How many times have I changed the channel when confronted with global scenes of human devastation? I couldn’t even venture a guess. We all have changed the channel at some point. We have even hurried past another person who threatened to invade our precious sense of equilibrium.
However I am concerned. I’m not talking about donor fatigue. I’m talking about sloth and its companion of hardness of thought; continually choosing not to do the good that we know we should do, we begin to believe that we never were to do good with the poor at all. One of the disturbing patterns of human behaviour is our ability to turn habitual actions into hardened character. In respect to the under-resourced who are my neighbours locally and globally, I am troubled by how easily those of us “afflicted with affluence” habitually choose inactivity or passivity as a righteous decision. I believe there are many self-justified reasons for choosing to “do nothing this time;” however what scares me about the lack of concern, care, or compassion is that with time the character of a person, community, church, or nation shifts in such a way that the “poor” cease to be persons but instead become a class or a caste. It seems to me that whole systems of a society can conspire then to keep people in the confines of poverty in order for them or at least the resources of their geography to be available for the service of the ultra-affluent. Because we are “not them” but “us” we then believe we are justified in our habituated inactivity.
Habituated inactivity is a justice issue. Stirring a people to action and even identification with people captured by poverty requires a multi-facited strategy. It is not enough to get us to give once a year. We need sustained activity underwritten by clear beliefs regarding God, Humanity, and the Creation and by congruent core values regarding relationships, economics, work, and care for the “least of these.” I believe that this sustained activity on behalf of the poor is best worked out in community and is meant to be part of the overflow of the transformed life that Jesus envisioned for His called out ones. It is possible to shock people into an act of giving or debit deliverance in order “to relieve the conscience as quickly as possible.” However in community the leaders of mercy have the opportunity to seek habitual activity on behalf of the poor or under-resourced in specific long-range relationships with individuals or communities. In this way I hope habitual activity on behalf of the poor becomes hardened character from which we are not easily dissuaded, either by good times or the worst of times.