Compassion in Crisis

Headlines continue to bear the daunting blows of a world in financial crisis, and charitable organizations are not dodging the punches. By some estimates, giving to non-profit organizations has fallen as much as ten percent, which is in many cases compounded by an increase in the need for the service the organization provides. Homeless shelters, for instance, dependent in part on state budgets and corporate donations, which have largely fallen away, are struggling simultaneously with needs from people still losing jobs and homes. The Guardian reports that charitable volunteering is also on the decline in England.

As difficulties escalate and financial securities globally plummet, it is not unfeasible that charity would also be on the decline. It seems reasonable to expect that one's circumstances would affect the way he or she is able to respond to the circumstances of others. Interestingly, however, there is no such distinction made in the great stories and statements of compassion and charity in ancient Judeo-Christian thought. In fact, there is no such distinction even made in the words themselves. The literal meaning of the word "compassion," which derives from the Latin compassus, is to suffer together with, to feel with another. It is my neighbor's circumstances that are elevated; my own conditions do not enter into the equation. Similarly, the Latin word caritas, used throughout the Vulgate as a translation of the Greek word agape, refers to a radical selfless love, the kind of love the world had simply never seen before Christ. Quite profoundly, this is the rich history of the English word "charity."

Yet regardless of the rich association of charity with the life and sacrifice of Christ, critics of Christianity are quick to point out the often uncharitable nature of Christ's followers, pointing to images of the church at its very worse, Christians preferring safety to sacrifice, control to compassion. Our history is indeed rife with examples, and Christians do well to concede these images with sorrow and remorse. But it is also important to recognize that such examples of avaricious, uncompassionate, or self-seeking behavior are not at all in keeping with the words and ways of Christ. Where a Christian fails to show compassion and charity—whether in the midst of defending a difficult truth or beside a neighbor in need—it is a departure from the Christian worldview and not an outworking of it.

Nevertheless, the great majority of the life and history of the church significantly demonstrates an outworking of this rich vision with which it has been entrusted. The social vision of the Old and New Testaments, radically realized in the person of Christ, commend a way that is entirely contrary to the self-protecting, self-concerned message of the world. The same God who commands the Israelites to welcome the foreigner in their midst dynamically shows us in Christ a new understanding of human love, commitment, and responsibility. The poor and the marginalized are not only to be valued and defended, but every neighbor regardless of circumstance or offense is to be seen as one made in the image of God—and cared for accordingly. Neither the neighbor's worthiness nor the giver's situation is mentioned.

This call of Christ to charity and compassion indeed reverberates in the Christian's treatment of the entire world, such that even those who vehemently disagree with the Christian worldview have taken notice. Michael Shermer, president of the US Skeptics Society, admits that for every tragedy aggravated by the church "there are 10,000 acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported."(1) British statesman and atheist Roy Hattersley notes similarly: "It is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand." He adds, "Men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles, do not go out with the Salvation Army at night."(2)

In the Christian worldview there is indeed a staggering, compelling gospel for which the secularist has no real means for duplicating. For the Christian, compassion is not a luxury to expend simply when times are good, but a spirit for all circumstances, exemplified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor is charity an act to bolster our own sense of virtue or moral aspirations; rather, it is the very outworking of an identity found in the self-sacrificial love and person of Christ. (And this is perhaps why recessions have historically had less of an effect on Christian giving.) The Christian worldview not only gives a mandate to be compassionate regardless of personal situations, it gives us Christ, who gave an unknowing world the very depths of himself, emptying himself in the form of a servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, for the sake of life. In his name and example, the Christian will do likewise.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Michael Shermer, “Why People Believe in God: an Empirical Study on a Deep Question,” The Humanist, Volume 59, Issue 6, November 1999: 20.
(2) Roy Hattersley, “Faith Does Breed Charity,” The Guardian, September 12, 2005.

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