Cheap compassion


In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned of "cheap grace":

"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

We should be warning of "cheap compassion."

Some on the left have staked out the hill of compassion and have maintained it with OPM-other people's money. In business, using OPM to make a profit is a real coup. But in politics, gaining a reputation for compassion on OPM is cheap compassion.

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Those on the left define compassion as taking money (via taxes) from certain people, giving it to others, and then taking credit for the gift. This is like one of your neighbors, who has a friend who needs help, takes your money, gives it to his friend, and then claims credit for his compassion. And there's no neighborhood referee to right the injustice.

The media, despite facts to the contrary, acts as a willing accomplice by choosing to perpetuate the myth that liberals are the compassionate ones and conservatives are mean, stingy ogres. But researchers have found that liberals aren't all that generous. In his 2006 book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, Arthur C. Brooks reported that religious conservatives, even though their incomes are less on average, give 30 percent more than liberals. Plus, conservatives tend to give more time and donate more blood. Hardly "mean, stingy ogres."

As despicable as using OPM to buy a faux reputation is, there is a more pernicious side to cheap compassion. It is impersonal, ineffective, and creates dependence. In the worst cases, it is a sham, a check in a box, allowing politicians to say we are solving problems when little progress is ever made. A Dallas social worker once told me:

"My caseload is so large I have no time to get to the heart of my client's issues. I cannot dig deep enough to really help them financially or emotionally. I have time to touch base, listen briefly, and then go to the next client. No one really gets better!"

Genuine compassion is not a number on a social worker's list. It involves listening, relating, understanding, and applying the right tool to a specific person's problem. Effective, Christian compassion emerges from relationships, and healing takes place when dependence on government is replaced with confidence and competence, learned and applied.

Bill Newton
Bill Newton

Bill is a pastor based in Asheville, N.C. He also serves as a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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