My friend Dallas alerted me to this Op-Ed piece in the New York Times written by Nicholas Kristof, where he asks this compelling question: “If the G-8 leaders are so willing to save one child, why are they collectively so far behind in meeting humanitarian aid pledges to save other children?”
Those of us with friends in nonprofit sectors will find much of this old news. My friend Brad will tell you that if you want people to give to your cause, you have to make it personal, and you have to show them that they are making a very concrete difference. This is not always a bad thing. For instance, I’ve found a number of teaching moments with my children thanks to the magnet photograph we have on our refrigerator of the children we sponsor through ServLife International. I find less compelling reasons for grown adults who could easily pick up a book or in a matter of seconds pull up a host of Internet articles about global poverty. The argument that we have to help adults feel good in order to get them to act brings to mind something akin to dressing up broccoli with cheese tops and zooming it into their mouths with airplane noises.
I suppose I could get over that easily enough. As Kristof argues, we probably could fix much of this problem by simply revisiting the marketing issue with at least the same amount of energy we use when selling toothpaste. I’m sure some PR firm somewhere is more than happy to dress up like a stalk of broccoli for the right price (even if that price is looking charitable, God help us). The more compelling question to me is–Why do we have such a lack of empathy when true crisis confronts us?
A group of us at Journey are currently reading through Jurgen Moltmann’s A Theology of Hope every Tuesday night, so I am once again pondering the great and central role that hope plays in our lives. For Moltmann, eschatological hope is the very essence of being Christian. It is that which allows us to live into the dynamic future of God, always open to new possibilities. As I read this article, I couldn’t help but wonder if our sudden attack of empathy-loss when confronted with the staggering number of children that die of malnutrition every day is not an issue of “feel good” but rather a lack of eschatological hope. We do not feel paralyzed because we cannot find a way to put human faces on the numbers, but because we can no longer imagine making a difference. We give up, because we become convinced that it is a lost cause.
I remember a number of years ago when reading Ronald Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger he mentions a number of popular Christian excuses. The one I found most puzzling was the tactic of quoting Mark 14:7, “The poor you will have with you always.” Apparently, some believe that Jesus relinquished us from the responsibility of working toward eradicating poverty, since Jesus already said we wouldn’t be successful. The early church hardly interpreted it this way, as the first few hundred years of Christianity boasts stories of such radical giving that even pagan historians of the time were compelled by them. And in the broader context of Scripture, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could argue the case that God’s command to care for the poor is not primary. And yet, something about us- at least as Americans, if not simply as humans- zones in on the loophole and finds it acceptable to gloss over the very real call of Jesus to make a significant difference in this world. It is a lost cause, we say. Jesus even said so.
But if these are lost causes–these issues of global poverty and malnutrition and infant mortality and malaria outbreaks and prenatal care for women and proper education-if these are lost causes, how can we claim to have faith in a God who promises to wipe every tear away? How can we hold any sort of belief in a Kingdom where God will be all in all?
If we find our eyes glossing over and our hearts turning numb when we hear the very real statistics of those in the Two-Thirds World, it is not because we lack “feelgood,” lest we let ourselves off the hook far too easily. It is because we lack faith in the God we worship, and we have lost all transformative hope in the promise God has surely given us.