Zero Sum Compassion

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Lord willing, this will be the second of four posts. In the last of them I want to restate and expand an apology that I offered to Thabiti in the course of our exchanges. Because I would like that apology to do as much good and make as much sense as it possibly can, I want to set the stage for it first. Please bear with me.

With this post, I want to begin with my conclusion, and then work backward toward the problem. If we want to undertake the perilous task of working toward racial and ethnic harmony, I want to submit that we must do it by means of a radical God-centeredness. So I want to begin there, and then work back to some of the stumbling blocks that keep us from appealing to such a God-centeredness. As a consequence, these stumbling blocks also prevent us from actually getting anywhere. Our labors at racial harmony are often like that woman in the gospels — the more the physicians treated her, the worse it got.

This world has been a world full of tears. The histories that could be written of outrage, oppression, treachery, cruelty, hatred, malice, torture, genocide, slavery, and rape, are histories that could fill many volumes. Not only so, but I don’t believe that anyone of us is capable of reading them all with any kind of true comprehension, and a true attempt would crush us.

But the grace of God is much greater than the sin of man. Scripture promises that in Christ every last one of these wrongs will be put right. Only in Christ will this happen, but in Christ it will happen completely. The promise is this: God Himself will dry every tear. He has stored up all the tears of all His saints in a bottle (Ps. 56:8), and He has never lost track of any. He catalogs them all. We lose track almost right away, but He never does.

He will not just dry the most recent tear we shed, or the tears we happened to be shedding when the world ended, but rather He will right every wrong, dry every tear, set every bone, and heal every wound. Nothing will be left out or left over. We are called to believe this by faith — and I believe that if we do, it will shape every work in a cruciform mold.

“And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev. 7:13-17).

“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

This destination is where human history is going, and in the midst of our tears, this can be difficult for us to see. But what we cannot do, God in fact can do. And what God can in fact do, He has promised to do in His Son, our Lord Jesus. Now, how might we tell when we are starting to forget this? This is an important question because we stumble at this point quite a lot.

Our emotions, just like the rest of us, are finite. They have limits. The horrible things that go on in the world in the course of just one evening, in just one big city, are enough to cause us outrage overload. The weight of this world’s horrors cannot be carried by us. I believe this is the case even if we were not thinking of individual instances, but rather of just the categories — rapes, molestations, murders, and so on.

We cannot carry everything, but God still insists that we carry something. We are to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). God wants us to be a neighbor to those who suffer without aspiring to the position of a god in the lives of those who suffer. And in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus defines “neighbor” as the one in front of us right now.

In order to explain how this works, I first have to explain the idea of a zero sum game. This phrase means that when a particular resource is limited, it occurs to everyone (sooner rather than later) that more for him means less for me. If the size of the pie is fixed, then if he gets a bigger piece of it, then somebody else will have to take a smaller piece. This concept is usually appealed to when we are talking about wealth, and economics, and in my attacks on envy I have often discussed it elsewhere under that heading. But it applies to things like human compassion also.

When particular horrors occur, God calls His saints to minister in the midst of the suffering. It might be a natural disaster, like a tornado taking out a town, or the result of human evil, as when somebody shoots up an elementary school.

Only one part of the Body of Christ is there, but all of God is there. The omnipresence of God is not like pie dough, where the farther you spread it, the thinner it is. No, the doctrine of God’s omnipresence means that all of God is in every place. But He particularly manifests His presence through the hands, feet, and voices of His people, placed there to minister in His name.

Now all of God can be with us, but all of us cannot be with God in every other place. We can tell that we have started to slip when we start to think we can, and when we start to blame others for not being where we are. Here is the tell-tale sign. We are starting to slide when we start to judge our brother’s motives by whether or not he experiences the same gut response of reactive compassion to the outrage we are assigned to deal with. But a Christian nurse in Romania who has dedicated herself to caring for abandoned orphans with birth defects may never have heard of Roe v. Wade. She doesn’t need to.

We tend to think there is only so much compassion to go around, and more of it over there (expended on the abortion cause) must mean less of it over here (with our cause). The fact that we can fall into this does not mean that our cause (whatever it is) is illegitimate. But it does mean that I can give all my money to the poor, and wind up with nothing in my heavenly account anyway (1 Cor. 13:3).

Imagine two Christians, both fighting the kind of heartache that God hates. One is fighting poverty in the inner city and the other is fighting an abortion clinic in a wealthier part of the state. There is the obvious problem of physical resources, which every ministry fundraiser has had to deal with — any number of legitimate and God-honoring ministries are seeking support from the same givers, from the same donors. And it is easy to think that more for “them” means less for “us.”

But I am speaking here of the emotional resources. There are Jews who hate it when the abortion carnage is called a holocaust. There is only one holocaust, and their great grandmother died in it. In the conversation with John Piper the other night, I said that abortion is “our middle passage.” This could be heard (but was not intended to be heard) as minimizing the horrors of the historical middle passage. When I talk this way, someone could hear me saying that there could be two — but when a horror is unique, there cannot be two. How could there be two?

Moreover, by trying to get Christians to fully engage their emotional response to the abortion bloodbath — because our emotional resources are limited — I might be seen as taking away, or “minimizing” the other horrors that other Christians (really) are called to address. Let’s say the Gosnell outrage caused greater focus on how the ghouls prey on black children in urban areas. When this happens, we should simply thank the Lord, recognizing that this is a good thing. We can do this, even though some attention might be taken away from other good causes, and even though some of the people organizing this newest effort might be classed as “operators.” I think it was Eric Hoffer who said something like “first a movement, then a business, then a racket.”

This has happened in pro-life circles, and it has happened in the arena of race relations. It complicates the work of racial harmony enormously. It always complicates everything. As I look out at the racial landscape, I do see wise pastors like Thabiti. But I also see the Sharptons and the Jacksons — the racebaiters and hustlers. Then in the middle, I see sincere believers who are more affected by the hustlers than perhaps they ought to be. How is it possible to speak as to be clearly understood by all? As far as the hustlers go, it is not possible. How can you persuade a man whose livelihood depends upon him remaining unpersuaded?

I believe that we are in this difficult place because we have not submitted to the God-centeredness I mentioned as I began. If intoxicated by His glory, then I will not fume if I meet a black man who has not experienced the indignities that his grandfather suffered daily, and his father experienced regularly — I will take it as real progress, and not a sign that he is a Tom. If submissive to the great promises of God, then we will not resent those who hate injustice, even if they hate it, and fight it, in a different place in the line.

I have argued that American history is a long and complicated three dimensional chess game, and we are being forced into appalling choices today because we weren’t thinking clearly fifteen moves ago. Many of us are not thinking clearly now. This may not make sense when someone first hears me trying to explain this, but please hear me out. How is it possible for the vast majority of African American Christians to have supported President Obama the second time, a man who is the most radically pro-abortion president we could possibly have, and to do this when the disproportionate number of his victims are black infants facing their own middle passage alone? How were they maneuvered into this complicity? For it is complicity, and it requires repentance. The God who catalogs the tears is not overlooking the tears of these His little ones.

And this is why this extended argument is necessary. When I say that this outrage now is something we must turn away from in repentant disgust, I am in no way trying to minimize the outrages that our great grandfathers should have turned away from. And if we think our great grandfathers should not have had such a hard time repenting, then maybe we should demonstrate for everybody how simple and easy it is.

I am finite, and cannot fight evil everywhere. But I can reject it everywhere, and be preparing my heart to shout the amen when the Almighty God tears the sky open and comes down to put everything to rights. He will do so, and as this world groans, longing for the Lord’s coming, we who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan also.

Wickedness committed in the past is never a license for us to give way to wickedness now. In Canto 33 of the Inferno, Dante tells a chilling story about a damned soul named Ugolino. He is in the lowest pit of Hell, where he is spending eternity gnawing on the brain of the man who murdered him. That man was Archbishop Ruggieri, and he killed Ugolino and his young sons by starving them all to death in a tower. As Dante tells the story, your heart really goes out to Ungolino and his sons. The way they died was a true horror. And then the story ends . . . with Ugolino in Hell, locked up in the tower of his own bitterness forever and ever. Dante is a master poet in how he tells us this story. When Ugolino woke up in the prison, he heard his sons sobbing in their sleep, asking for bread. Then when he hears the door of the tower being nailed shut, he says, “I did not weep, I turned to stone inside.” But what father, when his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone instead (Luke 11:11)?

What then is our duty in this? It is to say amen beforehand to what God is going to do, when He deals with all of it, and we do this by behaving with a heart of true compassion toward our neighbor. And we cannot play dumb, wondering who our neighbor is — that will become vividly clear the moment the clarion trumpet goes.

There is only one place in the New Testament where God’s people cry out, “Alleluia!” That place is where the people of God are looking at the smoke of the Great Babylon, rising up forever. “And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3). One of the things that this Babylon was noted for was her great ability in merchandising the souls of men (Rev. 18:13).

Every slave ship. Every abortion clinic. Every ankle chain. Every saline injection. Every kidnapping. Every ethnic cleansing. Every concentration camp. Every kangaroo court. Every church burning. Every rape room. Every dungeon pit. Every tear.

The smoke from her goes up forever and ever. Alleluia.

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9 years ago

Excellent post.   The history of the world is certainly full of tears and offenses.  The memory of them is like a printing press for a currency of guilt that runs the economic system of our day.  Imagine how it would honor my great grandfather and grandmother to research and resurrect the horrors they endured!  I can increase my wealth of precious victimhood in their name.  Yet who am I really honoring?  Whose image is on those notes?  Did my ancestors leave me no other heritage besides their suffering?   This economy of offense is a true zero sum game. … Read more »

Ryan Sather
Ryan Sather
9 years ago

I would say, if one says an issue is of critical importance (“racial reconciliation is not a game”) then I would assume they are saying in that instance that it is an issue they have decided to put emotional energy into.
It’s not, “you have to care about what I care about”. It’s “if you are going to claim an issue is important to you and you care about it, then you need to really care about that issue.”

John C.
John C.
9 years ago

Wow.  That was good.  Thank you.