she did for years. And it is the general way that the Christian tradition has always understood these words. When you care for the basic human needs of the poor, when you care for the sick, and when you visit prisoners, you demonstrate Christ’s love in the most profound and, just as clearly, the most simple way. What you do for them you do for Christ. Thus verse 40 adds, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.” Even if the person is not one of Christ’s sheep (and we do not know this for sure since in every case those who belong to him finally are not known to us) if we do these actions in his name and for the love of Christ, we do it to Him. This point seems basic and quite obvious unless we strive to create ways to avoid it.

I thought about this again today because I have had a long-time interest and ministry in prisons. I have preached in jails and visited some major prisons. (I am not reporting this to promote my own piety but reflecting upon the words of Jesus afresh.) As I wrote an inmate today, a brother that I have never actually met, I asked myself, “Why am I doing this when there are so many more important things to be done today that could reach hundreds more people?” But there I was hand-writing one guy who prays for me and is incarcerated far away.

My inmate friend wrote me on January 1 these words from his California prison:

“My holidays were quite pleasant because the Lord has taught me how to be content and peaceful in such circumstances, by ever keeping my focus upon him. We have not had a Protestant chaplain here for nearly two years, therefore as Christmas approached, we were unsure about having a Christmas Day service. Several days before, the Lord blessed me with being chosen to bring the message for that service. Unfortunately, on Christmas Day, the prison was short staffed and we were locked in our housing units. In no way was I discouraged or disappointed because in preparing my sermon, I had spent two days and nights in the presence of the Lord. What a blessed joy it is to live in the Word my brother, as you very well know.”

This brother goes on to ask me if an “old thief” could someday become a prison chaplain? I told him that if an old slave trader and liar like John Newton could become an Anglican minister and write “Amazing Grace” he could surely pursue this call upon his life freely.

Who knows, I may have done more good by writing this man in prison today than I did in anything else that I will do all day. I actually think I did this to Jesus himself if I believe the words that He spoke in Matthew 25, which I do. It just seems to me to be the right way to understand what he plainly tells us there. I will also be on the lookout today for the poor and the sick. Unless I make deliberate choices to include them in my life I will surely ignore them since I do not live in a poor community or find myself looking for sick people day-by-day.

My prayer: “God help me today to have the eyes to see the poor, a heart to care for the sick and a plan to reach out to the imprisoned. Give me the determination and the will to serve them as if I were really serving you, since that is exactly what you told me I would be doing when I serve them. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

Blog author: dwbosch
Friday, January 12, 2007
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faith-based health services?

Change is unlikely to occur without adequate … representation of faith communities in positions of influence – be they government bodies, research charities, or NHS trusts” Professor Sheikh says. He concludes that the long-term goal must be “to mainstream the understanding of the importance of religious identity.”

But Professor Aneez Esmail from Manchester University argues that whilst it is “reasonable [that] we try to plan and configure our services to take account of needs that may have their roots in particular beliefs … we cannot meet everyone’s demands for special services based on their religious identity: it would not be practical.” He goes on to argue that some faith groups might support practices which may be morally and ethically unacceptable to the majority – for example female circumcision and the refusal to accept blood transfusions in life saving situations.

Professor Esmail believes that going down the path of providing special services for defined groups risks stigmatisation and stereotyping. He concludes that “in an ideal world doctors…would ask about a patient’s beliefs not so that they can be categorised but because it might be important for the patient in their illness.

My now-retired-surgeon father spent several decades treating all sorts of folks at St. Josephs Hosptial in Tacoma. I say this to note that the Christian Church, Catholic and Protestant denominations alike, as well as the Jewish community, have a long history of providing care regardless of religious or social or financial background of the sick person. I have no doubt for instance that Christian healthcare this is tied directly to the healing ministry for which Christ was both lauded and vilified, and the example that was carried on through His disciples.

Regardless of faith, caring for the health of another is one of the most basic human interactions. I suggest that in faith-based hospitals today, caregivers set aside their religious affiliation and treat each patient as a child of God in need of help. Many also recognize a responsibility before God to do so. Most hospitals provide non-sectarian "chapels" so all people of faith have a quiet place to pray for their loved ones, and are consoled by "interfaith" chaplains.

I admit my ignorance of current Muslim medical services, but while I note that a thousand years ago the library of Alexandria was repleat with medical manuscripts by Galen and others, I have difficulty imagining Muslim health care merging wtih current faith-based medical services.

Do we have any reason for concern here, particularly now that our healthcare may become a hotter political issue in a Democrat-controlled Capitol Hill? With government promising health care to everybody (American and otherwise) in California, is there a possibility that Muslim-exclusive health care would cause a backlash against all faith-based health services?

Interested in your thoughts and experiences, especially those of you living in heavily-Muslim areas.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
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The conflicting images I spoke about last week, the obesity of poor children in America, are the subject of a weekend piece in the NYT, “India Prosperity Creates Paradox; Many Children Are Fat, Even More Are Famished.”

Of course, in India these aren’t the same kids: by and large the poor ones aren’t the fat ones. Someni Sengupta writes, “In short, while new money and new foods transform the eating habits of some of India’s youngest citizens, gnawing destitution continues to plague millions of others. Taken together, it is a picture of plenty and want, each producing its own set of afflictions.”

The social problems are accompanied by the requisite calls to expand inadequate government programs. “In a rare rebuke, the Supreme Court of India this month ordered the government to expand swiftly the number of nutrition programs in the country. The programs now serve around 46 million children, at least on paper.”

Here’s a sample of what one of these programs looks like in practice.

One morning in a destitute rural district called Barabanki about 300 miles northwest of here, a dozen small children, most of them barefoot, some of them barely clothed, lined up for help at a program known as Integrated Child Development Services.

On this morning, every child received a scoop of dry cereal, a bland mixture of wheat, sugar and soy that is called panjiri in Hindi.

Some brought a plastic bag to hold their gift. Others made a bowl with the dirty end of whatever they wore. They sat on the ground and shoveled the food into their mouths.

Mothers in this village said the dry ration cereal sometimes made their children sick. No cooked food was available at this center. The center was also supposed to dispense vitamin-fortified oil to the villagers, but they said it rarely came.

These don’t seem to be practices that place a premium on human dignity or instilling self-sufficiency, but are rather based on perpetuating dependency on government.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
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‘Tis the season for making resolutions. Today’s Zondervan>To The Point newsletter focuses on a variety of Christian resolutions, and includes a link to a piece from Leadership Journal on Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions (related blog piece here).

One of my favorites: “Resolved, To be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.”

Here’s a good place to start doing that.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 29, 2006
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A new study finds that children growing up in poverty in America are disproportionately more likely to be obese, compared to other income groups (HT: God’s Politics).

So, poor kids in the US are fat…and in this they are just like the rest of America: “The whole country is struggling with this,” said Virginia Chomitz , senior scientist at the Institute for Community Health at the Cambridge Health Alliance . “There’s a lot of factors in our environment and our lifestyle that are pushing us toward being fatter. It’s an uphill battle to push against that tide.”

The obesity of poor Americans is in marked contrast to poor children in less wealthy countries, where the biggest problem is the lack of access to calories: “820 million people in the developing world are undernourished.”

Obesity among the poor in America and starvation among the poor in the developing world; Is there a thread that connects these two phenomena?

Some blame the former problem on the lack of access to affordable fresh food (while the latter don’t have access to much food of any kind). Speaking of the urban poor, Rachel Kimbro, a medical sociologist at the University of Wisconsin who led the study, said, “Good quality, fresh food is not available in a lot of these neighborhoods.”

Which makes bias against the entrance of chain stores that carry fresh produce, like Wal-Mart, Meijer, and so on, into urban neighborhoods all the more inexplicable.

Blog author: jarmstrong
Friday, December 29, 2006
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Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks challenges perceived mainstream social orthodoxy in his new book, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why It Matters. For generations it has been assumed that political and social liberals are generous towards the poor while conservatives are proverbial tightwads. At least since the days of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge this has been the popular view. Liberals continually remind us that they are the ones who really care about welfare since they promote the grandiose government solutions to the problem.

No one should doubt that government has a role to play in finding solutions. Private charity cannot do it all. But the question has always been what role government should have and how the solutions it creates should be paid for and then properly delivered. I believe government does best in this area when it administers welfare at the local level, where people know people and thus get involved with them personally. When welfare comes from a large bureaucratic government trickling downward through numerous agencies it repeatedly fails to accomplish what is promised. This is one reason why the Clinton reforms worked so well, even though there are still problems to solve.

Brooks challenges conventional wisdom about who really cares for the poor, showing that it is conservatives who give more to the needy. Each year, he notes, conservatives give 30% more to charity than liberals. And the more religious people are the more charitable they are likely to be. Believers are actually 57% more likely to help the homeless, for example, than secularists.

All of this leads me back to my observation above. Modern liberalism has come to equate compassion with large-scale federal solutions through government run programs. This has eroded a sense of personal responsibility and leaves many liberals out of touch with the truly poor and weak among us. (There are numerous exceptions thus I say “many” and not all.) We will have no sense of responsibility for our neighbor if the government is to do the job for us by using taxpayer money. And, as the National Review recently noted, “When conservatives say that low taxes and spending should be supplemented by a safety net that is privately funded, they put their money where their mouth is.”

In short, this research by Arthur Brooks underscores why I am repeatedly unimpressed with the solutions offered by Sojourners and Christians like Jim Wallis. Their heart is in the right place for sure. And they rightly remind us that the prophetic witness of Scripture matters profoundly to serious Christians. But what they mistakenly do is equate larger government involvement with actual solutions to the problem. I suggest a great gathering of religious conservatives and progressives might go a long way to airing out these differences for much good. I would love to see the good folks at Sojourners, and parallel conservative groups, stage such a meeting. The present stalemate, between the ideologies of the two political parties and their advocates, has created a false sense that each side clearly knows the real answers to these complex social and economic problems. I believe that we can have both free markets and morality. In fact, I believe this is the only way that we can retain personal freedom and social justice joined with real compassion and concern for the poor that will make a long term difference. Christians can do better and leaders ought to seek such solutions.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

The “10 years after welfare reform” articles of this past summer are old news, of course. Not surprisingly, indications were that, like any public policy, reform hadn’t been the all-time poverty solution, but that policies had, in fact, helped a significant number of people to move themselves to self-sufficiency. A recent Wall Street Journal series highlighted the broad range of issues related to moving out of poverty. A companion piece to the December 28 entry, “Economists Are Putting Theories to Scientific Test” notes that MIT has set up a center called the Abdul Latif Jameeel Poverty Action Lab focused exclusively on using experiments to study poverty.

Revisiting public policy and referenceing research can be insightful, especially as we attempt to make responsible end-of-the-year financial contribution decisions. What did pundits and experts alike argue is effective compassion, and how far on or off the mark are they in comparison to our own giving standards?

There is an abundance of good how-to-give-responsibly material from varied sources. With the Buffet donation and the Clinton philanthropy meeting in Little Rock, even recent international stories, Big Donors are making their legacy marks. Few of us have such resources, however. Does that mean that very limited, perhaps virtually unnoticed giving is any less valuable?

Less self-focus and more other-focus is a good thing, approached differently but consistently across the world’s faith doctrines. A New Testament Gospel parable underscores the relative value of giving…..not relative to world impact but relative to the personal sacrifice required of the giver.

The story of the Widow’s Mite is worth revisiting. Interestingly, Wikipedia reports: “This tale is held by most modern Christians to mean that a gift should to be judged not by its absolute value, but by how it compares relatively; that it is not the impressiveness or purchasing power which matters, but what it means.” There is theological debate about the ‘true meaning’ of the parable. I’ll leave such to the theologians and consider a ‘face value’ interpretation. There is a quality about sacrificial giving that facilitates my being a better person. To give sacrificially rather than from abundance means that I probably considered my own needs (wants, most likely), weighed them against neighbors’ need, and determined to put the others before myself.

It appears that ready sacrifice isn’t so especially American these days. Unlike the American culture that marveled Tocqueville, twenty first century America is ruefully referred to as the “me” culture–me first, me now, more for me, is there any other consideration except me? Brokaw referred to Americans of World War II era as “the greatest generation.” Sacrifice was a way of life–literally of life, of resources, of simple sacrifices such as sugar and gasoline. But just as our growing abundance has empowered Big Donors to make a Big Impact, has personal sacrifice for others been eclipsed? Arthur Brooks certifies that Americans remain the most generous, and more interestingly, those with less give more

But I’m not just musing over personal sacrifice in the amount given. Am I deferring to personal comfort and ease, i.e., online giving, vs. my having to make a more concerted effort to determine both program and financial effectiveness of a charity helping needy neighbors?

I questioned a Generation Y colleague, who of course is technically astute. Was I reflecting my age, working from an assumption that personal connection was of higher value, that deferring to click (Internet) donation was a contender to Subsidiarity? He offered some insights about the ease of accessing global information about need, that my “needy neighbors” now could reasonably include global neighbors vs. only those in my own community. And I’m not pushing facilitators of online giving in to a questionable position. Many of the charities that we know well now have the capacity to accept online donations.

So this is the recommended benchmark: Give sacrificially. Make the personal effort to discern your need from want and then compare to your neighbor’s need……next door or across the globe. If possible, use the Internet to investigate how well your charity of choice invests resources that you give them. Investigate just how much an Internet “giving intermediary” takes for processing. Don’t ever discount the needs of your own community, those perhaps with no Website, not in high profile charity registries, but helpful to your neighbors with food and health needs, challenged teens, people who simply need a friend.

Those personal expenditures are the epitome of personal sacrifice……and worthy of being categorized with the widow who gave her mite.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 21, 2006
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Filing your taxes just got a little more complicated. The IRS recently announced new guidelines for charitable deductions to be introduced for the 2007 tax year. Beginning next tax season, “taxpayers must provide bank records or other information when claiming deductions for charitable donations of money.”

These records can include credit card statements and canceled checks. And in addition, taxpayers “may also submit a written communication from the charity with the organization’s name, the date of the transaction and the amount of the contribution.” A number of charities that I contribute to already provide me with year-end statements, so just be ready to pass that paperwork along with your return.

HT: Zondervan>To The Point