At a reunion of Johnson administration officials in Austin, Texas, a quarter century after the War on Poverty fired its cannonades, the mood of reminiscence was akin to Wordsworth’s memory of enthusiasm following the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Sargent Shriver exulted that the Reagan years had not really damaged Great Society programs, most of which were “still in existence, all helping millions of Americans today.” New York Times columnist Tom Wicker described the sumptuous affair and proposed that it was time to stop moaning, and, instead drink a toast to “vision and aspiration, confidence and compassion.”
Vision, aspiration, and confidence were all present, but was there compassion? It depends on what we mean by the word. When Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, favored more spending on social programs, columnist Mary McGrory wrote that his “compassion was the size of his frame.” O’Neill’s successor, Jim Wright, also was praised in the Washington Post for his billion-dollar compassion for the homeless. Recently Heather Foley, wife of the current speaker, received a toast in the Post when she showed her “compassion” by feeding pizza to ravenous reporters following one late-night legislative vigil. Does compassion merely mean expansion of government (and pizza) transfer programs? Or is it a synonym for leniency, as when lawyers ask a jury to have compassion for an accused murderer by letting him off?
It would be helpful if there were agreement on the nature of compassion among evangelicals who claim to rely on Christian revealed truth. But, while Calvinist poverty-fighter George Grant has correctly charged “centralized government welfare” with “splintering families, crushing incentive, decimating pride, and fouling productivity,” a popular book at many Christian colleges is still Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which accepts conventional ideas of poverty-fighting through collective material transfer rather than through individual spiritual challenge. Ironically, ministers influenced by liberation theology and desiring to be quasi-Marxist crusaders often find, in the words of the New York Times, that inner-city “churchgoers mostly prefer Bible-thumping harangues.”
The Times may not care for Bible-thumping, but if we open up those Bibles the meaning of “compassion” becomes clear; after all, Hebrew and Greek words commonly translated as “compassion” are used over eighty times in the Bible. Their most frequent use is not as an isolated noun but as the culmination of a process. Repeatedly, in Judges and other books, the Bible shows that when the Israelites had sinned they were to repent and turn away from their sin–only then, as a rule, would God show compassion. Second Chronicles 30:9 states the process precisely: “The Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” Nehemiah 9:27 notes that “when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers….”
Americans up to this century regularly read angry biblical descriptions of Israel as “a people without understanding; so their Maker has no compassion on them.” They read in Jeremiah of God telling Israel, “You have rejected me … I can no longer show compassion.” They saw that God did not offer compassion automatically, and they believed it wrong for them to go where angels feared to tread. For example, if a homeless man abandoned his wife and children (perhaps rendering them homeless also), they saw that he did not deserve God’s compassion or ours until he turned away from his sinful behavior. They did not want to offer compassion indiscriminately and in that way subsidize sloth and turn neighborhoods into wilderness.
Older anti-poverty programs worked. Up to the past several decades, poor as well as the better-off Americans had the privilege of living in neighborhoods, not wilderness. Even in poor sections of cities–except for those particular blocks handed over for “red light” districts and lands of vice– citizens did not need machetes to make their way along the streets. Only in modern times have the vines and wild forest growths reclaimed the ground of neighborhood. Although some organizations on the left still claim that governments must take the lead in rebuilding neighborhoods, the record of several decades shows that wilderness of the city often was created by officials who claimed they were helping. Now, there is much wringing of hands, because we have rewarded irresponsibility and in that way bought more of it.
As compassion has become indiscriminate, many Americans have become so fed up with waste of money and time that cynicism about “homelessness” is rampant. Yet, some helpless individuals (particularly abandoned mothers with young children) are truly needy. Furthermore, when individuals responsible for their own plight are willing to change, biblical compassion means refusing to settle for the feed-and-forget principle or its equally depersonalizing but harsher opposite, the forget-and-don’t-feed standard. It means paying attention to the literal meaning of compassion, as given in the Oxford English Dictionary: “suffering together with another, participation in suffering.” The emphasis, as the word itself shows–“com” (with), and “passion” from the Latin pati (to suffer)–is on personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them, not just giving to them. “Suffering together” means helping the unemployed-but willing-to-work, adopting hard-to-place babies, providing shelter to women undergoing crisis pregnancies, tutoring the determined illiterate, and so on.
Our societal problem, however, is that in the twentieth century a second definition of compassion has become common: “The feeling, or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” Currently, in Webster’s Third International Dictionary, compassion is defined as a “deep feeling for and understanding of misery or suffering and the concomitant desire to promote its alleviation.” There is a world of policy difference between “suffering together” and feeling sad: One demands personal action; the other, emotion that can be relieved by sending a check or passing a piece of legislation. Words carry a political charge, as Orwell pointed out so well in his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Words shape our ideas, and the shifting definition of compassion has so shaped our understanding that the New York Times, usually a stickler for precise language, prints oxymoronic phrases such as “compassionate observer.” The corruption is general: The Washington Post refers to “personal compassion,” as if compassion does not have to be personal.
The corruption of our language, the related corruption of our thought, and the sadly abundant evidence of the past several decades, suggest that the road to effective anti-poverty work in American cannot be paved with more well-intended legislation. Instead, we need to look at ourselves and our society more honestly. We celebrate America as a compassionate, caring society. But most of us are actually stingy–not because we refuse to spend more government money (we’re doing quite well there, thank you), but because we no longer offer time and spiritual challenge to the poor. Our willingness to do that shows whether we care for hearts, minds, and souls, and not just bodies. As a society, we fail the test and will continue to do so until we read our Bibles and show love for God and man by doing what God commands.