Tis the season to be ostentatiously charitable. Behold the following press release: "Orlando, Fla.-(Business Wire)-Albertson's Food & Drug stores Wednesday announced that it has partnered with The Pillsbury Company and America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest domestic charitable hunger-relief organization, to donate three truckloads of food to the Orlando area. The Pillsbury Doughboy® and Green Sprout™ will be on hand to celebrate."
Other food companies and individuals are being similarly generous. The months of November and December are the best eating times for the homeless poor. This is good news insofar as it reflects the love of neighbor that we are to have. As Augustine wrote over 1,500 years ago, "Whoever seems to himself to have understood the divine Scriptures in such a way that he does not build up that double love of God and neighbor has not yet understood."
The nagging question in my mind, though, is whether many of us whom God has blessed treat homeless folks as human beings, or as pets. The philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev once wrote, "Where there is no God, there is no man." Some leaders who know that God is real have, over the past decade, radically transformed their charitable programs so as to be fishers of men rather than feeders of those viewed as sub-human.
Linda Lipa works at the Sunshine Mission, a good homeless shelter in St. Louis. She remembers the Mission's experience in handing out turkey baskets to all comers before Thanksgiving: "Some people lined up to get a turkey, then went to gas stations and sold them for drug money. Now people have to be in the program and attending weekly classes for three months to get a turkey. That has dramatically reduced the numbers, but it's more effective."
Herb Lusk, pastor of a large inner-city Philadelphia church, hands out turkeys to the needy only in conjunction with a worship service and other church activities. Early in this decade, Broadway Community Church in New York City downsized but deepened its program, helping dozens to move out of poverty rather than enabling hundreds to stay in it. The Tulsa Cornerstone Assistance Network advertises the involvement of churches in its program of "Comprehensive Compassion."
Where there is no God-or so it is thought-we can treat people merely as material bodies needing food in their bowls. When we know that God reigns, the stakes are higher. In 1989, compassion was a word used by secular liberals to promote governmental spending. In 1999, some on the left still use it that way, and some on the right still scorn the word as one suggesting weak sentimentalism, but compassion has in part been reclaimed as a biblical expression that can pump iron.
We plant seeds and water a little, but God gives the increase. We're hitting this fall the 10th anniversary of a project I started on in the fall of 1989; others have been doing parts of it longer, keeping the faith through some dark days. The project has been the reclamation of compassion-word and concept-as a primary expression of biblical conservatism. The idea, a longshot in 1989, received a little support in 1992, a lot more in 1995, and is now the most distinctive campaign proposal of the leading Republican contender for the presidency.
Lots of people have been involved in this, and my own part has been small, but I'm grateful for God's kindness in prospering this movement.
How improbable is it that we've come to this point? Back in 1989, lecturing at the Heritage Foundation about how to make compassionate conservatism a real alternative to the failed liberal variety, I waxed goofy at the end:
"I've enjoyed staying late at the Library of Congress and learning about what compassion used to be. When I come out of the building, and it's dark, I can look to the left, towards the Capitol, and see the ghost of false compassion past, sniffing self-righteousness. I can look to the right, to the gentrified ghettos of Yuppiedom, and see the 1980s ghost of anti-compassion present, sneering with contempt. But I also can look out straight ahead, toward a terrain with dimensions still uncharted, and maybe I see, faintly, the 1990s ghost of true compassion future. I hope you can see it, too."
As we slouch toward the first decade of the next century, that ghost is coming into sight. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.