C.S. Lewis is easy to quote because he almost always gets it right, and he has a way of saying things that forces us to think more deeply about everyday issues. Many of us are involved in donating, volunteering or working for organizations with stated missions of “caring for the poor” or “serving people in need” in other countries. The news we see everyday and the clamoring by thousands of nonprofit organization for our attention communicate to us that there are never-ending global problems which can only be solved if we would simply get involved by giving our time, effort and money.
On the issue of local versus global charity Lewis said,
“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know).
A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise.” -from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (Volume 2, Letter of Dec. 20, 1946)
This whole movement to feed people or build infrastructure for people in other nations besides our own, with or without their help, is actually a very modern development of the past 60-75 years of world history. The idea that we need to help all people everywhere is often driven by a wartime mentality. It is also often influenced by an arrogant assumption that the world’s problems will not be solved unless we are involved. The modern movement to do international charity work is largely a result of the aftermath of our wars. Older organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have been around for over 100 years, and they were also started in the midst of war and conflict, or with a wartime mentality. Even the name “Salvation Army” makes us think of fighting a battle.
The creation and proliferation of nonprofits in America didn’t really start to take off until after WWII and then again after the Korean War. Lewis wrote this statement in a letter in 1946, after the end of WWII, when news of all the world’s problems was streaming in like never before. The British were also hit like never before on their own island and saw the devastation and suffering all around them, in addition to news about the rest of their country and the world at large. People who felt compassion (or maybe guilt) felt the need to help the suffering children and families of Europe.
We often want to help in areas where we believe someone or something else was the cause of people’s suffering; but how often do we look to make the personal or communal changes necessary to promote justice and mercy in our own communities where we and our neighbors are the causes of, or contributors to suffering? You may have noticed that Lewis is not saying we should not be involved in helping with problems far away, or supporting those who do. He, and I in agreement with him, are only saying that with all the information we are gathering to ourselves about all the evils going on in the world, we should be careful that we don’t deceive ourselves into believing that we need to be involved in helping in all of those situations, or that it is better than doing something for someone in our own community. He also warns us against the danger of imagining that our great knowledge or anxiety over all the problems is equal to being involved in providing solutions. Worrying about all the problems doesn’t do anything to fix them. It actually becomes more difficult to help people in your own neighborhood or right in front of you because you will become so overwhelmed with all of the other problems of the whole world.
Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Think about the men who passed by before the Samaritan stopped. They had too many excuses or other things to do that they used as reasons for not helping the one in need right in front of them. You may be so heavily invested in devoting your thoughts, time and money to a charity or towards the thought of helping someone far away, that you miss a real opportunity you have to personally help someone living in your neighborhood. If you really want to help and give your life to someone far away, the best thing for you to do is probably to move there or partner with someone who lives and works there among the poor.
We’ll conclude these thoughts with another post tomorrow. Stay tuned…