How compassion inhibits change

Latest contribution from Gaz

I’m going to draw an illustration from my anti human trafficking
Narrative, as it serves to map out the issue in an actual context.

The rescue of victims, survivor care homes and restoration are the ambulance at the bottom of the human trafficking cliff, it is important and wonderful work. However, if nobody builds a fence at the top of the trafficking cliff through prevention, education, legislation and law enforcement… you will never have enough ambulances.

Something that re enforces this, is that the vast majority of donor funding comes to care, not prevention, to the ambulance and not the fence and that’s a problem when trafficking’s main PR label is Abolition… ending something.

People in general, but Christians specifically, have a tendency to be motivated by acts of compassion and mercy, and so they should. Most of our engagement in the suffering of others is an emotive response to what we hear and see.

The problem with this is Christianity as a whole is likely putting considerably more human and financial investment into mopping up the outcomes of suffering that the causes of it. In short, our response is likely to be compassion driven but unlikely to be strategy driven

It is an issue which has also come up in recent years around the flourishing of food banks in response to poverty and hunger both for the least amongst us and apparently nurses and other professionals who are struggle to make ends meet.

The problem with Christian communities defaulting to compassion is that they are far more likely to set up a food bank than come to an understanding of the root issues of this poverty in the community. It is far more likely to buy extra tins of baked beans than write to the local MP, petition Government or join it.

Its easy to point things that are not working and respond instead with meeting immediate needs, but how do we address those things which are broken in society and see what is referred to as ‘systemic change’ happen.

Protest is one response, but protest with out alternative solutions does not get us far beyond a sore throat, that is why we also need alternative models, alternative economies and stories of how something can be done differently.

I used to sit around a table with more than 40 organisations, tackling human trafficking as part of the Human Trafficking Foundation, led by an all party group of Govt ministers in London. Having produced a comprehensive report on modern day slavery in Britain it seemed they had a platform to address key aspects of legislation and care in the country.
In doing further homework, we were broken into interest groups to explore in detail, what change might look like in our key area of need. I remember participant putting forward suggestion as to what specialist care might look like for sexually exploited children, whilst another participant said ‘but we should not put a good thing into a broken system’.

This was a dilemma.

It is my personal conviction that it is ‘both / and’. We can try to fix the system, but we also need models of hope, which show those responsible for the systems that there is another way. For me a model is a story of hope, not how something should be done but instead that it ‘can’ be done.

So, the next thing that catches our attention and strums our heart strings, perhaps we can hold off for a few moments. To ask ourselves in our responding with compassion, how can we also respond with innovation and strategy that will contribute to systemic change. Can we dig deep and go wide in building the fence at the top of the human trafficking cliff, addressing poverty or that our local authority has a failing foster care system which mean more kids in institutions and not families.

I will end with a story of a group of innovators in Los Angeles.
One aspect of the work cost 25 cents… they collected quarters from people so that they could open up a launderette, out of hours specifically for local homeless people. It worked. They then decided to provide mobile showers and dressing gowns so people could put clean bodies back inside clean clothes. Then local healthcare workers who were struggling to do consistent care with the homeless because of movement, recognised this was a place that they would always be, and showed up with a mobile clinic.

They are clean, healthy… but still homeless.

In the same city, a group raised money for some homeless people to be housed and not build another shelter, believing as they did that homeless people first need a home. There is not enough money to rent or buy something that substantial in the centre of LA, land is just too expensive and too in demand. Did they stop? No. They approached a group who had an open car parking lot and said, ‘ can we pay you for any inconvenience caused by building a block of apartments on this site on pillars, so you lose minimal space? We will pay you a monthly premium once it is built as additional income.

I wonder if we can create some stories, not of mopping up, but of making change up stream. Our response may always be compassion and mercy first, but perhaps it is not the last thing we will respond with, perhaps its entry level, perhaps we have been hanging around the lower rungs of the ladder?
Maybe we are too content at just ‘having skin in the game’.
Maybe its simply where we are at as church with our own need for systemic change, as we wrestle with that which holds us and seek to become those agents of change in society.

4 thoughts on “How compassion inhibits change

  1. In the 90’s I worked for a church coalition in a low income neighborhood. When they hired me they were firmly fixed on charity alone as a response to neighborhood needs. I came in with a justice/community economic development approach which many of the white, upper middle class women who volunteered for things found jarring. It was a difficult transition. They did eventually move more toward justice and equality through a CED approach rather than just applying feel good band aids. I pushed them to consider a 50/50 approach. For every charitable approach taken they would also do something towards longer term solutions.

    Charity is a means of allowing those better off to feel better about inequality. David Graeber in his book ‘Debt, the first 5000 years’ (an excellent read, one that will challenge) argues that charity exists on a continuum with theft of resources by elites. Essentially elites offset a bad response to their theft of resources through charitable giving, often supported by the church as the church uses the charity for its own benefit. Charity is less about problem solving and more about appearing to care really. True empathy would be as Jesus said – give away all of your possessions and follow me – a mandate I confess I have failed to follow so far.

    I guess the real question about charity is who is it really for. Is it for me, so I feel better about my personal wealth or for the person in need?

    1. Some real challenges there Ann. Its true that charities including church have often mopped up failed or inadequate state systems. Often gap filling, deficit addressing entities. So perhaps the reality is they address an immediate need and if not addressing root issues perhaps in politics, are contributing to perpetuating the need.
      I wonder how we close the gap between the compassion response at the bottom and the failure to govern and serve at the top ! Thanks for sharing

  2. HI Gaz, I think that the sacred/secular divide is still alive and well and has an impact on your post here. I think it so deeply embedded that despite words to the contrary, practice does not reflect them. Church ministry is still held higher even though ekklesia was local political and not temple. The fact a Business As Mission movement exists at all is testament to that and I would suggest that new forms of business are part of the solution to challenging unjust structures and systems that currently exist. Structures of grace etc. I’m completely with the both/and as you suggest. Why is it so hard for two views to coexist? Perhaps Martin’s opening of a feminine space has something of a more inclusive nature?

  3. Thanks Simon, ill go check martins bit on sacred feminine. Thanks for flagging that.
    I used to think it a progressive idea, that it would radical for a concentric church community to get a lad or lass up the front who was going off to be a darned fine architect, to pray for him and perhaps support him financially to take the pressure off as he explores a primary calling.
    In reality, i think we are way past that really making an impact on the vast imbalance between what is deemed to be sacred roles in the system, or as representatives of the system to society (community worker etc) and work/live realities. I just want to see the platform which defines, or is submitted to for authentication or legitimacy… gone. With a hoop to jump through, which is that imbedded, better to lose the hoop as i dont think the world can wait for us that long. Im not sure we have that long.
    In terms of new types of business, i think we are perhaps behind the curve as is often the case, those who dont have to cross a secular sacred divide are getting on with social entrepreneurial models and supportive systems. We can join in or re invent the wheel perhaps in a partial or substandard way. The ‘ all creation groans and yearns for the children of god to be revealed’ bit is a song to me, whispering through my being. I think at a very base and perhaps profound level, we just need to show up, be present, participate, contribute. Maybe along the way we will put something in the mix that wasnt there… but what?
    Its been great to work with grass roots groups using consensus decision making in all that they do… also to see that the word ‘solidarity’ as the rallying cry, already embodies much of what we sought out in our ‘unity’ stage. I think thats perhaps a part of the new stuff, for me anyways. 🙂

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