Charity without moral clarity

Georgie Anne Geyer

December 24, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

THE respected evangelical preacher was busily preaching o his weekly radio show the weekend before this Christmas. With what inspired passion he was excoriating -- appropriately so in anticipation of the birthday of Christ -- evil in the world!

"You may have a son in Africa who is a missionary," he was saying at one point, "but he will live in a compound away from the very people he is serving . . . " Then he went on, and on, and on about those many of us who admittedly do not do enough to alleviate human suffering in a suffering world.

It was only at the end of the sermon that it struck me. This representative and intelligent pastor had been speaking only -- only -- to those of us in the working, middle or upper classes who might be committing sins of omission. "Hey," I wanted to say, "how about at least a short message to all the dictators, gunmen, murderers, rapists, con men, thieves, liars and torturers in the world? Don't they deserve a line?"

It reminded me a little of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali being asked recently who was to blame for the terror in Somalia. "Well, first, the gunmen . . . ," he said. It was not surprising that he then listed most of the rest of us (the "We Are All Guilty" syndrome). What was so amazing was the fact that an important leader mentioned the perpetrators of the slaughter at all.

It seems to me this Christmas that -- whether we look at the moral crises in this country or at the holocausts in progress across the globe -- these examples show us what is really wrong. For over and over the people who should be charting our moral compass find time to criticize the reasonably good people and none to confront the totally bad.

How long has it been since you heard someone denounce the RTC Somali gunmen beating old starving women, or the Sudanese soldiers snuffing out Christian lives in their south, or the "Wild Serb" rapists who then kill and mutilate their women victims? To paraphrase "Death of a Salesman," shouldn't some attention be paid these men? What have we reasonably imperfect people done to deserve all the limelight?

Without wandering too far afield, let us contemplate the results of this odd inability to make moral choices -- not only in the Somalias of the world but also here at home.

Right outside my apartment in downtown Washington, two miles from the White House, there are now "homeless" on every corner. These men are not visibly mentally disturbed, and they are not old, blind or frail. They live amid piles of clutter and filth that degrades both them and us.

They are healthy young men whom society has made into con men. They are not meek, but rather hostile and threatening. It is the lack of genuine moral strictures, aimed at the right targets, plus the refusal of our social and moral institutions to demand anything of them, that has made them into con men.

Not once have I seen a clergyman out there talking to any of these men, much less directing any uplifting or censorious "messages" at them. Indeed, the Washington papers have carried tsk-tsk articles on the one Protestant minister who has a home for the homeless but who insists they work for it -- and who insists upon giving them moral and spiritual teaching so they might actually be lifted out of their misery.

Not accidentally, that minister is shunned by his fellow clergymen for such "meddling" in the lives of the people he alone is helping.

As for the rest of us imperfect human beings, these kinds of demands for charity without moral clarity make us not care about helping others. Charity without principle, welfare without responsibility, Christianity without morality or salvation: Those are what too many of our clergy are offering us this Christmas.

This now-commonplace "relativistic Christianity" has, of course, many roots. It stems in part from social workers who believe that evil conduct always has psychological, not moral, roots; from the utopian, populist and supposedly biblical "preference for the poor"; and from the thinking that sees the middle classes as unfeeling and ever "guilty."

But such thinking is not effective anymore, if ever it was. Many people would give more, do more, hope more -- but most of them rightly will not give for purposes drained of moral structure and thus woefully unable to bring about real change.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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