“I gave at the office”

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The Danger Of

Institutionalized Compassion

-Warren E. Berkley

Compassion is the sympathetic awareness of the distress of others along with a desire to alleviate it and the corresponding behavior. The short definition is – you care and you respond with whatever legitimate help you are able to give. Compassion is not just a warm emotion, a popular plank in a political platform, the fervor of a cause or the “conscience” of an organization. It is care you have for your neighbor with all that care prompts. Biblical compassion never contradicts the truth and never causes or condones any wrong.

By “institutionalized” compassion I mean, the practice of setting up and maintaining organizations and institutions for the purpose of doing the work prompted by personal compassion. Individuals believe they must show compassion to the deserving needy, but for a variety of reasons, direct personal action is deemed inexpedient, so financial resources are pooled to set up and maintain an organization that does that work. Conscience is thereby soothed.

In favor of this, there is work that requires the oversight and effort of professionals and experts. For instance, I cannot fight cancer in the laboratory, but I can send a donation to the American Cancer Society. We have accepted the role of charitable organizations and we applaud the good outcome. Likewise, there are various functions of governments which require the agency of collective organizations: I cannot fight crime, extinguish fires or provide medical treatment for the poor. I can pay taxes so that government agencies can do that work. Private or public, in our society we have accepted the role of various agencies and institutions.

The problem with institutionalized compassion is, it may indirectly encourage personal apathy and negligence. If I do not carefully monitor my attitude, I can progressively become indifferent and irresponsible in my response to human need. I can develop the almost unconscious assumption that the whole of my duty toward my fellow man is fulfilled through the institutions that receive my donations and taxes.

I cannot recommend that we destroy all such organizations, or that we cease the support we give them (voluntarily or involuntarily in the case of taxes.) In many cases, these organizations do needed work that falls outside the realm of individual endeavor. But …

We must not perpetuate the habit of interpreting what the Bible says to individuals as an argument to build another institution or write another check. And when we read the instructions the apostles gave to local churches, individuals and families – we must observe those distinctions (1 Tim. 5:16). Most important, I must study and pray that I might grow in mercy and compassion toward others. “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who honors Him has mercy on the needy,” (Prov. 14:31). Let it be carefully noted, the person who honors God has mercy on the needy. I must personally take this to heart in my daily behavior, not just in my budget.

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