I've been thinking more these last few days about Haiti and about "our" response to disaster. I think I've mentioned - probably more than once - a great little book by Sabine Alkire and Edmund Newell entitled What Can One Person Do?. In this book, the authors spell out what they call the spiritual phases of engagement: compassion, responsibility, respect, humility and dependence. A very quick review:
1. compassion is about feeling badly for people who are suffering - it's an important emotional identification, but an entry level response. We watch the news or ads that depict the life circumstances of people a world away and our heart aches for their suffering. These feelings may lead us to pray and to give. We Christians sometimes feel that such actions are part of our Christian duty - that God calls us to be compassionate and so, in praying and giving, we are representing Christ and doing his work on earth. Nothing wrong with this, but remember - it's ENTRY LEVEL...
2. responsibility is about seeing the connection between the suffering of others and the lifestyle of affluence that gives us the luxury of not worrying about where our daily bread will come from, or whether or not our children will have the opportunity to go to school, or whether our house will fall in on us during the night. It's about understanding how the global economy works and how the distribution of resources favors some and exploits others. You may think this sounds like the ramblings of a bleeding heart socialist... Maybe so - but think about it. How else can you explain the incredible disparities between the haves and the have nots of this world? Surely we can't really believe that the billions of people who barely survive on a dollar or two a day, are all just incredibly lazy or stupid?! Responsibility is a tough pill to swallow.
3. respect is really believing that EVERY human being is created in the image of God and is worthy of dignity and life and hope - respect. It's about really and truly loving our neighbour as we love ourselves and doing unto them as we would have them do unto us, if THEY had all the advantages a strong economy provides, and we had the poverty and drought and exploitative market conditions.
4. humility is about realizing that we can't do everything - we can't singlehandedly solve the problem of poverty, or of ignorance, or of greed. We can't do it all, but we CAN do something. We can feel compassion and we can accept responsibility. We can enter into life in a way that respects people as a starting point. We can decide to live simply, justly, and faithfully and we can lean into that decision, content in the knowledge that that is what God expects of us - no more and no less.
5. dependence is about realizing that God is in control. He is building his kingdom. Sometimes we may have a hard time seeing it, but as we learn to train our vision - to look past the immediate and superficial layers of the political, social, economic and ecological order - God is at work. Ok, so seeing it may actually require an a priori step of believing that God IS and that he is good and true to his word. I'm good with that.
So all this is a preface to saying this: I think that we respond to disasters because it lets us slip in, somewhere between phase one - compassion - and phase two - responsibility. You see, an earthquake or a tsunami or a hurricane or even a terrorist attack, is nobody's fault. Natural disasters happen - wrong place at the wrong time and it could be any one of us buried beneath a building or looking for our loved ones in the rubble. Terrorist attacks are a little different, but even so - the victims are random and could therefore be us. So, we rise up - we dig deep into our wallets - we send money - we pray - we talk about it over coffee - we mourn. But here's what I think: we don't feel responsible! We actually let ourselves OFF the hook and focus on just what's in front of us - incredible, heart-wrenching, horrendous NEED.
I just heard the tail end of an interview on CBC radio with a woman who has written a book about disaster responses and she made the point that sometimes the aim of disaster response is to get a situation back to "normal". Normal in Haiti wasn't a particularly good place to be - poorest country in the western hemisphere and all! - so she pointed out that the possibility exists that all of this outpouring of compassion and cash COULD actually aim higher than "normal" and, in the long run, maybe help the Haiti and Haitians that are left to define a new and better "normal". And, come to think of it, isn't that what development is about.
The Sharing Way - and many other faith based development agencies - take our money AND our sense of responsibility - and invest them in the hard and slow work of building capacity, developing leadership, planting and carefully tending seeds of hope, and perhaps most important of all, demonstrating in very tangible ways the love of Christ and the amazing way that his kingdom binds us together across continents and conditions and crises. See http://www.cbmin.org/cbm/hunger-for-change for this year's annual project and for resources to help you understand the need and the response...
So I say again - YES, GIVE TO EMERGENCY RESPONSE FUNDS - but when the media moves on and Haiti fades from our immediate view, keep giving, to the development projects that help the poor find their way out of the rubble of poverty.
And, since poverty isn't just about money and stuff - start weeding your own garden and root out the attitudes and practices that allow you to hide behind your affluence and avoid taking that giant step from compassion to responsibility!