Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Monday, June 9, 2014

Against charity monsters

Dear Hannah,

The other day I saw a video of some men being shot in the back of the head.  They were all lined up by some Syrian Islamists, for whatever reason I wasn't sure; but whether they committed crimes against humanity or simply "offenses" against fanatics, there they were, brains all out on the floor, and nobody around to do anything about it. 

I'm certain some people -- and certainly the person who posted the video -- believe we should do something about it.  There are people who believe we have a duty to do something about it, and that if we don't do anything about it, that we're somehow too calloused to be human.  I have the opposite perspective.  I don't have the resources, either personally or as an American citizen, to civilize Syria or Sudan or Somalia.  With all the resources at our disposal and all our racial quotas and countless other programs we've created, we haven't even been able to civilize Chicago

I firmly believe -- and I believe it is the only sensible position to take -- that if we're going to be Good Samaritans, the most reasonable way to go about it is by looking at the people around us first.  The Good Samaritan wasn't a man who came all the way from Egypt to help the people on the road to wherever; he was simply traveling by, and happened to come across a man who desperately needed his help.  Now, there isn't anything wrong with digging wells and evangelizing in Africa, or saying that the Syrians need a healthy dose of justice.  But there is something wrong with getting our priorities out of place, and feeling a need to nurture every African man with AIDS, when we could be helping the man next door who lost his job and has no way to pay his rent.

Some will undoubtedly think it's cold to pay a man's rent when someone else is dying of AIDS; and in an objective sense, all other things considered equal, having AIDS seems a hundred times worse than homelessness, just like homelessness seems a lot worse than not being able to afford vegetables and having to eat Top Ramen.  But if this is the case, then we should certainly never care about anyone's suffering if they aren't having their villages raided by Islamists and having their noses and ears cut off.  In fact, I would say that if the extremity of the situation alone calls for our attention, and that all unpleasantries must be ranked in order of their insufferability, then we should never comfort anyone who's just lost her boyfriend, and we should never pick a crying baby up when he trips and skins his knee.  We would simply have "better" things to do, for people we will probably never even meet.  In other words, by being completely "reasonable," we would become completely insensitive -- like those people who joke about first-world problems, as if the only things worth complaining about were third-world problems.  We might as well say that unless you're choking down petri dish water or dying, you don't matter at all.

It's only fair to ask ourselves, when we see people sighing and moaning self-righteously about some tragedy in the news, whether 200 kidnapped Nigerian girls, or an earthquake that destroyed such-and-such a city, or a plane that disappeared over the ocean is really worthy a sigh and a prayer, or whether, if we really do have an obligation to feel sad about it, we should be calling in sick to work and crying or praying all day, which we have never done and will never do.  And if we aren't, then perhaps we should wonder whether we should really care at all, if we can't care as we "ought."  Maybe there is a balance between not caring at all and not caring the wrong way, and it's okay to simply shake our heads at some truly grandiose things, and be up in arms for smaller ones, and that the difference has less to do with the severity of the problem, and more to do with association and proximity.  The Apostle says we should laugh with those who laugh and mourn for those who mourn, but I doubt he meant we should be like Johnny Cash and always wear black because somebody at every moment is losing a loved one.  We could either spend our entire lives in candlelight vigils, or comfort our friends when they're actually experiencing tragedies.  One of these options is sensible, but appears calloused; and the other feigns concern, while attempting the impossible.  I will leave it to you to decide whether it's better to sincerely do some things we can, or fake doing everything we can't.

Simply put, the most human thing we can do is care for those we actually encounter: not because we'll get something from them in return, like the men reprimanded by James the Apostle for favoring rich brethren over poor, but because these are the only people our limited emotional and physical capacities are capable of doing anything for.  Remember this, because a lot of Christians will make you feel guilty for not saving the world.  Think of how the Apostle Paul spoke about men who didn't take care of their families, and how Jesus said that children who abandon their parents in old age have practically denied the Christian faith.  Think of how the early Christians sold their property and shared the proceeds with other Christians, and not with the Jews instead.  Why would he say this, why would they do this, how could we explain any kind of Christian love for Christians, a love which Christ said would be the very proof of His resurrection, if we didn't have a duty to our children and brethren first?  If this wasn't the case, then the existence of every orphan would be a testament against every Christian, and nobody could ever really prove that a good tree bears good fruit, because it could be rightfully proven that we haven't really borne anything at all.  Instead of being a joy, the Christian life would be a life of guilt and misery, and everyone would be condemned, and God would be the most unreasonable tyrant who ever existed.  Good sense and every sort of piety insists that we aren't and that He isn't.

Another point that's worth considering, and which Christians and especially liberals in the last couple of centuries have botched beyond sensibility, is the idea of taking care of widows and orphans.  Of course, there's something very peculiar about widows and orphans, and that is that neither of them are (or, were, considering the modern widow's case) capable of taking care of themselves; and no less in importance is that the fault is none of their own.  No Christian has ever been called to fund another person's drinking problem, or their sex addiction, or their gambling profession -- if this was the case, then Paul wouldn't have ordered us to stop taking care of widows who were of working and marriageable age, which seems in an objective sense to be a much less serious problem than bums blowing their money on crack.  Yet there are all kinds of people who also like to say that Christians have an obligation to take care of everyone in prison, and everyone who's hungry, and everyone who's naked, and save everyone from AIDS.  They would do much better to recognize Jesus' mentioning of one of the least of these my brethren, and whatsoever you do unto these, you did unto me, meaning not that if you weren't able to visit every imprisoned rapist around the world, that you were definitely bound for Hell, but rather, that there really are people who are just like Jesus Christ, and those people are those who form the body of Christ; or in other words, those indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  The only other acceptable way to interpret this passage is that every Christian is absolutely and unavoidably damned for all the things they couldn't or shouldn't do, which is ridiculous. 

In conclusion, charity is beautiful -- but it can become slavery if we neglect to be reasonable.  Do you feel an inexplicable and undeniable calling to feed African orphans?  Then I say do it.  But never judge another for neglecting to save someone far beyond their capacity and calling, and never forget that if we are to be charitable, we must begin first at home; and when we've taken care of home, we must go on to church and neighborhood and the people we encounter.  Beyond this, we owe men justice in the sense of never doing them wrong, and nothing more (although I would argue that if we're to take The Law seriously, we owe our poor countrymen the option of workhouses, cyclical land reform, and cyclical release from debt -- although this will be saved for another essay).  But if we think that everyone has an obligation to the universal before the particular, and to the general but not the limited and specific, then we should question whether in our excessive zeal to be charitable, we are not ourselves being a kind of charity monster, ruining what joy we have in what little we can do, simply because we can't do everything.

Your father,

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