Saturday, September 27, 2008

American compassion?

I can no longer remember when I first heard the phrase, "unconditional love." It seems like it might have been some time in the 60s or 70s -- I know it was nothing I heard as a child. I do know that for quite a while it seemed a perfectly acceptable usage to me, and filled me with the same sense of warm fuzzies that others appeared to get from the phrase. I still affirm the idea that God's love for us is separate from any merit or deservedness on our part.

Of late, however, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the phrase, and more so upon my reading of Marvin Olasky's book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. (Olasky holds a PhD in American culture, is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and is editor-in-chief of World magazine.) In 1989 and 1990 Olasky, funded by a grant from the Heritage Foundation, researched the history of American charity to the poor, from colonial times to present, at the Library of Congress, research upon which he based his book. He outlines the early American model of compassion, and describes the surprisingly successful programs of the time, run almost exclusively by religious organizations. He identifies seven "marks of compassion" which characterized this early American model and were essential elements of its achievement: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, and God.

To quickly define these terms, affiliation focused on restoring the broken relationships with family, church and community of the needy. Bonding was required by volunteers with those whom they helped, in the true spirit of the word "compassion": to suffer with. Charities of the day carefully categorized their applicants between those "worthy of relief" (children, widows, those able and willing to work, and those unable to work due to disease or handicap), and the "unworthy, not entitled to relief" (the "shiftless and intemperate" who were unwilling to work). Discernment was then thoughtfully exercised in the type, degree and duration of aid given with the goal, for all for whom it was possible, to secure employment, and thereby restore (or perhaps for the first time secure) self-sufficiency, dignity, and freedom. And all was done in the name and to the glory of God.

All of this occurred during a time when American society endorsed the classic Judeo/Christian view of fallen man and sovereign God. But with the advent of, first, liberal Protestant theology, and later, secular/humanist worldview that denied the fallen nature of man and rather affirmed a natural goodness in human nature that would assert itself once social and physical necessities were met, a new template of compassion assumed American charity. Almost all of the marks of compassion that had once governed American charity were abandoned, and with them the role of government aid eclipsed that of the faith-based organizations--and with it the success they had experienced. In effect, "bad charity" drove out "good charity". The zenith of this movement was seen in the 1960s with the passing of unprecedented welfare entitlements and the professionalization of social work. The decades of the 1970s and 1980s saw the devaluation of marriage, a horrifying rise in unwed childbirth, and the formation of a multi-generational underclass dependent on government largess. True, no one was starving anymore, a basic level of physical need was met, but the social and moral aspects of poverty, and the sheer numbers of the dependent class grew exponentially.

Perhaps the worst tragedy is that this model of compassion, stripped of affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, and employment, has infected many faith-based efforts of charity, with results that early American charity pioneers warned of when first establishing their model of compassion. Consider this excerpt from the book:
Shortly before Christmas 1989, a Washington Post reporter, Stephen Buckley, interviewed eight men who were living in Northwest Washington in a tent made by tying a bright blue tarpaulin over a grate that spewed hot air. Buckley noted that the men had sleeping bags, gloves, scarves, and boots, and lots of food: "Party trays with chicken and turnkey. Fruit. Boxes of crackers. Bags of popcorn. Canned goods. All donated by passersby." Some of the recipients probably were fathers, but they were not spending Christmas with their children.

Buckley also visited four men and two women who were camping on a heating grate on the eastern edge of the Ellipse, just south of the White House. The heat, along with "the generosity of private citizens who bring them food and clothes every night," meant that the campers "don't worry much about surviving the cold," Buckley reported. Indeed, visitors throughout the evening dropped off supplies; one woman brought fruit, nuts, and two dollars; three men brought a platter of cold cuts; and two other men hot chocolate, blankets, gloves, sweaters, and socks. One of the campers, a forty-one-year-old man who has been "largely homeless" for eleven years, noted that "the majority of clothes we have here now were dropped off by persons who were walking by and saw us here. They just thought they could bring something that would be helpful to us."
The unavoidable question presented by these stories is: do these indiscriminate gifts really help these people, or are they rather making things worse by enabling them to remain "homeless"?

Even evangelical programs of charity, done in the name of Christ, if devoid of the other marks of compassion in the early American model, are left only with freedom. But freedom to do what--roam the streets? Abuse drugs and alcohol? Continue to abandon one's children? Is this really demonstrating the "unconditional" love of God?

Consider another excerpt from the book which illustrates a different sort of contemporary faith-based charity organization that embraces the early American model of compassion:
Jim and Anne Pierson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for example, bought a large, old house named it House of His Creation, and over seven years provided shelter to two hundred pregnant women. The Piersons learned that the family structure of their home was crucial, because most the women who stayed with them had lacked a good family life. They had never seen a healthy mother-father or husband-wife relationship, and so had become cynics about marriage. Some of the residents at House of His Creation, freed from peer pressure to single-parent and able to see the importnace of dual-parenting, chose to place for adoption. Most also began thinking about marriage in a new healthy way.

The Pierson's next step was to act as catalysts for the development of family-base maternity homes. They formed the Christian Maternity Home/Single Parent Association (CMHA), which has thirty-two member homes, each with two house parents and six to eight pregnant women in residence. At one CMHA home, Sparrow House in Baltimore, houseparents draw each new resident into family life--for some, this is the only time in their lives that they have lived with a "mother" and a "father." The houseparents help each resident adjust to rules and responsibilities that may be new and hard to take at first. Since many of the young women have come from undisciplined lives, they are learning--maybe for the first time--to live with structure. They also learn to take their spiritual needs seriously. Sparrow House, like other CMHA homes, accepts needy women from any religious background, but the program's unapologetic base in Christian teaching is reminiscent of many in the late nineteenth century...The housemother spends many hours with the teenage mother but she does not assume babysitting responsibilities; if a teenage mother is desperate, the housemother takes over for a short time but only in exchange for doing laundry for the household or mowing the lawn. House-parents need to have inner strength and conviction that the child will be better off in the long run by maintaining a hands-off situation. They have to let the child cry longer than they would let him cry. The have to let his diaper be wetter than they would allow. The teenager has to learn that it is her responsibility. Christian Family Care Agency's tough love leads about half of the teenage mothers to realize that for both their good and their children's, they should choose adoption; the other half raise their children with a new appreciation of marriage and an awareness of their own limitations. Crucially, that knowledge has come in the safe environment of a family home, not it the dangerous terrain of a solitary apartment filled with the sounds of a crying child and a tired angry parent.

So perhaps this "tough love" is in reality a better expression of God's "unconditional" love than merely handing out food and clothing with no attendant personal responsibility required. And perhaps my own unease with the phrase "unconditional love" is in reality a disappointment with so many contemporary Christian charity programs that seem to have forsaken the classical view of compassion--that of suffering with--for the far easier, guilt-assuaging and self-congratulatory model of indiscriminate giving of food, clothing, or money.

A side note: Tragedy was first published in 1992. It slowly gained a small following in New York and Washington. Journalist John Fund and philanthropist Heather Higgins recommended it to others, among them former Secretary of Education Bill Bennet who, in late 1994 passed it on to new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In January of 1995 Gingrich repeatedly spoke about the book's themes and recommended it to others; a media frenzy ensued. It's commonly understood that Tragedy was influential in the welfare reform that the Republican Congress passed and President Bill Clinton eventually signed into law.

For anyone interested in the history of American charity, the birth and evolution of American government welfare and poverty programs, or anyone considering faith-based giving or volunteer work, I urge you to read, and be challenged by The Tragedy of American Compassion.

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