We Need More Compassion, Less Government

Compassion is a term that seems to get tossed around with increased frequency these days. We are told to show compassion for Central Americans illegally crossing into the United States and Palestinians being killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza, as well as the poor and suffering in our own communities. But what does it actually mean to be compassionate? Is it simply giving people what they want? Leaving them alone? “Tolerating” them?

I would define compassion as acting in a way that recognizes the common humanity of others. To embrace the Bill Clinton cliché, it involves “feeling their pain”; we have to both suffer with them and endeavor to alleviate their suffering. Compassion is not tossing a few crumbs from the table and saying, “Here is something to you more comfortable down there.” Rather, it is bending down to pick each other back up.

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Compassion is one of the central messages of the Gospel. Christ calls us to serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized—as He Himself did. Christians understand that this obligation extends into the public and political spheres. We have a duty to elect leaders and support policies that promote our values. But Christ’s message was not intended for governments or kings; it was directed at individuals.

Compassion is not a policy. Policies are the means we choose to achieve our ends. Compassion helps shape these ends, and eliminates certain “means” as immoral and unjust, but to arrive at policies that are both compassionate and effective, we need to realize the limits of what government can and should do. Government can impose taxes and then redistribute income in the form of welfare programs, but it cannot embrace the pain of a homeless man, the desperation of a single mother, or the hunger of a needy child. Neither can bureaucracies, those impersonal agencies that reduce real human beings to numbers and statistics as a matter of course. (See the recent Veterans Administration scandal.)

Only individuals are capable of showing true compassion. Only fellow human beings can break down the material distances that separate our bodies—the superficial differences of appearance and circumstance that make some lives seem more worthy than others. We do this when we give freely of ourselves, sometimes with as little as a smile, a hug, or a home-cooked meal.

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I have been overwhelmed with gratitude when people in my family and community have reached out to help me, especially when my son was born with a life-threatening heart defect. But I have never felt this way about government assistance. I have been filled with joy while serving people in my family and community, but never when paying taxes.

Anyone who has ever suffered a serious illness or trauma will tell you that while they needed the experience and expertise of medical professionals, they also needed to be reminded of their basic humanity. The right doctor or nurse can give a patient love and hope, while the wrong one can make them feel less than human, like a piece of malfunctioning equipment on an assembly line.

Very few doctors intend to hurt their patients, yet many do, or we would not have so many medical malpractice lawsuits. Sometimes even well-intentioned policies have the unintended consequences of harming the very people they are designed to help. Foreign aid can prop up corrupt regimes and stifle the development of local economies. Certain welfare programs have been shown to discourage initiative and breed dependency. Opening our borders will invite terrorists and gang members to harm our people and hurt the middle class. Denouncing Israel for defending itself will embolden Hamas to continue their attacks on Israeli civilians and to cynically use their own people as pawns to enflame Anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel around the world.

Typically, the closer we are to someone, the more we will do to ensure their well-being. But we have a responsibility to show compassion even to suffering people in distant lands. Millions of Christians are being killed or forced to flee from all over the Middle East. Since 2003, Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from 1.5 million to 400,000. Just this month, ISIS purged Christians from Mosul whose ancestors have worshiped there for 2,000 years, burning ancient churches and marking the homes of Christians as targets for looting and persecution.

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Yousef Habash, bishop of the Syriac Catholic Church asks, “Where is the conscience of the world? Where is the United Nations? Where is the American administration to protect peace and justice? Nobody has said a word.”

Our government will not speak out until we do. Disasters and crises can galvanize us into action, providing ample opportunities for compassion, but only when we are willing to pay attention to them. Government has an important role in promoting peace and justice, but too many people look first to politics for solutions when they should start by looking in the mirror. Our individual efforts to show compassion are not as limited as our search for effective policies. As Gandhi said, we have to “be the change (we) want to see in the world.”

Pope Francis has shown us how one man’s compassion can inspire millions. When he washes the feet of a Muslim woman and kisses the face of a disfigured man, his actions recognize their common humanity. He reminds us that serving others is an honor and a privilege. What we do for the least of God’s children, we do also for His Son.

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When Pope Francis criticizes the flaws of global capitalism or opposition to immigration, he does so not to advocate for the alternatives of socialism or open borders, but to remind us of our common humanity. Poverty, illness, imprisonment, and war are all conditions that degrade the dignity of the individual. We have an obligation to show compassion to those most in need of being reminded of their worth.

Many on the Left sincerely believe their policies are necessary to help the poor and oppressed in the United States and around the world. They may even see it as their Christian duty to support socialist redistribution and amnesty at home and to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. But certain politicians in America and radicals abroad have found that they can win more support by dividing people against each other than encouraging them to unite with a common purpose. They stifle compassion by dividing us into camps, and in its place grow resentment and contempt.

I have stated before that liberals do not have a monopoly on compassion, and neither do conservatives. Neither do Christians. We are just as prone to sin as anyone else, and in just as great need of God’s grace. Even as we defend our borders, we cannot dismiss illegal immigrants as “parasites.” Even as we denounce Hamas, we must empathize with the victims of violence in Gaza. When it comes to helping others, we can never give enough, serve enough, or care enough.

Compassion does not mean using the powers of government to give each group what it wants. Rather, compassion is reaching out to the suffering and having the courage to stand up for the persecuted. It requires us to see people not as members of racial, religious, or social groups, but as fellow human beings. Compassion means accepting that the responsibility to help others rests primarily with us and not with government.

Claims of Compassion and Racism on Immigration Policy

It was the end of yet another long day. The final bell would ring in less than five minutes. Staving off exhaustion, I leaned back in my chair and listened to the bright young man before me describe his big plans for the future.

“In a few years, I’m gonna have my own business, and we’re gonna to do nothing but concrete. I’m gonna be rich, too.” He wore a North Face jacket and a pair of $200 cowboy boots—a good sign for sure, if money was the goal. He continued, “I’m gonna do it by hiring new people who just got here. I’ll tell them, ‘Five dollars an hour, take it or leave it.’ If they ask for more, I’ll just find someone else that doesn’t have anything.”

This rather callous statement surprised me, not because it showed a lack of business savvy, but because the young man before me was himself an illegal immigrant.

Pablo (not his real name) was charming, smart, and brutally honest. He made no secret about being undocumented, describing in detail to the class how people from Mexico and Central America rode the train—“La Bestia”—to the United States. He told us of the coyotes who smuggled them in—“$10,000 guarantee, $5,000 with some risk”– and how people kept that amount saved up in case they ever got deported. Some turned up again in as little as two weeks.

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I start with this story for two reasons. First, many commentators have already written excellent philosophical pieces analyzing the current border crisis, especially Victor Davis Hanson and Peggy Noonan. If I didn’t begin with my own experience, I’d have nothing new to add. Second, Pablo’s statements to me and my other experiences with immigrant students have led me to some fairly obvious but important conclusions.

Immigrants come to the United States mainly for economic opportunity and political stability, two things usually lacking in their nations of origin. They don’t risk everything they have to enjoy our superior climate or public transportation, often missing their home countries dearly. Economic opportunity depends largely on supply and demand, while political stability rests on respect for the rule of law. Ironically, both of these are undermined by illegal immigration.

This is why immigration policy is so emotional for ordinary Americans—not because the majority of the country is racist, but because we understand that losing control of our borders erodes the very qualities that make us an attractive destination in the first place.

To people who care about national sovereignty, the charge of racism is particularly frustrating, though not at all unfamiliar. The logic of the Left usually goes something like this:

  1. Don’t think employers should have to provide plans covering 100% of their employee’s birth control choices, including abortifacients? You must hate women.
  2. Don’t think the institution of marriage, having anchored human society for the last 5,000+ years, should be redefined to include same-sex couples? You must be a homophobe.
  3. Don’t support the expansion of the welfare state beyond what we can actually pay for? Clearly, you hate the poor.
  4. Don’t support affirmative action (especially as it has been shown to hurt minorities)? Racist.
  5. Don’t agree with President Obama’s policies? See above.

This is not to deny that some people actually are racist, homophobic, and sexist. But in the political arena, these charges are often leveled to halt honest debate and scare potential critics into going along with the Left’s transformative agenda. Having eschewed reason, progressives claim a monopoly on compassion and attempt to discredit all who stand in their way. The race card is their most potent weapon in this task, and they know it.

It is true that in the past our nation’s immigration laws reflected racist fears, most notably the Chinese Exclusion Act. But it is also true that when a three decades-long wave of immigration was cut off during World War I, working class wages rose. In particular, African Americans found new opportunities working in Northern factories.

For most people, concerns about immigration have little to do with race, culture, or language. I’m not the kind of person who gets offended when asked to push “1” for English. I wish I were proficient enough to “oprima numero dos” for Spanish. I would love to see Pablo able to use his talents to enrich Mexico or the United States—whichever he chooses. I love Hispanic culture– the people, the music, the food. We share a passion for soccer and the Catholic Church.

But I am deeply worried about the repercussions of our apparent disregard for the rule of law. As Noonan asks, “Is a nation without borders really a nation at all?” What happens when localities in Texas and Arizona and California are forced to declare bankruptcy because they cannot continue to provide services to illegal immigrants? What happens when Al Qaeda realizes they can send 17-year-old recruits (or people claiming to be seventeen) into our country via Mexico? What happens when the next decomposing corpse of a child is discovered in a Texas desert?

When I first heard about the crisis along our southern border—thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs—my first thought was that it was all so predictable. President Obama made an election-year promise not to deport young illegals, and what do you know—more young illegals show up. The idea that our laws exist but are not enforced is dangerous and will not be limited to immigration. It is this sort of lawlessness many immigrants are attempting to flee.

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The economic side of the coin is troubling too, although its effects may be felt more gradually. Like Pablo’s business plan, it boils down to supply and demand. Companies would rather hire the people willing to do the job for the least pay. When countries are able to regulate the flow of new immigrants, they can ensure that immigration enriches our society and benefits our economy. If not, new immigrants have less incentive to assimilate and their numbers exert downward pressure on wages, especially when unemployment is already high. The groups most affected by this competition for scarce jobs are African-Americans and working-class whites, not the wealthy elites clamoring to be recognized for their compassion.

But all this talk about the long-term political and economic dangers of illegal immigration neglects the most pressing aspect of the present crisis. Children are being killed and maimed falling off of trains. Girls as young as ten and eleven are being raped, nearly a third of all who make the perilous journey. The ones lucky enough to arrive in one piece find themselves herded into overcrowded shelters—we may as well call them refugee camps—where they sit and wait, without parents or any certainty of a safe future. Churches and other religious organizations are being told they cannot help, even banned from donating teddy bears. How can anyone call this compassion?

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Some suggest the answer is just to let anyone into the country who wants to come here. We are told that open borders work. We are told that our government owes just as much to a woman in Honduras who puts her two kids on a train as it does to a factory worker in Pennsylvania or a housewife in Arizona struggling to stay current on their mortgage payments.

America is a compassionate nation. When disaster strikes anywhere around the world, we are the first to offer help. We take seriously the Christian call to charity. We will have to deal with the fact that our government’s lax enforcement of our current immigration laws– encouraged by self-interested business leaders and irresponsible politicians at the expense of the middle class– has resulted in more illegal immigrants living here than ever will be or should be deported.

But for the time being, we have a real-life crisis on our hands akin to an invading army or a Hurricane Katrina. We must act to secure the border immediately using whatever means necessary, including the National Guard. We have to send the message to our southern neighbors that American legal status is not the right of anyone under eighteen who can get here. Children should be returned to the ones best able to care for them– their parents. As the one who issued the executive order halting the enforcement of current law, President Obama should be the one to remind Mexico and Honduras and Guatemala that we are still a country with borders that must be respected. That would be the compassionate thing to do.