Archive for the ‘Ministry to the Poor’ Category

Compassion Fatigue

Posted: November 23, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, Ethics, Ministry to the Poor, Missional Thought

Krista Tippett recently interviewed Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.  Kristof has become well-known for his writing about humanitarian crises around the world, and has praised the concern of evangelicals for some of these crises.

Tippett and Kristof discussed compassion fatigue and how Kristof tries to work around it by describing an individual who illustrates the larger issue:

Ms. Tippett: But there’s some way you put that and somewhere you said that the emotional response becomes a portal and then rational arguments like numbers can play a supporting role.

Mr. Kristof: Exactly.

Ms. Tippett: It’s really interesting.

Mr. Kristof: That opening, that connection, that empathy, is really an emotional one. It’s done based on individual stories. And we all know that there is this compassion fatigue as the number of victims increases, but what the research has shown that is kind of devastating is that the number at which we begin to show fatigue is when the number of victims reaches two.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Would you tell the story about Rokia and Moussa, the photograph that they used to illustrate this?

Mr. Kristof: Yeah. This is from the work of a psychologist called Paul Slovic. There were experiences where people were shown a photo of a starving girl from Mali called Rokia, a seven-year-old girl, and asked to contribute in various different scenarios. And then also a boy named Moussa. And essentially people would donate a lot of money. If they saw that Rokia was hungry, they wanted to help her. Likewise, when they saw a picture of Moussa, they wanted to help him. But the moment you put the two of them together and asked people to help both Rokia and Moussa, then at point donations dropped. And by the time you ask them to donate to 21 million hungry people in West Africa, you know, nobody wanted to contribute at all.

Ms. Tippett: Because they’re overwhelmed by that, or it doesn’t spark the same reaction that actually enables people to act. Is that…

Mr. Kristof: Yeah. I think it’s not real. I mean, I think that my job as a journalist is to find these larger issues that I want to address, but then find some microcosm of it, some Rokia who can open those portals and hopefully get people to care. And once that portal is open, then you can indeed begin to put in some of the background, some of the context, some of the larger issues, and hopefully get people to engage with that issue.

The blog for Tippett’s NPR show, On Being (it used to be Speaking of Faith), had a bit more on this phenomenon:

In the non-profit world, some organizations have found success by creating a model around this idea — child sponsorship organizations or Kiva, for example. Microfinance organizations weren’t new, but a model in which one could seemingly loan directly to an individual was. As a result, Kiva exploded onto the American donor scene. Even though in both of these cases donations aren’t going directly into the hands of the recipient, Kiva capitalized on the human instinct to take action to help one person in need. Organizations like DonorsChoose.org have used this same model to fund education projects within the United States.

It is not altogether shocking that we feel more compassion when we have relatable stories. But what stands out in Slovic’s paper is a study in which groups were either given the story of Rokia, a list of statistics, or the story of Rokia combined with more general statistics.

“Donations in response to the identified individual, Rokia, were far greater than donations in response to the statistical portrayal of the food crisis. Most important, however, and most discouraging, was the fact that coupling the statistical realities with Rokia’s story significantly reduced the contributions to Rokia. Alternatively, one could say that using Rokia’s story to ‘put a face behind the statistical problem’ did not do much to increase donations.”

My point here isn’t that more people just need to “do something” and “make a difference” as if all well-motivated actions are equally valuable.  I have some more to write about intelligent, biblical compassion, which I hope to do soon.  But compassion fatigue seems to be a reality that we need to think about too, as well as something in human nature that cries out for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in all of us.

Justin Taylor posted some good resources here by Tony Payne and Tim Chester.

This essay, by both Payne and Chester, pointed out a key difference between evangelism and social action:

Second, social involvement at its best is about harnessing the resources within a community. It is about empowering a community through their participation. The alternative is a paternalistic approach which is short-term, creating dependency in its beneficiaries. In good development, an understanding of the problem and its solutions come from within a community. In contrast, the message of the gospel is that we are powerless and cannot participate in our salvation. Both an understanding of the problem and the solution must come from outside the community. This outside message does not come from western technology, money, expertise, still less from free market capitalism. It comes from heaven. This is one reason for the emphasis in John’s Gospel that Jesus is ‘from heaven’.

The essay also came to a good conclusion:

If we see social involvement as an expression of Christian godliness, in response to the character of God, the reign of God and the grace of God—which we suggested in Part I is the best way to think about it—then the relationship between evangelism and social involvement is not so fraught or so complicated.

Jesus sends us out into the world to ‘make disciples’. With this in mind, the two key questions are:

  1. How do we make disciples? We make disciples through the prayerful proclamation of the gospel of Christ, in dependence on the Holy Spirit to make the message effective.
  2. What does it mean to be a disciple? We teach disciples to obey all that Christ has commanded, including the command to live in kindness, generosity, love and active concern for those around us.

Don Carson considers this question, ending with these reflections:

Still, we returned again and again to this pointed question: Granted that we ought to be engaged in acts of mercy, what safeguards can be set in place so as to minimize the risk that the deeds of mercy will finally swamp the proclamation of the gospel and the passionate desire to see men and women reconciled to God by faith in Christ Jesus and his atoning death and resurrection?Two stood out.

First, it is helpful to distinguish between the responsibilities of the church qua church and the responsibilities of Christians. Some writers flip back and forth between references to “Christians” and references to “church” as if there is no difference whatsoever. But many Christian thinkers, from Kuyperians to Baptists, have argued that if the church qua church is responsible for some of these substantial works of mercy, such works of mercy ought to come under the leaders of the church. It is very difficult to find any warrant for that step in the New Testament. Even before there were pastors/elders/overseers, the apostles themselves, according to Acts, recognized that they should not be diverted from the ministry of the Word and prayer, even by the inequities of food distribution among the faithful, so they saw to it that others were appointed to tackle the problem. Ministers of the gospel ought so to be teaching the Bible in all its comprehensiveness that they will be raising up believers with many different avenues of service, but they themselves must not become so embroiled in such multiplying ministries that their ministries of evangelism, Bible teaching, making disciples, instructing, baptizing, and the like, somehow get squeezed to the periphery and take on a purely formal veneer.

Second, one pastor astutely urged, “Preach hell.” Two things follow from this. (1) By adopting this priority we remind ourselves that as Christians we desire to relieve all suffering, from the temporal to the eternal. If we do not maintain such a panoramic vision, the relief of immediate suffering, as important as it is, may so command our focus that we fail to remind ourselves of Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world yet forfeit your soul?” Read the closing lines of Revelation 14 and Revelation 20 when your vision becomes myopic. (2) As long as you are prepared to plead with men and women to be reconciled to God and to flee the coming wrath, you are preserving something that is central in the Bible, something that is intimately and irrefragably tied to the gospel itself—and those who want to shunt such themes aside and focus only on the relief of present suffering will not want to have much to do with you. Thus you will be free to preach and teach the whole counsel of God and to relieve all suffering, temporal and eternal, without being drawn into endless alliances in which people never focus on anything beyond threescore years and ten.

Tim Keller explains how the gospel motivates and informs ministry to the poor in this Themelios article.