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The Danger of Misplaced Pity

June 12th, 2008 | 3 min read

By Tex

I have often found myself banging my head against the wall in frustration with the profligate waste of youthful energy exhibited by groups like Rock the Vote, Green Peace, and other groups that take on grave global issues which, if not obviously immoral are at least examples of injustice or a shriveling of human potential or assault on human dignity. It is fairly easy these days to generate a great deal of righteous indignation over tragic instances of injustice around the world.

The last few generations of students have been bombarded with images of starving Ethiopian children, violently battered Middle Eastern women, and prematurely “experienced” child prostitutes. Christian mission agencies, non-governmental organizations and lobbies, international charities, and multitudinous U.N. committees have worked hard to expose Western youth to harsh realities in far corners of the world, and have become experts at whipping up a frenzy of outrage mingled with pity before quickly passing the basket for donations or soliciting life investments from young people to join the army of aid-workers around the world.

While some might decry the use of images and instances of suffering to fundraise as grossly disrespectful, such tactics have resulted in raising awareness of global tragedies and prompting legions of people to begin thinking about and addressing these issues. The tactics might be insensitive but the greater error is in the misuse of the youthful energy drawn into these causes. More often than not, charitable groups (and Christian groups are sometimes as guilty of this mistake) are really good and arousing pity but really bad at providing solutions. There is often a tacit assumption that any action arising out of compassion or concern is good, simply because it comes from a good intention. However, it’s not only the road to hell that is paved with those sorts of intentions. The road to national destruction and oppression is laid with a similar sort of brick.

In his lecture on the myths Christians (and other do-gooders) believe about wealth and poverty, Dr. Jay Adams, highlighted the rise of child prostitution in Thailand as being directly related to the noble attempts of many Western groups to end child labor around the world. It is generally accepted by most people of goodwill that it is better for children to spend their childhood being children, going to school, and bearing responsibilities commensurate with their maturity and station in life. However, sometimes it is the case that economic necessity dictates that children forego these benefits in order to survive. While a carefree childhood is a great good, it is impossible to live such a life if basic human needs are not being met. So, in countries that have not attained high levels of wealth it becomes necessary for children to bear the burden of providing for their families alongside their parents.

A host of rather short-sighted mercy ministries were pricked in their conscience when they learned of the often difficult and dangerous environments children in poor countries live and work. The compassion and pity they felt when discovering that hosts of children were working in factories that placed their lives and limbs in jeopardy is commendable. The tragedy is that these groups felt little need to explore the complex issues at play which forced children to work in such deplorable conditions, instead jumping to implement one possible solution: mandate a reform of labor law that made it illegal for children to work in certain workplaces.

To the credit of these groups, they were able to largely reduce, if not completely shutdown, the child labor work force in Thailand. What they lamentably were not able to do was address the root economic problem that had driven the children to work in the first place. Since work was not legally available but families still needed money, there was a spike in the number of children working in brothels. This tragic story simply underscores the fact that compassion and pity—good intentions—do not necessarily result in good effects. What is needed is thoughtful and deep analyses of the various injustices and deplorable conditions suffered by many around the world to match the energy and activity of so many Westerners desiring to do something worthwhile with their lives, talents, and resources. Such thought requires a great deal of mundane study and research and cannot be easily marketed in 30 second MTV sound bytes; however, the labor which true and effectual love requires forces an examination of one’s own motivations for seeking to do good in the first place. The emotionally-charged individuals without a deep desire to work real change will be winnowed out through the necessary difficulties imposed upon them by their existence in a material and temporal world, allowing those truly pious and dedicated to rise to the top and accomplish the tasks they have set themselves to—if only the misplaced pity of the short-term social workers isn’t allowed to stand in the way of the true solutions.