Posts tagged with: compassion

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, May 10, 2012

In a paper at the symposium I noted in yesterday’s post, Richard Helmholtz described the application of natural law in a particular case in which the judges observed that “charity begins at home,” since “it is a natural impulse to do good to one’s own family.”

Because of the wonders of digital publishing and public libraries, I was able to borrow an ebook version of Winter’s Bone from my local library. As I noted yesterday, there’s a scene in the film that powerfully evokes a recognition of natural moral obligations, in this case to one’s neighbor.

In the book version, however, this scene is even more prominent, as it concludes the very first chapter (in the book, Ree’s brother is named Harold):

She heard the door behind her squeak and Harold, age eight, dark and slight, stood in pale long johns, holding the knob, fidgeting from foot to foot. He raised his chin, gestured toward the meat trees across the creek.

“Maybe tonight Blond Milton’ll bring us by one to eat.”

“That could be.”

“Don’t kin ought to?”

“That’s what is always said.”

“Could be we should ask.”

She looked at Harold, with his easy smile, black hair riffling in the wind, then snatched his nearest ear and twisted until his jaw fell loose and he raised his hand to swat at hers. She twisted until he bore up under the pain and stopped swatting.

Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.”

In this account from the book the relation between Ree’s family and her neighbors is more obviously that of “kin,” although even in the film this seems to be the kind of region where nearly everyone is related in one way or another.

Indeed, claims on the moral obligations of “kin” are a foundational theme on the development of the rest of the story’s plot. The audience takes the journey with Ree, discovering just what is expected of kin and what might be actually delivered in this concrete situation.

Whatever Ree gets, however, doesn’t come easy. In the book she’s sixteen years old with “a body made for loping after needs.”

After 50-plus years of social unraveling, many reformers still see the “therapeutic model” as a cure for what ails American society. Or would a return to the classical virtues, as a means of healing first the person and then the culture, be the way of renewal? Rev. Gregory Jensen offers some thoughts in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 22), spurred by the reading of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Overcoming the Merely Therapeutic: Human Excellence and the Moral Life

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that for many young adults in America, the spiritual life is understood in moralistic terms. But where orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity focus on the necessity of “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers …” — many teenagers don’t see it that way. They, Smith and Lundquist say, worship “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

My pastoral experience suggests that adherence to this model of the spiritual life is common not just among teenagers but also their parents and even their grandparents. Given Philip Rieff’s observations about the triumph of the therapeutic in Western culture, this should come as no surprise. Therapeutic and medicinal imagery are dominant in our culture. That Christians have uncritically, and in my view unwisely, adopted this language is unfortunate but again not a surprise.

This is not to reject the use of medicinal or therapeutic imagery in conversations about either the spiritual or cultural lives. These metaphors have deep biblical and even pre-Christian roots. No, the problem occurs when such imagery comes to dominate at the expense of other, equally valid, ways of speaking about human experience (as for example the juridical model of salvation).

This brings me to Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012). Murray’s work offers a response to the increasingly unbalanced use of therapeutic imagery. His book is provocative but this is not a bad thing; it is a call to the reader to re-examine the cultural and personal foundations of human thriving and to see them as fundamentally moral undertakings.

Looking at the American scene, he singles out four virtues as essential both personally and socially for “the feasibility of the American project”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Until very recently (Murray not wholly arbitrarily indentified Nov. 21, 1963, as the “single day” that demarcates “the transition between eras”) these four virtues were the common cultural inheritance and personal project of the vast majority of Americans. Whatever were their differences in religion, education, wealth or geography, most Americans lived lives built on a respect for hard work, honesty, marriage and family life and religious faith.  Both social institutions (public schools being chief among them) and popular culture – Murray draws examples from movies and television — likewise supported the virtues that made American “civic culture” not only possible but “exceptional.”

Since November, 1963, however, American civil society has been “unraveling.” As a culture Murray says we are “coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” More and more the historically key virtues of American civil society are only those of the new upper class. These same virtues are no longer forming the daily lives of the lower class, that is of working class or blue collar Americans. As a result we see two increasingly different Americas. But again, the difference is not racial or ethnic or even economic but social, a difference in the values by which members of both group live their lives.

The social problems facing Americans now are the fruit of this “cultural inequality.” Switching from descriptive social scientist to advocate, Murray says that we must do something about it:   “That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.”

Instead of more “government assistance” we need a widespread cultural “validation of the values and standards” that once made American civil society so exceptional. How? Well, Murray says the “best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

Murray’s book is about virtue and we know that the virtuous life requires balance. I can’t cultivate one virtue at the expense of the others. Temperance cannot matter to me more than Fortitude or Justice more than Prudence. St. John Chrysostom said that more priests have fallen from compassion than lust. This, or so it seems to me, is the pastoral analogy to Murray’s social critique. We have fallen because we have given ourselves over to an unwise compassion. True compassion suffers with others and so helps us understand how we can alleviate their pain. Unwise compassion is about sentiment; it is about feeling good about myself. True compassion comforts and ennobles the other person; false compassion is merely one more expression of my addiction to pleasure and my willingness to take my pleasure no matter what the cost to self or others.

When as Americans we talk about poverty, its cause and its consequences, we do so primarily not in moral terms — save insofar as some would advocate for the government to “do something to help the poor,” or to “win the war” on drugs or poverty or whatever — but medically, therapeutically.  But a medical model divorced from morality is not only ineffective but destructive. It is so because it is anthropologically unsound and so a gentle cruelty.

The traditional model of salvation assumes a personal commitment to the ascetical life. As classically understood in both the Christian Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West (and even I would suggest among many of the heirs of the Reformation), the healing I am promised in Jesus Christ requires from me ascetical struggle. This is why today Roman Catholics and many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are celebrating Ash Wednesday and why next week Orthodox Christians will begin the season of the Great Fast. Asceticism does not add to the work of Christ. Rather it prepares me to receive again Jesus Christ and to deepen my relationship with Him.

Physical discipline does not exhaust the content of the ascetical life. In addition to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, asceticism has an intellectual aim; it teaches me to understand my desires in light of the Gospel. I need to repent of, and struggle against, those that are sinful. Important though repentance is, it is more important still that I come to see more clearly even my legitimate desires in light of what God wants from me.

Seen in this way, asceticism is an essential component of a life open in love to our neighbor. This is how we understand that our actions, if thoughtless, may impose a cost to our neighbor. This is how we will heal the human heart scarred by sin and so in turn the broken social ties that Murray identifies. In short, I cannot love you unless I am willing to lay aside even my otherwise legitimate plans and projects.  Whether in the physical, moral or cultural realms, real healing requires an understanding of both the ends of human life and the means appropriate to those ends.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Commodifying Compassion,” I look at the instinct to judge a society’s commitment to charity by the level of material expenditure, particularly by the government. One of the things I think is true in this conversation is that our material commitments do show something about our spiritual concerns. So I can agree with Brian McLaren, then, that “America’s Greatest Deficit is Spiritual, Not Merely Financial.”

But where I can’t go with him is to the conclusion that changing levels of material assistance by definition has some kind of spiritual consequence or cause. Thus, even while McLaren writes that we need to “face our basic spirituality deficit,” he still judges the “compassion deficit” in terms of cutting material “services to the poor, the elderly, the sick, minorities, and to children.”

Over at The French Revolution, David French asked pointedly in this regard, “Does more spending equal more compassion?” He focuses particularly on the “how” question of social spending:

All too often it seems that the religious left virtually takes for granted that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent fighting poverty and funding education (to take two examples) represent money well spent and that cutting that funding is “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” or “sacrificing our children’s future.”

French makes some very good points, particularly about the cultural (rather than merely material) aspects of poverty.

But in my piece this week I also focus on the “who” and the “why” questions of material assistance. I contend, “An EBT card issued by a government official shouldn’t be judged to be the same as a ‘cup of cold water’ given by a Christian in the name of Jesus Christ.” I also conclude by examining what the case of the widow’s offering (Luke 21:1-4 NIV) teaches us.

Waking up to the devastation today in Japan was heartbreaking. Malcolm Foster, reporting for the AP, notes:

A ferocious tsunami unleashed by Japan’s biggest recorded earthquake slammed into its eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires that burned out of control.

Reporting for Reuters, Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan’s headline reads: “U.S. readies relief for quake-hit ally Japan.” From their article:

The Defense Department was preparing American forces in the Pacific Ocean to provide relief after the quake, which generated a tsunami that headed across the Pacific past Hawaii and toward the west coast of the U.S. mainland.

The U.S. Air Force transported “some really important coolant” to a Japanese nuclear plant affected by the quake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Foster says in his AP article:

President Barack Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what he called a potentially “catastrophic” disaster. He said one U.S. aircraft carrier is already in Japan, and a second is on its way. A U.S. ship was also heading to the Marianas Islands to assist as needed, he added.

Just this Wednesday, I asked “Does Shane Claiborne Care about Military Humanitarian Aid?” While he hasn’t answered, and I expect he won’t, it is important to note that this response would not be possible under Claiborne’s fantasy. In his military, the department of defense has to hold bake sales just to buy uniforms.

Please keep all the victims and their families in Japan in your prayers this weekend.

One of the main points of the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is the pitting of defense spending against charitable social programs. The assumption is that Jesus would obviously endorse and campaign for the welfare state over the military. A common perception of the U.S. armed forces by many of the religious left is that they are the perfect embodiment of America as “corrupt empire.”

At Acton, all of our commentators on the budget have consistently said all spending measures must be on the table for addressing the federal deficit and debt, including defense. But entitlement promises and their mismanagement is by far the biggest obstacle towards a plan for fiscal responsibility.

Previously, in “Shane Claiborne’s Budget Babbling,” I pointed out the absurdity of Claiborne quoting Martin Luther King’s maxim: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Does Claiborne not see entitlements as social spending, which is by far the largest expenditure?

In his column, I think Claiborne is frankly disrespectful to our military, viewing them solely as bomb hurlers and keepers of arsenals of death. He says, “cutting $3 mosquito nets that can save lives while continuing to spend $200,000 a minute on the military should raise some flags of a different sort.”

In his disrespect for the military, Claiborne makes no mention of all the humanitarian aid and assistance provided by the U.S. armed forces. One could make an argument that the military does not need to be involved in humanitarian aid, but weighed against the things Claiborne says should not be cut, the military towers over those efforts when it comes to humanitarian assistance and aid. Often, the military is vital for not just logistically delivering all the aid but helping to secure a troubled nation so aid is delivered efficiently, humanely, and in a fair manner.

The United States military has recently led humanitarian missions in Haiti after the earthquake, the Republic of Georgia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and no doubt stand ready to deliver food and medical assistance to Libya. Those nations are only a few examples of some of the humanitarian benefits of our military might. The Navy has ships that serve as floating hospitals for people in need of evacuation for medical care. In fact, their secondary mission is supporting humanitarian relief, one such example is the USNS Comfort. The Comfort deployed to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.

My point here is I think the religious left has for too long stereotyped our armed forces and its mission. While they should be applauded at times for raising awareness of issues of peace and justice, it needs to be done responsibly and with greater respect to those who serve.

The military, after all, is under the authority of the civilian government. Shane Claiborne’s bumper sticker theology where he toasts “all who would rather see ice cream dropped from planes rather than bombs,” and proposes that the military hold bake sales so the men and women will be able to wear the uniform of our armed forces is demeaning. It cheapens the men and women who have not only shown courage in defense of our nation but compassion.

James 1:27 states:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Last week I had the chance to meet up again with Tom Davis, CEO of Children’s Hope Chest. Hope Chest works with orphans in various countries around the world including South Africa, Swaziland, and Russia. There mission is

to advocate a “community to community” partnership model. While many great organizations exist to provide individual sponsorship opportunities, we believe that holistic sustainable change in the poorest communities occurs when one community partners with another.

Tom is a great Christian man,father of 7, and a untiring advocate of the orphans around the world. He is also a prolific writer. You can visit his blog and look at his books here.

As a think tank, Acton spends a lot of time thinking about poverty and wealth creation. It was great to spend some time talking with Tom about his experiences in the developing world and his work with orphans and vulnerable women. As Tom says, a lot of evil things happen when there is extreme poverty. His work gives concrete examples of why wealth creation, rule of law, and an entrepreneurial culture that gives people the opportunity to unleash their creativity and make a better world for themselves and their families is so important.

Blog author: jwitt
Thursday, January 14, 2010

If you are looking for a Christian relief organization working in Haiti, let me recommend WFR Relief, located in Louisiana. Led by Don Yelton, WFR has a solid track record for effective compassion in times of disaster, having “provided humanitarian aid and disaster relief in 50 countries since 1981.” They distinguished themselves, for instance, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

An article about Yelton and WFR is here. WFR’s donation page is here.