Justice, Compassion, and Balance: Special Guest Post

I was talking with my dear friend Katy* today, and she has some great thoughts following up on a post from a few days ago on faith and social justice.  (If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading that post now: it will make understanding this one easier.)  With that I’ll turn things over to Katy!

I applaud the social justice post, and it reminds me of a conversation I had with an acquaintance/friend of a friend the other day about the attitudes of different faith-based organizations (FBOs).  The two of us were discussing our interactions with two well-known faith based non-profits (we both work in the DC NGO sphere).  We realized we saw an interesting contrast, not necessarily right versus wrong, but a difference in how the two organizations framed their faith’s relation to their work.  The rhetoric of one is very “justice”-oriented, focusing on what is right, what is equal, and how the world should be.  The other is more compassion-based, attempting to model the love of Christ through our actions towards others.  As I said, neither is right or wrong, and both organizations are effective in implementing lasting change through their faith-based actions.  I believe both rationales have an important place in faith-based work, and contribute to our understanding of how God is calling us to live in the world.  At the same time, I think the hardest part of being active in faith-based development work is finding a balance between our empathy for those less fortunate and our passion for creating a just system to live in.


This is reflected both in the approach of FBOs and in the attitudes of individuals and various factions in the faith community’s attitudes.  For example, I think that a balanced approach is something evangelicals can learn and absorb, as they “come of age” in their newfound interest in the world around them.  On the one hand, some can be overpowered by the deep sadness these situations evoke, or get sucked up in the “warm fuzzies” element of “helping.”  On the other hand, from a more justice-focused perspective, it’s so easy to become so angry at the problems that that becomes the primary motivation. This can be so destructive to the individuals involved, and it can lead to hasty and counter-productive actions where cooler heads would help.


This ties into the larger compassionate conservative/faith-based liberal dichotomy.  It can seem at times that conservatives have all the heart but none of the responsive policies, while liberals have the right solutions but little of the empathy/concern (I think of Mike Gerson versus early Tony Campolo).  Though not exactly the same by any means, these different approaches fuel viewpoints that can become at odds with one another.  HEG put it well in another recent conversation (forgive the g-chat paraphrasing):

Just going from what you said about conservatives and liberals…I think there are different sort of ‘perils’ from either angle (compassion/justice). If you forget about justice, you can over-personalize these issues, making it all about ‘getting your hands dirty’ — like ‘you know you care about AIDS if you’ve spent at least 2 weeks at an African orphanage.’  And if you forget about compassion, you can end up pursuing advocacy or whatever you’re doing from a position of anger rather than love, so you’re more against injustice and those who commit it than you’re for justice and those who need it. Sort of like ‘you know you care about AIDS if you’ve spent at least 2 weeks following politicians around the country and making their lives miserable until they somehow capitulate to you.’

So with all this back and forth, what are we left with?  Individually, I think we need to acknowledge the multiple avenues through which our faith should inform our actions.  The scriptures demand justice and mercy, compassion as well as righteousness.  This will mean stepping out of comfort zones on both sides, for it is not easy to speak truth with love.  On a larger level, we must continually look inward as the body of Christ, checking that how we attempt to serve God’s people is a true reflection of His nature, and not ours.  I am continually amazed at the diversity within the church universal, and we must pray that all these words and actions of ours are seasoned with grace. I’m sorry I can’t get more specific, saying exactly what the “proper” balance is, or how much leeway there is on either end.  The devil is in the details, but that should not give us a pass to just smile and sing cumbaya, or dismiss the others as uncaring.  This is a conversation, a continual dialogue about being the hands and feet of God in a broken world.


– Katy Crosby                

* Katy has already contributed to the blog (here and here) as our beloved Washington Correspondent.  She has been informed that this guest post officially opens the floodgates on future requests for contributions.  Hopefully she’ll be back soon.


~ by h.e.g. on July 22, 2008.

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