The importance of compassion

“Administer true justice” writes the prophet Zechariah. “Show mercy and compassion to one another.” In doing so, the people would reflect the character of God, who is compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.

It’s not described in spiritual terms, but a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation echoes Zechariah’s words. The report is called How to talk about poverty in the UK, written by JRF and the FrameWorks Institute, and a key message is that compassion is important.

We know what it looks like when poverty is described in terms that lack compassion – you can find it in the tabloids any day of the week. It’s the language of scroungers and skivers, benefits cheats or welfare queens. It blames the disadvantaged for their own situation. If people are poor, it’s because they’re lazy and shiftless. And not only that – they’re ripping off hard-working people.

Less contemptuous, but no more effective, is the abstract academic way of talking about poverty through statistics. There may or may not be a shock factor to figures such as the record 1.6 million emergency food parcels given out by food banks last year, but they dehumanise the problem. The reality of hunger and the trauma of not being able to feed one’s family are blurred when aggregated. We hear big numbers every day. It’s easy for them to bounce off us.

The Frameworks Foundation have researched the way we talk about poverty in Britain, and looked at what works and what doesn’t. What leads people to understand the realities of poverty and support policies to reduce it? And it turns out that the way forward is to speak hopefully about shared morality: we believe in compassion and caring for each other. It isn’t right that some people in society are left behind, and we must re-design the economy to serve everybody.”

Don’t jump too quickly to politics, they warn – for example, by blaming austerity. It may play a role, but it will straight away play along political lines. Many people are fatalistic about the economy, saying that nothing can be done because it’s all rigged in favour of the elite. We should counter that by emphasising that the economy is designed, and can therefore be re-designed. We can choose differently. Poverty and inequality are not inevitable. And we should use examples rather than statistics, keeping it relatable and human.

For those with an interest in poverty and inequality – and as Christians, that should be all of us – there’s plenty to learn from the report. You can read the full paper here, a summary here, or if you’re in a real hurry, a 2 minute version here that will give you the gist of it. There’s also a toolkit that sums up the lessons and helps to apply them.

“Making a moral case for poverty is the most effective way of framing this issue for a broad audience” says the report. “But this doesn’t mean asserting moral superiority, claiming the moral high ground, or highlighting the moral
failures of others. It does mean calling to mind the moral values that we all share and hold dear. Emphasising our society’s moral compassion works well for people across the political spectrum. Adding in a sense of justice and opportunity works particularly well to create a different understanding of poverty among people with more conservative views.”

I think Zechariah would agree.

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