Open Thread: Generosity and Weakness — Whither Compassion?

by readbetween

I’m glad you brought up the the SHEC burglary, Jay, because the story has been on my mind. Frankly, when I read about SHEC making up gift baskets for the burglars I didn’t think, well golly, that’s just terrific.

Of course, I appreciate the impulse: do kindness in return for offense and thereby be an example of Christian charity. But showering the miscreants with material goods struck me as facile, resorting for expression of spiritual sentiment to the same materialistic culture that conservative Christianity uses as a rhetorical foil for its portentously rebellious contemporary incarnation. That’s fine–better to do clumsy works with good intentions than indulge self-righteous vengeance.

However, SHEC behaved with considerably less compassion in my experience when I presented them with the opportunity to feel some. In June, in the Missoula Independent, I profiled J.C. Nouveaux, a local woman who makes her living as a prostitute. Lots of people didn’t like it. Among them, first among them, was Pastor Erbele of SHEC, who came by the office as soon as the paper hit the stands.

What followed his visit (which I missed since I was out of the office) was a stream of correspondence from SHEC members that ranged from marmish scolding to dunderheaded entreaties to save the children–many from the children themselves, seemingly introduced to the article by their church. The concerns expressed in the letters were, in my opinion at least, ably parried by the editor in an ensuing editorial.

As for me, well, I wasn’t particularly surprised that the church on the hill and its members took offense. There’s a strong strain of nostalgia for a time that never was that runs through the consciousness of most fundamentalists, whether inclined to Christianity or the Caliphate, and reading about the life of a prostitute in their home town–not even so much what she does as the stories she tells herself to make it okay–well, there’s plenty in there that a worldview based primarily on revelation rather than evidence won’t accommodate.

Of course, I did think it was a little bit incongruous to get so much guff from purported followers of Jesus for supping with a prostitute, seeing as how accepting and understanding others is what made Jesus rebellious. But considering how much rigid sanctimony the moral values crowd conducts itself with these days, I wasn’t surprised to see some local Christians cast themselves in the role of those concerned more about public displays of fealty to moral prescriptions than the emotional postures that properly complement agape.

So now, in light of the burglary and SHEC’s response, I’m left wondering just what the metric is for determining who deserves an ostentatious display of compassion and who gets the shock-and-outrage carpet bombing.

Here’s a theory, anyway. The burglary was an offense against property and something personally felt by churchgoers while the article offended their sensibilities and required some emotional effort to comprehend. Lacking the necessary moral imagination to feel compassion for J.C., the subject of the story, Erbele and his flock reacted with indignation rather than understanding. The context of the burglary was much more familiar, presenting forcefully the binary between prosecution and forgiveness thereby facilitating the choice of an alternative to retribution. That’s my charitable take.

The cynic in me just thinks that in the case of the burglary, SHEC was already in the news and had to decide what to do with the consciousness that their actions would be scrutinized. When it came to summoning some compassion in the privacy of wherever they read about J.C., considering what kind of witness their reactions would bear was, perhaps, less a factor in their actions.


  1. Great observation noting the differnce in responses between these kids and JC. I’m wondering if there might be a better way to respond to both…

  1. 1 Thanks, but no thanks, “Missoula Project” « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Open Thread: Generosity and Weakness — Whither Compassion? […]

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