Acton Commentary

Commodifying Compassion


Religious progressives are often quick to condemn those who extol the virtues of market economies for focusing too much on material concerns. This charge of materialism is, in fact, a core and valid insight contained in most critiques of consumerism, a phenomenon in which people tend to equate their own value and meaning with the things they can buy or possess. But consumerism is just one manifestation of the problems with a materialistic mindset, and the commodification of compassion at work in the assumptions of many progressives is equally troubling.

We have seen this kind of commodification at work most recently in debates about the federal budget, where campaigns like “What Would Jesus Cut?” decry proposals to lower government spending on social programs. As Jim Wallis puts it, “the moral test of any society is how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens,” but on this view a particular level of government expenditures is equated with that moral test. This kind of logic is also at work with efforts like The ONE Campaign, which takes its name for the proposed amount that should be devoted by governments to foreign aid programs.

The problem with this perspective isn’t that it views material reality as important and instructive. The Lord himself spoke to the relationship between physical goods and spiritual orientation: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34 NIV). The problem is, rather, that the material becomes the primary, even sole, focus when making moral judgments. In this way campaigns that commodify compassion judge morality purely in quantitative terms. If we spend more on social concerns, we are deemed to be more compassionate, more just.

But this kind of moral calculus fails precisely because it doesn’t account for the qualitative differences in various kinds of responses. Other things matter, such as the “who” and “why” of charitable assistance. 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.

The difference between the quantitative and the qualitative views of compassion are illustrated well in the case of “The Widow’s Offering” (Luke 21:1-4 NIV). In this encounter, Jesus watches as wealthy people come to offer their gifts to the temple. He singles out a poor widow, however, for particular praise when she places two very small coins (essentially pennies) as an offering. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Jesus’ words upset our merely material paradigms for evaluating compassion. On the quantitative level, they require us to look not simply at the amount of a donation, but also at the proportion of that donation. The two pennies the widow gave represented a larger portion of her property than the comparably vast sums given by the wealthy. But this deepening of our quantitative judgments leads us into the spiritual realm, where the quality of the gifts might also be recognized. The widow’s offering isn’t judged to be greater simply because it represents a proportionally greater material offering. No, this proportionally greater giving also is evidence of a different spiritual motivation. When she is said to give “out of her poverty,” Jesus points to more than her material status. This woman lives by faith, knowing that human beings live on “more than bread alone” and out of her spiritual, as well as material, poverty she puts in “more than all the others.”

We cannot truly measure compassion merely by looking at the level of government expenditures or the amount of money given, as easy and as tempting as that might be. These material concerns are important, but not all-important, factors in coming to grips with the complex realities of charitable activity. So just as we shouldn’t define the meaning of life in terms of income or GDP, neither should we commodify compassion by ignoring the spiritual realities of charity.