Recently Aung San Suu Kyi warned against “compassion fatigue” in the case of rich nations’ support for her country, Burma. In my experience, most of those working in government aid agencies, non-governmental relief and development organizations (NGOs) – whether “secular” or “religious”- see their work with the poor as doing charity, stemming from compassion. Hence, “compassion fatigue” is a real possibility, and reinforced when the donors themselves have to tighten their belts in harsher economic times.
Some Western writers, most notably Rousseau, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, drew attention (in very different ways) to the manner in which compassion reinforces the shame that the poor experience, and often leads to paternalism, dependency and feelings of mutual resentment.
There is a long and venerable Christian tradition that speaks of justice for the poor. Justice has to do with rights. Justice is present in social relationships insofar as people are enjoying what they have a right to. When people do not enjoy those goods to which they have a right, they are wronged. And these rights stem from the intrinsic worth of men and women created in the image of God and provided for bountifully out of his fertile earth.
Jesus and the biblical prophets did not think of rendering assistance to the needy of the world in terms of charity but in terms of justice. Yes, there are those who are poor because of their own idleness or misfortune. Yet most are victims of injustice, and rendering justice to them requires dismantling the social and economic structures that promote exclusion, exploitation and oppression. But, whether “deserving or “undeserving”, it is need that constitutes the poor person’s right to be treated with respect by his or her fellows. To fail to meet that need, when we have the resources to do so, is to wrong that person.
As far as I am aware, the centrality of “justice for the poor” in the biblical and patristic writings is unique. You will not find the poor in discussions about justice in Plato, Aristotle, Kautilya, Mencius, Lao Tze, Locke or Kant. As I wrote in Chapter 3 of my book Subverting Global Myths (2008): “Unlike the Western republican tradition that puts the citizen (historically, male and property-owning) at the centre of the polis, the Christian biblical tradition, especially as it has been recovered in our day in Latin American liberation theology, gives ultimacy to the poor. This follows naturally from the recognition that life is our most basic right. The poor are all those whose life is vulnerable, threatened, and denied. And this ultimacy of the poor appears in God’s declared partiality toward them. Thus there is a rich vein of thought in the Biblical writings that champions the rights of the poor. For instance, ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ (Prov.31:8-9). The right to life implies access to the resources that sustain life. To speak of the poor as having rights to sustenance implies that what we owe them is not simply charity but justice.”
Justice is the fundamental calling of governments. The biblical picture of the ideal king (e.g. Psalm 72) is of one who renders justice to the afflicted and downtrodden. Interestingly, even the healing ministry of Jesus is seen by Matthew as not merely expressing compassion, but as the fulfilment of the Messianic promise of justice realized (see Matt 12: 15-20). Justice restores human beings to a state of flourishing.
All this is deeply relevant to the debates taking place today, in Asia and Africa, as much as in Europe and North America, about the responsibilities of government. Churches and NGOs are often unwitting instruments in the hands of those governments who want to abdicate their responsibility to their poor citizens (and, indeed, the poor elsewhere who are affected by their policies). Governments would rather have the churches and NGOs alleviate the social discontent arising from their misplaced priorities. Alleviation we should do, but not at the price of silent complicity in those policies.
Whenever Christians unthinkingly join the right-wing protests against “welfare cheats” (a miniscule number in comparison with the number of rich folk and companies who steal from public funds), argue against government economic regulation (in the name of “minimal government” which, in practice, is government that gives charity in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and bail-outs to the wealthy and powerful), or speak of poverty as if it were simply a matter of individual choice, even their private charity (however sincerely motivated) may be cementing the walls of injustice in the world. Should they not be returning to their Bibles and delving more deeply into the Christian tradition that they profess?
Furthermore, should our churches and organizations be accepting aid for the poor from those who may be perpetuating injustice through their daily work and who refuse to speak up for the poor in their own contexts?