Love, justice, and compassion beyond ego

Written by on March 12, 2009 in Faith and Spiritual Life, Notes By The Way with 7 Comments

Jim Palmer is a former pastor who left organized Christian religion and began to discover the reality and fullness of his own faith. He has seen terrible injustices firsthand, including child slavery and forced prostitution. He directed a non-profit in Nashville serving abused and abandoned kids, and he has befriended many homeless and poor people in his community. His own childhood was a story of abuse and abandonment. He has always struck me as a person authentically journeying toward truth and love. I was very struck by something he wrote about compassion and justice awhile ago.

He begins saying, “Increasingly it seems that too often we (at best) are alleviating symptoms instead of initiating the cure, and (at worst) exacerbating the problem, despite our well-intentioned efforts…What follows are some of the things that I’ve been wrestling with. As you will see, I’m not even sure how these below points are all connected or if they are at all…”

With apologies to Jim, this a very long excerpt. Following are seven points that are worth reading and discussing more if you’d like:

1. Technology and the media makes our world a “global village.” Screens everywhere shows us the conditions and crises unfolding in real-time in every corner of the planet. Dramatic images and stories of oppression, starvation, genocide, disease, and every shred of suffering in our world is edited and packaged up in 2-minute segments that fill our screens 24/7. It’s too much to absorb emotionally and practically, and so the massive blob becomes a menu of individual options or areas of interest that we pick and choose from. We pick something from the endless drop-down box, and make it “our issue.” My issue is the environment. I’m into global HIV/AIDS. My thing is animal rights. I’m a clean water kind of guy. I’m a human rights activist. I’m a social entrepreneur, and into micro-loans.

2. We have not always been a “global village.” Until the technology and media came along, people knew very little about what was transpiring beyond the people they were immediately involved with. People were not aware of human crisis and suffering in other parts of the world from where they lived. What they did know came to them much slower (word of mouth/trade routes) and in less dramatic fashion (no images or video footage).

3. Jesus lived in a time as I just described above and not a global village created by technology and media. What this meant practically is that Jesus had very limited options. There was not a drop-down box with options of suffering from which Jesus choose one to be “his issue.” It appears Jesus simply lived his life as it happened and responded to people’s needs as he encountered them along the everyday path’s of life. You don’t find Jesus agonizing over hardship on the other side of the world or organizing efforts to aid distant peoples in desperate need.

4. So, we have this global village continuously invading our lives in dramatic 2-minute segments, each of us has a drop-down box to choose “our issue.” Sometimes, our choice is heavily influenced by how we want to project and manage our identity in the world. Let’s face it, these days being a “social justice” or “green” activist is cool, part of a persona we want to project. But with all the options, we have to package things up properly in order to differentiate between them all. This involves breaking down the specifics of each option into clear and manageable chunks. In doing so we have to create labels to identify groups of people in need (”homeless,” “HIV/AIDS,” “the poor,” etc) and clarify the roles of the people giving and the people receiving. Healthy people aiding diseased people, successful and financially well-off people aiding failed and poor people, educated and resourceful people aiding ignorant and incapable people). We create organizations to establish strategies and systems to efficiently aid people in need, which requires $, which requires telling dramatic and stereotypical stories over and over and over again.

5. Let me give you some examples of the problem. Binyavanga Wainaina wrote an Article entitled, “How to write about Africa.” Part of it reads, “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book…be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed…Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermetic splendor. Or corrupt politicians…Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West…After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people…Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.” I encourage you to read the entire article here.

Some similar ideas are expressed here and here.

6. What I’m wondering is this: Is our “global village” way of options (though it provides an identity outlet to have “our issue,” and makes “compassion” very user-friendly and comfortable, and alleviates symptoms) is it reinforcing and deepening the problem and therefore preventing the real solution? We exacerbate the problem as follows:

  • We reinforce a false identify by labeling people based on what they lack (lack of shelter – “homeless”; lack of health – “HIV/AIDS”; lack of resources – “the poor”; lack of food – “the starving”; lack of equality, safety, dignity – “the oppressed”; etc). All these things are true circumstantially – homelessness, disease, poverty, hunger, oppression – but these DO NOT DEFINE WHO PEOPLE ARE. Generally a person is going to be/live whoever they think (are told) they are.
  • We convey that people in need are separated from what is necessary to address their needs and problems. Here’s how the translation goes: 1) We say, “You lack food, water, shelter, safety, health, education, employment, etc…” The subtle but damning implication often heard is, “You lack what is necessary to resolve this on your own – you’re not smart enough, creative enough, resourceful enough, determined enough, strong enough, intelligent enough, civil enough, caring enough to do this. You need what we have.” Or as the article puts it, “We can save you from yourself. We can save ourselves from our terrible selves. Help us to Oxfam the whole black world, to make it a better place. We want to empower you. No, your mother cannot do this. Your government cannot do this. Time cannot do this. Evolution, it seems, cannot do this. Education cannot do this. Your IQ cannot do this. No one can empower you except us.” Meanwhile, “braindrain” continues happening in which too many people most skilled to solve their community’s problems abandon their country for the U.S.A.

7. What if every person in the world decided to reject the global village model and simply live life as it happened. In other words, a life without options. You live your life, you are presented with a need – you alleviate the symptom as you are capable and reinforce the cure by affirming Truth in the context of a friendship or relationship or community, which would be the normal thing to happen if we live life as it happened. What I mean by “affirming the Truth” is mutually encouraging one another in things like: a.) at the center of my being God and I are one; b.) i am never separated from abundant joy, peace, love, freedom, wisdom, courage, compassion, creativity, determination; c.) you and i are essentially one, and helping you is helping me – if God is my father than you are my brother and we will proceed together accordingly.

What if there were no more “homeless people,” but instead a person named Joe who we come across who is currently without shelter and employment. We discover Joe along the route of our daily lives, and because we have limited our options to pay attention to the Joe’s of our lives, we live out a., b., and c. from the above paragraph. Perhaps your response is, “Easy for you to say Jim. The starving people in Africa could never make it doing this.” My genuine question is, Why? And further, is it because we have thoroughly convinced them that they can’t?

Once again, please hear me heart on this. I am NOT saying that all the world aid efforts, initiatives, and organizations are a waste of time, unnecessary, or contributing to the problem. If I said such a thing, I would be the biggest hypocrite since I myself am involved in such organizations and initiatives. I also completely realize that the idea of everyone in the world living life as it happens, and therefore bonded together in this mutual and determined commitment to one another (which, for example ends “braindrain”) is exponentially idealistic based on the current state of things. Nor am I saying let’s roll back the clock and eliminate technology and media.

So, what do we do? How do we start? How do we work though this big blob in baby steps? Or am I just frickin crazy?! Any ideas?

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Joe

    Andy, I think you can only deal with the issues you have in front of you and wish for a better world. I’d go further than you and suggest that all the campaigning, protesting, marching, letter writing etc we’ve done in the last 10 years has had almost no effect – because the aid system is broken.

    Anyway, I don’t think you should beat yourself up over this stuff. If I had money, I’d support what you are doing – and maybe this is what we need to go back to, a bunch of people hands-on with the poor and a bunch of other people who are unaccountably rich on a world-scale supporting them to do local small actions which really make a difference, bypassing all the red tape and programmes and expensive western charity executives.

  • Just to clarify, the long excerpt is a quote from Jim Palmer. I recommend his blog (linked above).

    And I agree with your response. It’s no use beating ourselves up all the time, and we can love the people in front of us with the collective wisdom we have, and according to the Bible we’ll meet Christ we we’re face-to-face loving those in the greatest need.

  • Good thoughts, Andy. I don’t have any easy notions, but it struck me, in reading you piece, how important “local” life is, but how little attention we pay to it. So even here in America, most people get up, drive away from their local context to their workplace, where they meet up with other people who are doing likewise; then go home and go into their houses. If they have activities, they are scattered all over the place. Plus, as you said, we spend large quantities of time doing, well, doing what I’m doing right now. We live in an apartment in Oakland with lots of refugess in it, and it’s overwhelming to even try and help them with their Medical and Dental issues, much less think about what’s happening in Darfur. What are the causes of this loss of local involvement? I don’t even know a single person on the Oakland City Council. I have no idea of the local political issues for my district. I don’t know what’s what in my neighborhood. These seem to be problems. Just my preliminary thoughts.

  • Sarah Manlove

    What if…

    What if it’s as simple as portraying a blend of reality of our global system within a smaller context. It seems to me that much of what Mr. Palmer has said deals with labeling to cope. A necessary way our brains function, but with the unfortunate side-effect of brain-drain and fitting people we see and hear about into stereotypes, which leads to they themselves seeing themselves as one-dimensional, as indeed we, the observer, see them. Richer portrayals of, for example the naked African in a refugee camp as a man who is an excellent mason, or loving family member who enjoys telling stories, might alleviate some of the labeling, and help us, and those being portrayed get beyond the brain-drain and one-dimensional nature of the 2 minute portrayal. I think alot about how media should change, but have difficulty expressing it. How do you get media on board? I also think the concept of infinite compassion is important here. So often we think there are limits to how much compassion we have, how much energy we have; when both, by drawing up from God as earth and other human beings, are limitless.

  • This is great input. Sorry, I have no time to say more now, but thanks.

  • I would commend Marshall McLuhan’s work on media for thinking about some of these issues. You’ll remember his statement, “The medium IS the message.” Also, Andy, I wrote a short post on aid to Africa on my own page. Check it out.

  • I think McLuhan’s work is brilliant. Thanks — and I’ll check out your post.