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BETRAYED COMMITMENTS: Bill de Blasio (top); HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defending the Affordable Care Act (middle); protesters for retirement benefits in Detroit.
De Blasio: Craig Ruttle/AP • Sebelius: J. Scott Applewhite/AP • Detroit: Paul Sancya/AP
BETRAYED COMMITMENTS: Bill de Blasio (top); HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defending the Affordable Care Act (middle); protesters for retirement benefits in Detroit.

Fake compassion

Government | You cannot sacrifice what isn’t yours

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

The question needs to be asked again and again: Why, when we need a little expression of compassion, do we in such a knee-jerk manner always turn to something as impersonal and soulless as the government?

And why, especially when we’re engaged in gargantuan tussles in the areas of education, medical care, and elder care, do we yearn for sources that by their very nature have hearts of stone? Last week’s news alone included stories of broken promises on all three fronts: New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, arbitrarily cut off support to charter schools. The administrators of Obamacare shamelessly changed major rules governing that embarrassing fiasco. And pensioners in Detroit and Chicago found that their retirement benefits might well be less than half what they had expected. A list of betrayed commitments like those could be compiled for every issue of WORLD, every year.

A “loving government,” in fact, is an oxymoron. Just show us one! Loving or compassionate governments are a contradiction in terms simply because governments have nothing of their own to give. Everything they might promise they must get first from others. No government ever sacrifices.

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Parents can sacrifice. Parents can sit up and rock an infant when they’d rather sleep. They can skip a vacation trip to pay for braces. They can work an extra job to help make college possible.

Teachers can sacrifice. They can stay with you after school to help you understand long division. They can work all day Saturday on a class fundraiser. They can explain things, a little, when your girlfriend breaks up with you.

Doctors and nurses can sacrifice. They can meet you at 1 a.m. to stitch a lacerated chin. Your pediatrician can hang a sign on his office door that says, “GONE TO GHANA TO HELP THE CHILDREN THERE” (as our doctor used to do once every year), and leave a profound message for your children.

Even families can sacrifice. They can double up in their own rooms to free one for Grandpa who just had a stroke and isn’t his old self but would die an early death if put in a nursing home. They can adjust their daily schedules to make loving room for a sometimes-hard-to-understand oldster.

Compassion that is not costly to its giver is no compassion at all. Love that demands nothing of its donor is only a cheap imitation of real love. Such truths, rooted in Scripture, should remind us constantly how empty is any trust that we place in governmental structures.

Try this rule of thumb: The farther you move from the individual orbit, and the closer you move to the big group, the harder it is to find genuine compassion and sacrifice. For almost as soon as we start assembling ourselves in bigger and bigger groups, the more we also start engaging in various kinds of “risk aversion.” Discomforts we were quite ready to endure when we were alone must now studiously and regularly be avoided.

Examples abound. New churches and little churches do their janitorial work on a volunteer basis; megachurches hire sanitary engineering companies. Teachers in one-room schools put Band-Aids on the students themselves; teachers in big schools send kids to the infirmary. Bosses in little companies regularly do things with and for their employees that they tend to quit doing when the payroll extends to hundreds of people.

Bigness, all by itself—not just in government, but anywhere—tends to discourage sacrificial behavior. That happens for a very simple reason. Only individuals, or at best small groups of individuals, actually have the resources needed to engage in sacrifice. You can’t sacrifice that which you don’t own in the first place.

But it’s not enough just to beat up on government and other big entities for trying to do what they’re not equipped to do. We desperately need instead to get busy doing those things ourselves. If the God-intended model is for persons, not super agencies, to wrap their arms around little children and hurting patients and aging parents, then let’s go to it—person by person.

Some will complain that they’d love to get involved—except that the government got there first and is in the way. Or that the government has so drained our resources that we have little to work with ourselves. But such excuses are just that—excuses. The essence of sacrifice is that you’re so consumed with the opportunity that you don’t even notice the things that might be in the way.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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