A good friend has a framed, embroidered motto on his desk, “noblesse oblige” (the obligation of the nobility). I sometimes give him a pretty hard time about it because it can symbolize all that I think is wrong about the Church’s response to issues of poverty and need. It’s like an uncomfortable line that was popular in the privileged class of the South in my childhood, “There but for the grace of God go I”.
Condescension is so imbedded in both phrases that they are the very opposite of Christian charity (using that word in the truest sense of 1 Cor. 13). If you scratch most of us deeply enough you will probably find a core belief that we somehow deserve our stations in life. Doing for others is often less an act of grace than it is self-confirmation.
At the same time, however, if we can divorce these phrases from our self-righteousness and condescension, they speak to the very heart of the gospel. There is an obligation that comes with having been materially blessed that grows from a recognition that the blessing is unmerited. Really understanding just how blessed we are is a powerful motivation for blessing others.
That’s where love comes into play, and we discover the difference between compassion and pity.
There are 2.2 billion children in the world; 1 billion of them live in abject poverty, and 22,000 of those children die every day. 1 million children are imprisoned. Over 200 million children are biological or social orphans.
If we read these numbers through the prism of pity, our first reaction is relief that no one we know is counted among the tragic numbers. Then we may give a few dollars or maybe even make a mission trip to try to make it nominally better for the generic “less privileged.” But the problem is that these numbers represent real kids. Every one of the 22,000 children who will die of poverty today feels the pangs of hunger as surely as our child or grandchild, or younger brother or sister would. Their facelessness does not make them any less human, or their pain or their desire to live less. But pity rarely sees the face beyond the number.
Compassion takes a different track. Compassion recognizes that we are all in this together, that it is usually little more than an “accident” of birth that places us among the world’s most wealthy. Compassion grows out of God-given and sanctioned love, and demands a lifestyle of engagement, a conscious choice about consumption and generosity, a refusal to see those in need as “other.” It means moving beyond our places of comfort, and encountering a world that is dirty, unpleasant and painful.
In fact, it means living as Christ lived.