Vinoth Ramachandra

Compassion or Justice?

Posted on: July 7, 2012

I mentioned in my last post Aung San Suu Kyi’s warnings against “compassion fatigue” in the case of rich nations’ support for her country, Burma. In my experience, most of those working in government aid agencies, non-governmental relief and development organizations (NGOs) – whether “secular” or “religious”- see their work with the poor as doing charity, stemming from compassion. Hence, “compassion fatigue” is a real possibility, and reinforced when the donors themselves have to tighten their belts in harsher economic times.

Some Western writers, most notably Rousseau, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, drew attention (in very different ways) to the manner in which compassion reinforces the shame that the poor experience, and often leads to paternalism,  dependency and feelings of mutual resentment.

There is a long and venerable Christian tradition that speaks of justice for the poor. Justice has to do with rights. Justice is present in social relationships insofar as people are enjoying what they have a right to. When people do not enjoy those goods to which they have a right, they are wronged. And these rights stem from the intrinsic worth of men and women created in the image of God and provided for bountifully out of his fertile earth.

Jesus and the biblical prophets did not think of rendering assistance to the needy of the world in terms of charity but in terms of justice. Yes, there are those who are poor because of their own idleness or misfortune. Yet most are victims of injustice, and rendering justice to them requires dismantling the social and economic structures that promote exclusion, exploitation and oppression. But, whether “deserving or “undeserving”, it is need that constitutes the poor person’s right to be treated with respect by his or her fellows. To fail to meet that need, when we have the resources to do so, is to wrong that person.

As far as I am aware, the centrality of “justice for the poor” in the biblical and patristic writings is unique. You will not find the poor in discussions about justice in Plato, Aristotle, Kautilya, Mencius, Lao Tze, Locke or Kant. As I wrote in Chapter 3 of my book Subverting Global Myths (2008): “Unlike the Western republican tradition that puts the citizen (historically, male and property-owning) at the centre of the polis, the Christian biblical tradition, especially as it has been recovered in our day in Latin American liberation theology, gives ultimacy to the poor. This follows naturally from the recognition that life is our most basic right. The poor are all those whose life is vulnerable, threatened, and denied. And this ultimacy of the poor appears in God’s declared partiality toward them. Thus there is a rich vein of thought in the Biblical writings that champions the rights of the poor. For instance, ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ (Prov.31:8-9). The right to life implies access to the resources that sustain life. To speak of the poor as having rights to sustenance implies that what we owe them is not simply charity but justice.”

Justice is the fundamental calling of governments. The biblical picture of the ideal king (e.g. Psalm 72) is of one who renders justice to the afflicted and downtrodden. Interestingly, even the healing ministry of Jesus is seen by Matthew as not merely expressing compassion, but as the fulfilment of the Messianic promise of justice realized (see Matt 12: 15-20). Justice restores human beings to a state of flourishing.

All this is deeply relevant to the debates taking place today, in Asia and Africa, as much as in Europe and North America, about the responsibilities of government. Churches and NGOs are often unwitting instruments in the hands of those governments who want to abdicate their responsibility to their poor citizens (and, indeed, the poor elsewhere who are affected by their policies). Governments would rather have the churches and NGOs alleviate the social discontent arising from their misplaced priorities. Alleviation we should do, but not at the price of silent complicity in those policies.

Whenever Christians unthinkingly join the right-wing protests against “welfare cheats” (a miniscule number in comparison with the number of rich folk and companies who steal from public funds), argue against government economic regulation (in the name of “minimal government” which, in practice, is government that gives charity in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and bail-outs to the wealthy and powerful), or speak of poverty as if it were simply a matter of individual choice, even their private charity (however sincerely motivated) may be cementing the walls of injustice in the world. Should they not be returning to their Bibles and delving more deeply into the Christian tradition that they profess?

Furthermore, should our churches and organizations be accepting aid for the poor from those who may be perpetuating injustice through their daily work and who refuse to speak up for the poor in their own contexts?

16 Responses to "Compassion or Justice?"

This post came at a timely moment for me. I find myself surrounded by Christians who energetically affirm right-wing platforms as reflecting biblical values, by others who have withdrawn completely from political discourse rather than face the fury of those they disagree with, and by yet others who insist that politics and faith have little to say to each other.

I appreciate your firm statement that “justice is the fundamental calling of governments.” I’ve been struck lately at the many prophetic references to God’s judgment of nations. It’s very clear that that judgment is directly related to how well we care for the poor and oppressed, and how willing we are to cry out for justice.

I quoted you extensively in my own blog post this morning: Struggling to Proclaim Good News. As a Christian in the US, I find my witness consistently undermined by the assumptions of others about who Christians are and what we stand for. It’s hard to share the good news of Christ with people who hear daily of an exclusionary, militaristic, very angry God.

i wonder whether there is another alternative to compassion or justice – namely friendship.

i agree that compassion or charity so described – which i think is an accurate description of the prevailing attitude – is, in the long term, pernicious and serves to reinforce disparity. however, i would also argue that justice conceived in terms of rights is also ultimately compromised.

justice is inexplicably linked to a vision of the good life, which in turn is only comprehensible within a tradition. There is no intelligible concept ‘of justice’ without an attendant history. So to conceive justice fundamentally in terms of ‘rights’ is to capitulate to modern political liberalism with its foundational view of the human person as an autonomous independent property owning self. (this, of course, is only a crude restatement of macintyre, o’donovan, hauerwas etc) of course this is not to decry the important work of human rights activitsts (and from my privileged place, how could I even think of doing so!), but simply to say that this is a less than Christian response and one which is ultimately doomed to failure (of course governments etc will be hypocritical, of course they will listen to vested interests at the expense of the poor).

i would suggest that recovering the traditional view of charity in terms of virtue and friendship might be a way forward out of this impasse. Recasting relationships previously determined by market metaphors – like ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’, ‘poor’ and ‘developed’ – in terms of friendship would safeguard the need for justice without building on the assumptions of modern liberalism and also to open up a rich seam of properly theological reflection (e.g. to be human is to be able to give and receive gifts). the church might then begin have a distinctive voice and ethic that is not co-opted by the market.

Chris, I tried to point out in my post that the language of “rights” is thoroughly biblical and we must not follow those writers you quote (Hauerwas et al) who can only see it as an expression of liberal autonomy. Rights are not individualistic, they are normative social relationships. Even friendship presupposes the rights of the other (e.g. to privacy or to disagree with me). And I don’t see how friendship can be applied to institutions. We cannot address poverty and injustice through personal relationships alone.

For a fuller exposition of my position, I would suggest you read Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Also, there is an exciting series of books being published by the Centre for Law & Religion at Emory University which has helped to recover the centrality of rights discourse (including natural human rights) in the Church’s social teaching since the 12th century.


I am an immigrant to the USA who lives, works and ministers in the suburbs of a large mid-western city. Thank you for this article. It has provided me another tool to help re-frame my church’s dialog concerning their actions in “global missions”.

I would be interested to know what you would say to the Suburban North American Church that is not only isolated from global matters of justice and aid but also frequently isolated from issues thin the church community?

thanks vinoth – i did enjoy wolterstorff’s book but found hauerwas’ critique pretty compelling.

i would be interested to know how your view of justice intersects with your view of the cross and resurrection…

(again none of this to call into question the work of human rights activists. i myself worked for a human rights organization for a while. i’m just wonder if there is a specific view of justice in the light of jesus’ life, death and resurrection and our life as the church)

Thank you, thank you, thank you for speaking out, Vinoth. I feel like, living in America with American conservative Christians at every turn, i’m part of a losing battle. Just subdued by insanity and justified selfishness. Thank you, again.


Thank you so much for this much needed essay. It’s absolutely spot on. I sincerely hope the next time you visit the U.S. that you would consider coming to Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary where I work. Our school has numerous professors who are VERY sympathetic to the vision you’re describing. I’m going to forward this piece to several of them and I’ll speak with them personally about possibly inviting you to speak the next time you’re out this way.

Blessings, John W Brandkamp

Chris, Wolterstorff answers your question in chs. 4 & 5 of his book (which includes his argument against Hauerwas).

Dennis, a big question. Difficult to answer without knowing what issue or issues you have in mind? please explain further.

John, I am pleasantly surprised to learn that Gordon-Conwell is no longer staidly conservative (we have had that impression hitherto). My next visit to the US is not till late September 2013, to give the McClure lectures at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Could plan to stay in the US until mid-October.

have read all your articles and they are all great. congratulations for hard work on this website.

This is a very compelling question, one that I try to live out as I recently moved to an urban city in CA for the purpose of seeing God’s kingdom advanced here, in a place of great wealth juxtaposed with great poverty. I also work for a social policy company, so I think about this topic a lot. Do you have any examples of the unjust policies that you describe here? Or any examples of just policies that we should be supporting, whether in the US or where you live?

Jane, you will find a number of examples if you scroll through past Blog posts of mine.

I wonder what this means for places like Zimbabwe. If I’m reading you right, “charity” would be feeding and clothing the poor, while “justice” would be ensuring that life and property rights are being protected. Does this mean Christians should focus more on overthrowing Zimbabwe’s evil government than on other acts of charity that don’t address the system that is in place there?

Grover Jones, you’re thinking of Justice according to NeoConservatism…

Thank you for the article Vinoth.

I appeciate the thoughtful reflections on the role of governments and the church. However I think you have erred in defining what our government should be like when the foundation of our government is fundamentally different from tribal or monarchic Israel. There is little comparison between a theocracy and a representative form of government. Whether during nomadic Israel, the time of the judges, monarchic Israel, or under the yoke of the Roman empire, the Israelites struggled to find rulers who were not corrupt, self-serving, and even persecuting the prophets of God. How much worse is it when our society lacks the same biblical foundations at its core and new reflects Babylon more so than the city of God? How can we hope and expect our government to then reflect the justice of God and the compassion of Jesus?

We have hope for justice in the here and now, but more importantly and most certainly in the time to come.

History suggests that the role of government in relieving financial poverty has been limited to the last century. Heretofore it has been Christians and religious institutions that have cared for the poor. Quite sadly, Christians have abdicated that responsibility, partly for its own theological decay in the last few hundred years and partly because of the rise of statism. I have no issue with pointing out deficiencies in some of the failings of modern, western Christianity, but also caution the criticism of Christians who have a healthy distrust of an ever increasing secularization of society and government. Poverty in America is more cultural and spiritual that a true lack of material needs. This has left us with a government which poorly reflects the justice of God much less the compassion of Jesus, often employing envy more than other sins to accomplish political ends.

In closing, I beieve the church should pour out its heart to the poor. Just as early Christians were able to relieve poverty even under the yoke of the Roman empire, so we should do likewise, even in the heart of modern Babylon, reflecting not the values of its society, but contradistinctively, those of the Kingdom of God.

“Furthermore, should our churches and organizations be accepting aid for the poor from those who may be perpetuating injustice through their daily work and who refuse to speak up for the poor in their own contexts?”

Sadly, I can’t see this changing any time soon. It’s not just inconvenient for them, but it would essentially rob them of the lifestyle many of them have become accustomed to via heavy syphoning of such aid to secure their own comforts. Yes, it’s done. Yes, it happens. I’ve seen it in person, albeit to a much lesser extent, but if it happens in matters of ‘small aid for the poor’, then how much more rife is it when it comes to the larger?

Perhaps it’s another topic for another time, but no one seems to question Christians within organizations who take (read ‘steal’) from donations and assistance passing through their hands and which are intended for those in need.

Having read this I believed it was very enlightening.
I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this informative article together.
I once again find myself spending a lot of time both
reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

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July 2012
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