Compassion Cannot be Globalized

I am weary of attempts to guilt-trip me into caring about people on the other side of the world or about every single living human being on the planet.  This morning I read this:

“Do we have Jesus’ priorities?  Are we living Gospel values?…Our collective lust for money and things has blinded us to the real and legitimate needs of so many people.  Some of these people live just a few blocks from us.  Others live on the other side of the world.  All are children of God, and that makes them our brothers and sisters.  The problem is we value some people more than other people.  Jesus doesn’t do that.  If a hundred people died in a natural disaster in our city, this would capture our attention for days, weeks, months, or even years.  If a thousand people died on the other side of the world, we might barely think of it again after watching the story on the news.  Why do we value American lives more than African lives?”

Of course there is nothing wrong in directing us to the Gospel as guide for how to live a good life and reminding us to not be so selfish or materialistic.  But this author errs in pushing us to care for people on the other side of the planet just as much as our neighbors.  In an abstract way this is possible, to acknowledge that yes, we are all children of God and deserve respect and love, that the world’s people are my brothers and sisters in Christ (whether they know God or not).  But to actively feel for everyone?  Or to do some sort of work that will impact the lives of all the suffering or downtrodden people in the world?  Impossible.

Human beings cannot handle a scope like that.  I am not Jesus; neither are you.  Only God can hold the world in His hands.  We are incapable of even fully grasping it in our minds. The push towards globalization hasn’t just been about economics; it’s been about Compassion as well.  As one mere human, I cannot feel for the world.  To attempt to do so, is crushing, depressing, overwhelming, and inevitably completely unproductive — worse, it might even negatively affect how I treat my actual neighbors.  To do something actively, practically to help the whole world is physically impossible. Most work that compassionate people do, whether in their writing or speech, is really just virtue signaling to make them feel good, to feel like helpful, caring people but has zero results in the lives of others. There is a better way to improve the lives of others.

According to innovative farmer and author Joel Salatin,”Most of us spend a lot of time and money dealing with and worrying about things that we can’t do anything about anyway.  If we would devote that same energy to our little realm of influence, the cumulative effect would be a much better society.”  He notes that one of his favorite writers, Wendell Berry, agrees that “there are no global problems; only local ones:”

one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a “world citizen.” There can be no such think as a “global village.” No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality. (Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays)

In a speech Berry gave particularly focusing on environmental issues (about which we are also often guilt-tripped), he again points to local solutions to so-called global problems:

“All public movements of thought quickly produce a language that works as a code, useless to the extent that it is abstract…  The same is true of the environment movement. The favorite adjective of this movement now seems to be planetary. This word is used, properly enough, to refer to the interdependence of places, and to the recognition, which is desirable and growing, that no place on the earth can be completely healthy until all places are. But the word planetary also refers to an abstract anxiety or an abstract passion that is desperate and useless exactly to the extent that it is abstract. How, after all, can anybody – any particular body – do anything to heal a planet? Nobody can do anything to heal a planet. The suggestion that anybody could do so is preposterous…  The problems, if we describe them accurately, are all private and small. Or they are so initially.

The problems are our lives.  In the “developed” countries, at least, the large problems occur because all of us are living either partly wrong or almost entirely wrong… The economies of our communities and households are wrong.

The answers to the human problems of ecology are to be found in economy. And the answers to the problems of economy are to be found in culture and in character. To fail to see this is to go on dividing the world falsely between guilty producers and innocent consumers…

Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale. In making things always bigger and more centralized, we make them both more vulnerable in themselves and more dangerous to everything else.

Learn, therefore, to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour.

Make a home.

Help to make a community.

Be loyal to what you have made.

Put the interest of the community first.

Love you neighbors – not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have.

Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us.

As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household – which thrive by care and generosity – and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage.  (Berry, commencement address)

During her lifetime, Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta, said many profound things. When she was asked how to influence the world, she replied, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”  Her answer wasn’t: drop everything and come work with me in the slums of India.  Some people may have that calling, but most do not. She also said, “I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor?”

Christian authors would better serve God’s people by encouraging readers to seek God’s will, to ask “how is God calling ME to serve His people?”  It is discouraging and unhelpful to tell people they should care for the whole world, just like Jesus did — though as a flesh and blood man on Earth, he actually did not.

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