One of the arguments against mercy work is that I cannot define misery.

“Whenever love meets misery, mercy is awakened.” said Wilhelm Loehe. If I cannot define misery than I must allow those who I believe are suffering to define it. Sadly that is taken away from me by the third case against mercy.[1]

Mercy exhibited especially in monetary gifts is “toxic”. “When we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”[2]

One of the great mercy projects is well digging because the need for fresh water is incredible in third world countries, or so I have been told. But now that the mercy well is poisoned I must assume that when a partner church or a group of Christians that we deal with asks for help in digging a well it is because they are now dependant, lying, or have had their own well digging capacity destroyed by my concern.

I believe that it was Helmut Thielicke who told a story about visiting a parishioner in his mostly bombed out home after the war. The man was thankful for God’s mercy in having enough of his house bombed out that he didn’t have to take in any refugees who had nothing. He had official sanction from whatever authority there was to be free from any need to care for his neighbors because what was left of his house was not big enough.

We now have official sanction for not doing anything, at least not anything generous and reckless and exuberant.  In a world where crisis are becoming chronic we have sanction to be left alone.  Our little piece of the world that is left to us is just enough that we don’t have to bother ourselves with “those people”.  The government will take care of it.  The Clinton Foundation will deal with it.  We can’t do anything in the church because we make it worse, and besides that money can go to preaching the Gospel. Of course I will be told that it is a matter of scale and nuance and that we are not being told to stop doing mercy, we are just being told not to spend any money on it, or build any structures, or do things that cannot be sustained.  Just don’t respond to chronic need as if it were a crisis seems to be a very common sense and useful message.  The problem with this is that Jesus would have no story about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16;19-31) if the rich man would have responded in any way, let alone as if Lazarus were in crisis.

[1] Wilhelm Löhe. Lohe on Mercy: Six Chapters for Everyone, the Seventh for the Servants of Mercy. Translated by Holger Sonntag. (St. Louis: LCMS World Relief and Human Care, 2006), p. 3-4.

[2] Robert Lupton,  “Toxic Charity”,  Harperone 2011