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Spring Edition
Volume 99, Number 4

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The politics of compassion (continued)


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Today the work of compassion continues. Consider the ministry of Rick Warren, the pastor of an evangelical mega-church and best-selling Christian author. He uses his fame and wealth to fight poverty, disease, and illiteracy around the world, especially in Africa. Rich Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals and one of the questioners at The Compassion Forum, has tackled climate change. His activism draws heated rebukes from the leaders of the Christian Right, but Cizik refuses to back down from his conviction that Christians have a responsibility to care for God’s creation. Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof regularly praises the work of evangelical relief agencies in Darfur. He has also suggested that Christianity is behind democratic protests and human rights initiatives in China.

While Christians should certainly rejoice when government officials promise to tackle issues such as disease, poverty, climate change, abortion, and torture, the history of compassion also reminds us that politics is limited in its capacity to deal with these problems. Clinton and Obama offered some useful faith-based proposals for addressing these concerns, and I am sure John McCain will eventually offer solutions of his own, but as Christians we should avoid the temptation to leave the work of compassion solely to politicians.


Perhaps we need a healthy dose of pessimism about what politics can accomplish. Can government help us to bring meaningful reform to the problems that ail us? Of course it can. But government will always fall short when it comes to satisfying the deepest longings of the heart or sustaining the types of communities that allow human beings to flourish. We should challenge our civic leaders to act faithfully as they serve us in government. As Christians, we should not be ashamed of bringing our deepest convictions to bear on public life. Yet we must also remember that politics can never be redemptive.

Compassion should be at the very core of how we practice our faith in the world regardless of who happens to sit in the Oval Office. It transcends parties and ideologies. Compassion is best exemplified by a love for our neighbors that stems from our love for God. It is best practiced in the local communities where we live — those real places where we know our neighbors well enough to respond to their needs. And compassion is not a one-way street. To live a compassion-filled life means that we must be vulnerable and humble enough to realize that we may one day, perhaps sooner than we think, need to be the recipient of compassion from others. This, amid all the presidential promises of hope and change, is the life together that we are called to seek with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

John Fea, associate professor of American history

— John Fea is associate professor of American history. He writes frequently about the intersection between religion, history, and American politics. He is also the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

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