Compassion and Justice

June 28th, 2011

When we were in Washington, D.C. this week, we stopped by the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society building.

Our “tour guide” was a friend of mine from seminary and church. He touched on the topic of the difference between compassion and justice.

I’d never really thought about it before.

Compassion is important. But perhaps compassion doesn’t really solve anything. It seems like, for the most part, compassion just fixes an immediate problem.

I realized that most of our mission/work team trips in youth ministry are compassion ministries. We go somewhere, provide people with what they need for a week or so, and exchange letters here and there throughout the year.

But it doesn’t solve anything. The people we help are still in need.

When we go feed the homeless, compassion-focused actions solve the temporary dilemma of hunger for the day. But, come the next meal, the ones we helped will still be hungry. They’ll still be on the streets. If the social justice issue were an iceberg, compassion would only touch the part that sticks out of the water.

Justice, on the other hand, tries to focus on the cause of the situation. Why are they hungry? Why are they homeless? Why do we go every year to help build homes? What are things we can do to “solve” the problems? Justice, in this new line of thinking for me, seems to address the 90% of the iceberg that we don’t see.

The other pastor who was with me shared that, for him, compassion is incomplete without justice. I couldn’t agree more.

Acts of compassions are important. We shouldn’t overlook doing things for people, like ministry/programs for the poor. We need to feed them. We need to let them know that they are cared for and loved. We need to provide for them. We need to teach our entitled youth the importance of compassion and giving.

But, wouldn’t real compassion be freeing others from the chains of hunger and homelessness? Wouldn’t finding the reasons why there are homeless people in our communities, and fighting to end poverty-- wouldn’t that be more compassionate than feeding someone for a day?

Compassion is incomplete without justice.


Joseph Yoo is pastor of youth and spiritual formation at Valencia United Methodist Church in Valencia, CA. He blogs at Step by Step.

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