The Tragedy of Christian Compassion

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken October 6, 1996

Winter is coming. You can tell that winter is coming because the first few leaves are beginning to turn red and brown and yellow. Soon the cold north winds will begin to swirl the leaves and papers around the streets of Center City.

If your mailing address is a city park bench then you do not need the leaves to tell you that winter is on its way. You could tell early last month, when the maples were still green but the mercury was starting to dip down into the 50’s at night. I was walking through the park one cool evening at the end of the summer when I was accosted by a man lying on a bench, cursing mosquitoes. “Hey Mistah,” he said, “Got an extra blanket wid ya?”

The City of Philadelphia began to prepare for a long, cold winter back on July 16. That was the day the Mayor’s Office issued a press release explaining why it was denying single adults access to homeless shelters. Cuts in federal funding and reforms in the state welfare system compelled the city to make a drastic cutback in social services.

Most of us paid little attention to this announcement. But then, most of us have homes, don’t we? Mayor Rendell explained the city’s reasoning like this:

These are the hard decisions that we have been forced to make in the face of reduced state and federal funding for homelessness, and for a variety of programs that provide the safety net for people and families in need. These steps must be taken now, during the warmer weather, to ensure that the City will have the resources to meet the increased demand for homeless services during the winter [“City Announces Additional Shelter Restrictions,” Mayor’s Office of Communications, 7/16/96].

Some of the shelter restrictions have since been eased [see Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/14/96, B1], but the needs of the homeless remain with us. At present, some 20,000 Philadelphia residents make use of homeless shelters each year. City officials estimate that recent cuts may increase that number by some 25,000. It is tempting to hope that those estimates are high.

On the other hand, those estimates were made before President Clinton signed the federal welfare reform bill in August. The welfare reform bill means that the rules for welfare will change on July 1, 1997 [Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/1/96, A1, 9, 10]. The new rules give the states greater control over welfare and require welfare recipients to work. They will probably compel some of the poor to get into the work force. But they will also send some people out onto the streets. The effect in a city like Philadelphia could be drastic.

Many of these issues are addressed in Marvin Olasky’s recent book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. Olasky’s book has attracted attention both in the church and in Congress. In it, he argues that throwing money at the poor serves only to increase poverty, both materially and spiritually. Olasky advocates a return to the old-fashioned charity of the 19th century. Such charity was characterized by a willingness to be personally involved in rebuilding the lives of the poor. In other words, the poor were treated with compassion.

Compassion for the poor is a major biblical imperative. Compassion begins with the compassion of God himself. David wrote,

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,

slow to anger, abounding in love (Ps. 103:8).

As a father has compassion on his children,

so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (v. 13).

How does the Lord show his great compassion? The compassion of God is supremely revealed in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. But it is also revealed in God’s treatment of the poor.

He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor (Ps. 112:9).

He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap (Ps. 113:7).

The LORD secures justice for the poor

and upholds the cause of the needy (Ps. 140:12).

God demands that all his children share his compassion for the poor.

This is what the LORD Almighty says:

‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor’ (Zech. 7:9-10).

We are not to oppress the poor. More than that, we are to minister to the poor. We are not to keep the homeless at arms’ length, we are to embrace them. That is the purpose of the ACTS ministries at Tenth Presbyterian Church–Active Compassion Through Service. What compassion does the Lord require from us?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter

when you see the naked, to clothe him,

and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isa. 58:7).

When the Mayor announced homeless shelter restrictions back in July, he also announced six new measures to combat homelessness. The last of these was the establishment of a telephone hot line which church groups can use to offer assistance to the homeless. I suspect that this is a sign of things to come. The social problems of our city are likely to get worse before they get better. As the government begins to recognize how welfare is failing, it is increasingly willing to give the church a chance to do better.

Many in the church have been quick to critize the Welfare State, even to blame the government for poverty. But soon more homeless than ever before will be on the steps of our church. I fear that they will call the bluff of our concern. They will need more than one hot meal a week. And I fear that we will not be ready for them. I fear that we will not have the resources or the compassion to help them rebuild their lives. That would be a tragedy of Christian compassion.

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