The Folly of “Free” Compassion

If you have not read the post below on the Folly of Forced Compassion, this post will probably make little sense. This is not a response, per se, to that post, but it does seek to unpack further the actual application of a society that has eliminated “forced” compassion in favor of “free” compassion.

Let me begin with tithes and offerings in churches. Many churches allow for the receipt of automatic electronic fund transfers. In other words, a church allows for its parishioners to establish a monthly automatic withdrawal of ten percent of their income to be electronically transferred into their church’s bank accounts. I have to admit, there is nothing explicitly stated in scripture which would prohibit such actions. After all, the person is tithing, right? On the other hand, this is slightly against the spirit of tithing, which is an act of faith and an act of compassion (see Malachi 3). An automatic withdrawal takes little thought. (I don’t think about my mortgage payments because they are automatically withdrawn.) At least using online bill pay causes me to think for a second about the tithe I am making to my church as I click the ‘pay’ button. While convenient, automatic withdrawal affects the spirit of giving to the church and makes it too routine.

Now consider ‘forced’ compassion through welfare and taxes. Unintended consequences have occurred because human thought has been largely removed from the process. Rather than thinking about having compassion on others, money is simply removed from my check by the IRS and deposited where needed. Although Dan excluded Social Security and Medicare from his post, having these withheld from my check causes me to stop thinking about caring for those around me who are older, causing me to forget that care of the elderly means more than financial assistance. Compassion that is forced becomes routine and viewed as a garnishing of ‘my’ money.

So, let’s eliminate ‘forced’ compassion! But hold on a second! We all agree that we ‘must’ (whether compelled by God or by government) have compassion. And some would argue that government should not be the compelling force. But let’s be honest. Would the elimination of a compelling human force that has caused the elimination of thought and heartfelt compassion suddenly lead to increased thought and heartfelt compassion? I think not. When the computer system goes down and EFT’s don’t work, few think to write paper checks to their churches. Human hearts do not have a switch in them that suddenly begin to think and feel when they have stopped thinking and feeling.

This is one of the major points of contention about medicare, welfare, and social security. Those in favor of ‘forced’ compassion fear that if there is no force, compassion will not take place. Those in favor of ‘free’ compassion argue that it will. I agree with those who say it will not take place; the human heart simply does not change that fast. If we simply eliminate force, compassion will not take place until the situation of certain individuals becomes so dire that suddenly we are compelled to have compassion upon those we have come to resent. I would estimate that this would take at least one generation of the poor, and that is simply one generation too many to sacrifice. However, I am in favor of “free” compassion that does involve thinking and heart-felt compassion. So how do we solve this impasse? Simple: double the compassion.

What I am proposing is shocking and wildly unpopular because it is ‘my’ money. I’m suggesting we put our money where our mouth is and give twice as much. It’s easy to stand on the side lines and claim the government should not force compassion, and Dan makes a great argument for why they should not force compassionate behavior. But the reality is that while government does “force” compassion, they do not “restrict” compassion. In other words, they dictate that x number of dollars must be spent on compassion, but they do not state what the rest of our income must be used for. Why can’t we use the rest of our income for so much compassion that the government realizes that they do not need to force compassion? Sound impossible?

In the second century, a Roman official wrote to the Emperor to explain why his city was no longer in the Roman welfare system. The reason: The churches in the city did so much that welfare was unnecessary. The church, a group of thinking and compassionate individuals, took such good care of the poor, orphans, and widows, using their aftertax income, that they rendered government assistance programs in the Roman Empire unnecessary! So why don’t we do this? Because we think it is ‘our’ money.

Back to tithing. Tithing a tenth is an admission to God that all of it is HIS money, we are simply stewards of it. It does not mean “ten percent is Gods, ninety percent is mine.” Instead, it is a demonstration that 100 percent is Gods, I just get to use it. We get upset that the government takes “my” money to use how it sees fit, but then we keep the rest and use it on something other than the very compassion we argue that the government should not be doing. For further evidence, just ask your pastor what percent of your church gives ten percent? I guarantee you will be shocked by the low number. Why is this the case? We think it is “our” money and we should use it as we see fit..

The early church though saw religion that was pure and undefiled as caring for the poor and orphans (James 1:27) and did not make excuses that the government took 25 percent of their income. Our goal should not be to get the government out of the compassion business. The goal should be to have compassion, but we are so busy blaming the government for taking “our” money that we fail to use the rest of “God’s” money to be compassionate. The reality is that we can do a better of job of compassion because compassion is God’s business. So let’s stop telling the government to stop and instead put our money where our mouth is and put them out of business. Let’s take back “God’s business” using “God’s money” to accomplish “God’s mission.” This means that I give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (the rest!). Wow, that’s an awesome statement! I should patent that! Funny that “me” is not even mentioned.

5 Thoughts.

  1. While there are parts of your post I can agree with this statement undermines a great deal of your argument:

    “…if there is no force, compassion will not take place.”

    By definition, I believe, where there is force there is no compassion. Compassion: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

    • I don’t think it will, at least not at first. Something compels or ‘forces’ us to act, whether that be an outside force or inward one. I think Americans will be so overjoyed by their new chunk of untaxed income that compassion will not take place until the situation for the poor becomes so dire that people are ‘forced’ to act.

  2. I agree with the basic point that voluntary generosity is not automatic and we are not entitled to the assumption that merely removing the “crowding out” effect of state welfare will be sufficient to revive it.

    More importantly, however, I would add that increasing voluntary generosity will be the necessary precondition of reducing the size of the welfare state. The more we demonstrate, rather than merely claim, that voluntary generosity is sufficient to care for people’s needs, the easier it will be to make the case that we can safely reduce the size of the welfare state. We must rebuild the structures of voluntary compassion before the voters will trust those structures to substitute for the welfare state.

    Think it can’t be done because the state crowds out private generosity? BS. Our Mormon friends have already done it. There are virtually no Mormons on welfare anywhere in America because their faith community takes care of them. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the biblical model, isn’t it? Who are we to say the church isn’t capable of doing its job because Ceasar is in the way? Shocking lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to build the church! And shame on us that our Mormon friends are modeling the biblical approach to helping the poor when we’re not.

    Granted, the Mormon system is the product of generations of work, and an equivalent system for our churches can’t be wished into existence overnight. All the more reason to get to work without further delay!

  3. Pingback: Re: The Folly Of “Free” Compassion | Hang Together

Leave a Reply