Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politically Discerning Compassion

David T. Koyzis


November 19, 2010
by David T. Koyzis

It has been noted by many observers—even by those professing no particular religious commitment—that Christians are often the first to show up to help the survivors of manmade and natural disasters. This is due to a strong commitment to compassion, a virtue unknown to ancient Greeks and Romans but one with a firm biblical foundation. God himself is said to be compassionate (Exodus 22:27), a quality undiminished even as he stands in judgment over his people (Isaiah 54:7-9). The gospels portray a compassionate Christ, working miracles of healing and providing food in the midst of want. Following his example, contemporary believers are quick to establish “compassion ministries” to offer the biblical cup of cold water to those in need (Matthew 10:42).

Michael Gerson correctly argues that Christians offer a more winsome witness to the gospel when they offer compassion to the victims of catastrophe rather than pronounce divine judgment on them. However, compassion needs to be fleshed out in specific settings and circumstances; otherwise it is easily misguided and can exacerbate problems it is intended to resolve. This means that extending compassion requires that we do indeed exercise judgment—but judgment in the sense of discernment.

A few years ago the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, launched a small campaign to stop North American used clothing donations to African countries. Such donations were, of course, well intended, but their net effect was to undercut the domestic textile industry in those countries and put people out of work, thus aggravating the very poverty such efforts were meant to alleviate. What appears on the surface to be a compassionate response to human suffering can end up causing new hardships. Compassion requires discernment.

It has been nearly a year since a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Along with many other churches, our family’s own denomination set up a disaster relief fund specifically targeting Haiti. Although such efforts are definitely worth contributing to, they are clearly not enough. This is where we must think through the meaning of what might be called politically discerning compassion.

Casualties in the Haitian earthquake numbered in the hundreds of thousands. If a similar magnitude quake had hit San Francisco, the numbers of dead and injured would have been much smaller. Why? Because California’s building codes have been strengthened over the decades, thereby minimizing structural damage from quakes and lessening the human injuries that would inevitably follow. Although such standards add to construction costs, their imposition can be seen as a form of compassion appropriate to public policy.

Transparency International’s annual corruption report ranks 180 countries according to openness and lack of corruption in their institutions. Sadly, in 2009 Haiti was close to the bottom at 168. University of Colorado seismologist Roger Bilham has noted that the high fatality rate after January’s quake was in large measure caused by rampant bribery in that country’s construction industry, “which often takes the form of corrupt awards of construction projects, corrupt issuance of permits and approval documents, and corrupt inspection practices.”

Although filling immediate needs on the ground is a necessary response, a politically discerning compassion must also see states and NGOs alike helping Haitians to strengthen their legal framework so as to diminish domestic corruption and its lethal effects. This would empower Haitians to move beyond victim status and to rebuild their broken social and economic life. Such a compassionate strategy cannot, of course, guarantee justice and prosperity, but it could help to remove obstacles standing in their way.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”