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.

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