Beliefnet
From the book "The Tragedy of American Compassion" by Marvin Olasky. Copyrightc 1992 by Henry Regnery Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by special permission of Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, D.C.Affiliation and Bonding, Categorization and Discernment, Employment and Freedom, and the seventh seal on the social covenant of the late nineteenth century was the relationship with God to all these things. "True philanthropy must take into account spiritual as well as physical needs," one charity magazine proposed. Poverty will be dramatically reduced if "the victims of appetite and lust and idleness...revere the precepts of the Bible and form habits of industry, frugality, and self-restraint," Pennsylvania state charity commissioners declared. The frequent conclusion was that demoralized men and women need much greater help than "the dole of organized charities."

There were some differences between Christians and Jews about that help. The biblically orthodox Christians of the late nineteenth century worshipped a God who came to earth and showed in life and death the literal meaning of compassion--suffering with. Christians believed that they--creatures made after God's image--were called to suffer with also, in gratitude for the suffering done for them, and in obedience to biblical principles. (The goal of such suffering, of course, was to promote those principles, and not to grease a slide into sin.) But Jewish teaching stressed the pursuit of righteousness through the doing of good deeds, particularly those showing loving-kindness (gemilut chasadim). If the difference was significant, both approaches led to abundant volunteering.

Similarities in theistic understanding, furthermore, led both Christians and Jews to emphasize the importance of personal charity, rather than a clockwork deistic approach. The Good Samaritan in Christ's story bandaged the victim's wounds, put him on a donkey, took him to an inn, and nursed him there. The Talmud also portrayed personal service as "much greater than charity," defined as money-giving. Christians and Jews also had many similarities in understanding because they both read an Old Testament that repeatedly depicted compassion not as an isolated noun, but as the culmination of a process. Repeatedly in Judges and other books, the Bible told how when Israelites had sinned they were to repent and turn away from their sin; only then, as a rule, would God show them compassion. Late nineteenth-century Americans who read the Bible regularly did not see God as a sugardaddy who merely felt sorry for people in distress. They saw God showing compassion while demanding change, and they tried to do the same. Groups such as the Industrial Christian Alliance noted that they used "religious methods"--reminding the poor that God made them and had high expectations of them--to "restore the fallen and helpless to self-respect and self-support."

In addition, Christians had the expectation that the Holy Spirit could and would rapidly transform the consciences of all those whom God had called. Those who believed in poverty-fighting through salvation were delighted and surprised to read in the New York Herald of how "the woman known as Bluebird up to a year ago was one of the worst drunkards in the Lower East Side.... Scores of times she had been in the police courts." Then she talked with an evangelist and agreed to go to the Door of Hope rescue home. She was converted and the Herald reporter told what happened:

"I went to 63 Park Street, the Five Points Mission Hall. A big crowd of ragged, bloated and generally disreputable looking men and women were seeking admission.A very pleasant looking young women dressed neatly in black and having a bunch of flowers at her waist...spoke to them of love and hope. The crowds kept coming until the break of day. No one would ever think that the neatly attired young lady speaking so appealingly had once been the terror of the slums, always alert to get in the first blow."

Since one hundred of Bluebird's former gang associates changed their lives over the next several years as, in the words of the New York Times, she was "transformed into one of the most earnest and eloquent female evangelists who ever worked among human derelicts in dark alleys and dives" and "threw her whole soul in the work of evangelism among her former associets." Most of those hundred changes were permanent, a follow-up years later concluded.

Affiliation, Bonding, Categorization, Discernment, Employment, Freedom--and, in the end, God's grace. But the question still remains: Did the late nineteenth-century war on poverty work, and what are its lessons to us?

In 1890 Jacob Riis combined realism and optimism. New York's "Poverty, its slums, and its sufferings are the result of unprecedented growth with the consequent disorder and crowding," he wrote, and added,

If the structure shows signs of being top-heavy, evidences are not wanting--they are multiplying day by day--that patient toilers are at work among the underpinnings. The Day Nurseries, the numberless Kindergartens and charitable schools in the poor quarters, the Fresh Air Funds, the thousand and one charities that in one way or another reach the homes and lives of the poor with sweetening touch, are proof that if much is yet to be done...hearts and hands will be found to do it in ever-increasing measure.

The good news Riis declared was that through many charitable efforts "the poor and the well-to-do have been brought closer together, in an every-day companionship that cannot but be productive of the best results, to the one who gives no less than to the one who receives." Riis concluded that, "black as the cloud is it has a silver lining, bright with promise. New York is to-day a hundredfold cleaner, better, purer, city than it was even ten years ago.... If we labor on with courage and patience, [these efforts] will bear fruit sixty and a hundred fold."

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