I recall a story in the Washington Post from the early 1990s, when I lived in northern Virginia, written by a Catholic nun. It told of a ministry in downtown DC that she was working, offering free lunches to the poor.
When she and her fellow charity workers had started this ministry they had decided not to require means tests of the people who came to eat. Means tests - requiring the recipients offer evidence they could not afford to pay for the meals - would be degrading, they concluded. The poor were beaten down by life enough without the church adding to it.
Yet after several weeks the sister had changed her mind. The soup kitchen initially attracted diners who were clearly homeless, near-indigent or working poor. But as time went on, she observed the diners were better and better dressed. They were cleaner, obviously more healthy. At first, a large number of diners had walked to the kitchen, but now most drove, and as more time passed, older cars parked outside gave way to newer cars, then expensive cars. The kind of person who first began eating there became rarer and rarer.
The nun concluded that they should have required means testing to protect the poor. It was clear to her that they were now running a kitchen serving free food to people of substantial resources, not the poor they intended to serve.
"Which among you," asked Jesus, "when asked by your child for bread, would give him a stone?" Well, none of us, of course. And which of us, encountering someone who truly could not afford his next meal, would fail to buy it for him?
Personal charity and works of compassion are basic requirement of Christian ethics. But Christian people with best of intentions go awry when they attempt to make their personal ethics public policy. Compassion is bad public policy.
I table-talked once with several of my ministry colleagues at a seminar, some of whom insisted that health care should be free for the poor, meaning, of course, that the government will pay for it - meaning of course, the non-poor will pay for it.
As one of the seminar’s presenters pointed out, the non-poor are already paying for the poor’s health care. Heath insurance premiums are padded to cover the costs of treating the uninsured. In 2003, wrote Ezekiel J. Emanuel and Victor R. Fuchs, "the average health insurance premium for a family of four [was] about $9,000." It's $12,000 or more today. And part of that premium pays costs for the uninsured. Make no mistake, the poor don’t receive high-quality care except for emergency-room visits, but that is where they tend to get almost all their health care. Our taxes also pay health care costs. Of the $2.26 trillion the United States now spends about on health care, the government pays more than 45 percent.
Individuals exercise compassion, defined by the Oxford dictionary as "sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others." Governments exercise justice. Justice is only accidentally compassionate because justice, to be justice, must balance the valid, competing needs of persons and groups within society. Justice attempts to answer, "What is right, what is fair?" Justice is enforced against the will of at least one of the contending parties. Hence, justice is at its foundation coercive.
Compassion, though, seeks to alleviate shortcoming, suffering or pain, to heal in body, mind or soul. Compassion cannot be enforced. I could not compel a stranded motorist I encountered one day to accept my aid, because it would have been literally criminal to do so. In offering aid, I did not have to balance competing claims for my time and money because there were no claims and could not be any. The issue of aid was not what was right or fair, but what was possible.
Compassion is self limiting; one is compassionate to whom one will to the extent of the resources one decides to donate. There are, say, 50 hungry people. You buy lunch for 15, maybe 25, 45 or all. You stop when you can afford to buy no more or simply when you decide you have spent enough and still want to have enough to buy a new DVD. There is no guilt on anyone’s part because no one has done anything wrong. You were under no legal obligation to buy anyone lunch in the first place, so choosing to feed some, not all, is your free choice. The others had no rightful claim to your money.
But justice is only roughly self limiting. An employer who cheated his employees of some of their wages for a time, totaling $25,000, cannot plead for reduced judgment because he has only $10,000 in the bank. The court will hold still him liable for all of it, plus lost interest and punitive fines and perhaps prison. The employees have a rightful claim that the employer may not rightfully deny.
Justice attempts to make right or compensate wrongs done by persons or groups against others. Compassion attempts to make more level the relationships of resources or care between persons or groups of persons.
Compassion makes a very poor guide for justice. Compassion can exist only when there is no right to receive it. A judge, for example, cannot be justly compassionate. For a judge to show compassion for one party to a case is to treat another party unjustly. Showing compassion to a burglar by an unwarranted light sentence is to rob the victim’s family of their rightful claim that the burglar will be fairly penalized. And it puts at risk larger society, which has the right to expect that burglars will not soon be turned loose to rob again.
Similarly, compassion for the victim’s family that leads to an overly harsh sentence - life in prison, for example, for a first offense when no one is injured - sets aside the rightful claim of the convict that his punishment will be consonant with the crime. Likewise, society has a rightful claim not to bear the burden of supporting him for a lifetime for commission of one, non-violent offense.
The fact that different groups have different interests that must be sometimes balanced and sometimes found to be right or wrong is what seems to escape many churches’ proclamations about public policy. The pronouncements tend to be personal compassion writ large, into state policy, then to be coercively enforced.
Case in point: a few years ago, identification cards began to be issued by the Mexican consulate in Tennessee, including at least one year in Shelbyville. Anyone care to guess how many card recipients are in the US illegally? Shelbyville is the center of Tennessee Walking Horses, a major equestrian industry. A man who was senior manager of a large Walking Horse ranch told me that the whole industry would "dry up" if its illegal-immigrant workers were taken away.
From compassion, some people say that illegal immigrants should be allowed to enter the US and work here unhindered. They come here only for economic opportunity, after all, having no prospects for personal advancement in their home country (Mexico, for most of them).
But this argument also exposes the emotional blindness of wishing to make compassion public policy. For when compassion is moved into the large-scale public arena, its focus is too narrow to promote the general welfare. Amnesty for illegal immigrants (whether by proclamation or non-enforcement, which is what we have today) means depriving others of something they to which they have a rightful claim.
I guarantee that the jobs the Walking Horse illegal aliens are working existed before they moved here. Ranchers had to mend fences, shovel barns and bale hay long before Mexicans moved here in numbers. But who was doing that labor before? Not business executives. Not otherwise idle, bon-bon-eating housewives. The American working poor made the ranches go and it was they whom the aliens displaced. But those displaced have a rightful claim to such jobs over persons who are at-large law-breakers, which is literally what illegal aliens are.
There is a long list of other groups who have rightful claims adversely affected by the issue, but that’s not the point of this essay. My point is that compassion fails as policy because it is impossible to be fairly compassionate, except with one’s own resources. Making compassion into policy or law for society compels others to conform to your idea of compassion, trampling on their freedom to be compassionate according to their own lights or to be hard-hearted as they wish. And compassion that coerces is not compassion at all; it is tyranny.
Systems of justice may be tyrannical, too, of course. That is why Western political philosophy has promoted mercy to temper justice. Mercy is not the same as compassion, though as a personal quality mercy and compassion are closely related. William Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice,
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,In terms of justice, though, "clemency" is probably a better word, indicating mercy shown toward one who has offended, but whose punishment or rehabilitation is either completed sooner than expected, or earned during the course thereof.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. (Act iv, sc. 1.)
Not only mercy tempers justice. Religion has served that purpose in Western history also, as have Enlightenment philosophies of individual rights and the idea that the locus of state sovereignty lies in the people, not the state apparatus. But justice remains coercive at base, serving no one perfectly but (hopefully) all as fairly and unobtrusively as possible. However, this is what compassion cannot do.
I find, then, that I have arrived at the place theologian Reinhold Niebuhr arrived several decades ago.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor of Christian ethics, was one of the most influential theologians of the last century. In his work, Moral Man in Immoral Society, Niebuhr explained that while individual persons live generally moral lives, high morality is difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups as a whole. Very rarely does a group of persons comport itself better than individuals do in personal relationships. When human beings engage in collective activity, Niebuhr said, they are overwhelmed by an inability to be moral. The larger the group, the greater this inability is.
Niebuhr was specifically addressing Just War theory in the works I cite here, but I think the same train of thought applies to issues of justice and compassion within societies.
Niebuhr concluded [in "Must We Do Nothing?" in The Christian Century, 3-30-1932], "The hope of attaining an ethical goal for society by purely ethical means, without coercion . . . is an illusion" of the "comfortable classes" of society. There never will be enough love and unselfishness among nations [or persons] to resolve the conflicts of history [or societies] only by ethical [or compassionate] means, even though there may be occasional successes now and then. It is part of humanity's "moral conceit" to think that human sin will not overwhelm individual morality [and compassion] when persons act collectively.
Until the return of Christ, wrote Niebuhr, human societies will never be able to conform purely to the ethic of Christian love. In the interim, we must structure our world based on justice, as best we can, even though communities of justice are inferior to communities of love or compassion. The best justice human societies can attain will only roughly correspond to divine justice. Human justice will always involve contests of power because different groups make opposing claims that they consider rightful.
Niebuhr concluded that the ethical goals of human society must not be sacrificed "simply because we are afraid to use any but purely ethical means." Nor, I think, should they be sacrificed because an ethic of love cannot serve as the fundamental ordering of society.
Yet works of compassion can indeed take on orders of magnitude that project them into the arena of justice, just not judicial justice. When acts of compassion come to affect so many persons that the order of society is changed, so is the nature of the society’s justice. Justice is, after all, only the "right ordering of things" in human affairs, as Aristotle pointed out.
I have in mind the work of Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus. Banks in Bangladesh refused to loan impoverished women money to begin business independence. The average loan refused was 62 cents. Yunus reached into his own pocket and loaned 42 men and women in one village a grand total of $27.
Every borrower paid Yunus back with interest. The banks still refused to write loans. Reports "Vanderbilt Magazine," Fall 2003, p. 49:
Village by village, district by district, Yunus proved conventional bank lenders wrong. Twenty-seven years later, his pioneering approach to micro-lending has spawned nothing short of a credit revolution.His bank has been imitated by more than 7,000 other organizations around the world, including some in America. This is compassion writ large and well. It is personal; Yunus used his own money, not someone else’s. Yet its effects are transforming the social order of societies.
His Grameen Bank . . . has disbursed roughly $3 billion to more than 2 million borrowers in Bangladesh alone, allowing many thousands to lift themselves up from the most abject poverty. [italics added]
As for me, though, whenever I hear a politician tell weepy anecdotes about some unfortunates, then declare that "America is better than that," I lock up my wallet. I know he wants to make his personal sense of compassion into public policy, by coercion, using my money.
As it turns out, US Congressman David Crockett had some things to say about this topic about 171 years ago.
I should also point out that some of my Christian friends will take offense at my claim that, "Compassion can exist only when there is no right to receive it." I say again: works of compassion are a duty of Christian disciples. But they are done in gratitude for and imitation of the saving work of Christ. Hence, they are unenforceable by human agency and are voluntary. Compelling others to perform one’s own idea of compassion is the very opposite of compassion, for compassion cannot coerce others and remain compassion. Even so, the Scriptures are clear that we will be judged by Christ according to our works of compassion.
Another thought by Niebuhr: In February 1941 Niebuhr wrote,
Love must be reegarded as the final flower and fruit of justice. When it is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become the accomplice of tyranny. Looking at the tragic contemporary scene within this frame of reference, we feel that American Christianity is all too prone to disavow its responsibilities for the preservation of our civilization against the perils of totalitarian aggression. We are well aware of the sins of all the nations, including our own, which have contributed to the chaos of our era. We know to what degree totalitarianism represents false answers to our own unsolved problems - political, economic, spiritual. Yet we believe the task of defending the rich inheritance of our civilization to be an imperative one, however much we might desire that our social system were more worthy of defense. We believe that the possibility of correcting its faults and extending its gains may be annulled for centuries if this external peril is not resolutely faced.This is a critical point. Niebuhr was saying that if Christians refrain from maintaining justice, even by force if necessary, because they substitute love for justice, then the love they wish to promote actually becomes the handmaiden of tyranny. And of course, that is no love at all.