I recently came across an article in Reject Apathy on “Consumer Compassion” or “Compassionism.” It’s a phenomenon that has exploded in the last 10 years or so. Now more than ever, compassion is cool. It’s reflected in our clothing, accessories, bumper stickers, even ice cream. The other day, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “End Routine Infant Circumcision.” Okay, so that didn’t necessarily make the “cool” list, and I’m not sure how worthy the cause, but it seems that every cause has to have a sexy brand, marketing strategy and goods to sell if they want to be successful. The ONE Campaign, TOMS shoes, Warby Parker and even Ben and Jerry’s have helped to make compassion cool.
Before I criticize, I would like to admit that I am guilty as well. We have done our best at Poetice to have a neat little brand and to sell things that people want to buy. I have also been guilty of being indifferent whether or not consumers really care about what they are supporting. Sure, I’d love people to buy product and tell our story, but at the end of the day, ministries like ours NEED MONEY to do what we do. Selling stuff is a great way to help with practical funding needs. I’ve also been the consumer, on occasion, for the specific reason of being hip and relevant. I bought a TWLOHA shirt way before I knew what they were about. I felt a little silly when someone asked and I didn’t know. I’ve compared, copied, coveted—you name it—to get the cred, to raise the funds, to help the poor.
I am also hesitant to criticize organizations that have made such a huge impact on our globe. I don’t know how many children in need are sporting a pair of TOMS, protecting their feet from disease and infection. I do know that there are at least 15, and that’s simply because I personally know at least 15 people who own at least 1 pair of TOMS. Warby Parker provides glasses for children in need. I am on my 2nd “Home Try On Kit” to find a pair for myself. They have distributed way more eyeglasses than we have. Poetice has currently distributed, well…zero eyeglasses. So my criticism is not the work, but how that work affects and involves people.
I have learned the richest lessons in my life from the working poor. I have learned what faith and dependency really look like. I have learned the power of simplicity and the profundity of joy in sorrow. And I have learned these things by entering into the world of the poor. The word compassion literally means to “suffer with,” and true compassion always involves sacrifice. So what is the ultimate goal of compassionate ministry? I would argue: gaining solidarity with the poor.
I am reminded of this every time I read the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12 (By the way, when I Googled “widow’s mite” to find the reference, the first thing that popped up was jewelry…hmm). The Pharisees would pull up at the temple gates with a slam dunk “sacrifice” so that their “money shot” would create a large clanging sound at the bottom of the coffers (#istrugglewithsportsanalogies). Jesus uses the widow, who gives everything that she has (the equivalent of $0.005), to show the power of motives. The Pharisees were guilty of “devouring the widows’ houses.” Wealthy officials would often take the offerings in the Court of Woman and misuse them. On top of that, they would “gobble up” the land of the poor and even charge them for greater offerings, leaving them indebted to the officials who were supposed to care for them. Charity affords us the opportunity to give out of our wealth and continue to live fatty lives—even destructive lives. But true compassion is giving in a way that challenges our individualism, consumerism and greed, which are at the root of the very systems that perpetuate poverty in our world.
I say all this to pose a question to all of us, especially in the faith-based, non-profit sector. Should sustainability based on economics be our ultimate goal in funding the work to which we are called? After all, it’s how we get things done, right? Or is God longing to do something greater in the hearts of the givers? What happens when compassion isn’t cool anymore? What happens when bracelets aren’t stylish anymore? What happens during winter when you’d get frostbite from wearing TOMS in the snow?*
*Scratch that, one of my friends just reminded me that TOMS carries a line of winter-friendly boots.
Well, I met a good friend for the first time at a retreat a couple weeks ago. He is starting a ministry called Meals with a Mission. The idea is simple. Get people together at a meal, bring $10, talk about a need and give. He said that his ultimate goal is to cultivate generous people. So simple, yet so on the mark. Cultivating a spirit of generosity and sacrifice in givers is essential in being compassionate. Unless our western ideals are challenged, only charity will prevail. But let the widow and the Pharisee give side by side, hand in hand, so that we can work together to build the widows’ house, so that we can give with a spirit of compassion and gain solidarity with the poor. This will outlive cool.