Philip Yancey contributes his usual thoughtful and probing work to our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, in chapter one, entitled "A Doctor' Defense of Pain." The doctor referred to is Dr. Paul Brand, whose life is one of the inspirations for this book. The second half of the chapter includes some of Yancey's on-going conversation with Dr. Brand. In this post I quote two of Yancey's queries about Christian charity, specifically about the danger of "compassion fatigue" in a global media market, and Dr. Brand's responses.
Yancey: Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Modern media has made that command infinitely more complex and burdensome. Because of television, the whole world is our neighbor. On evening news programs we watch the effect of famines, wars, and epidemics. How can we possibly respond to all of these disasters?
Brand: You can’t, not in the sense in which Jesus meant it, at least. You must remember the context in which Jesus was speaking. He meant family, nearby villages, Capernaum. Jesus healed people, but in a very localized area. In his lifetime he did not affect the Celts or the Chinese or the Aztecs. And I think an intolerable burden of guilt such as you describe merely numbs us and keeps us from responding. We must have a sense of touch with those we love.
Westerners, with our opulent life styles, are very sensitive on this point. But I really don’t believe that children born in Bangladesh amid poverty suffer all that much more than a spoiled child in a rich country. In The Cave, Plato pictured people being born and brought up entirely in darkness, and as a result their range of appreciation of beauty, light, and joy was very different from that of a person outside. When they come up to the light, dazzled, they learn to appreciate a new range of happiness. This, to me, is a deep perception of the human spirit. A child develops a norm, above which is happiness and below which is suffering.
Not long ago I was in Bombay, or Mumbai, among the awful slums between the airport and the city. Children live in stinking, ghastly shacks, held up by sticks, reeking with human excrement, fleas, and lice. Yet you’ll see children coming out of the hovel to play tag and hopscotch with a lighthearted air. Their ability to enjoy the basics of life seems greater than that of a spoiled rich kid the day after Christmas, whining and smashing his new toys out of boredom.
Yancey: How do you maintain a sense of Christian compassion in your work? In India you saw thousands of patients regularly with the same afflictions. After examining three thousand abused hands, how can you maintain your compassion?
Brand: I don’t know that I do it very well. I probably remember a person’s hands better than his or her face. I’ll recognize someone and say right off, “You’ve lost some more of your ring finger.” In India I did learn the importance of a sense of touch. Sometimes when we were treating a serious case and had prescribed some drug, the relatives of the patient would go and purchase the medicine, then come back and ask me to give it to the patient “with my good hands.” They believed the medicine was more able to help the patient if it was given by the hand of the physician. Interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus always touched his patients?
The Christian way of multiplying is the biological way, not the arithmetical way: One becomes two and two becomes four and four becomes eight. I have seen good Christian medical works in India gradually lose their original mission. They become institutionalized, with a building and staff to support, and soon they have to charge their patients fees. To make the work more self-supporting, they branch out into specialized surgery techniques. Soon they’re doing brain surgery with all sorts of sophisticated equipment, and the people they originally came to reach—the poor, malnourished Indians—cannot afford the hospital. Christian witness shines when a young person goes out to work among villagers, working with their sanitation, treating diarrheal disease, improving nutrition, educating on childbirth. Eventually more good is done through this kind of personal ministry, I believe.
Jesus Christ did not have to touch people as he healed them. He could easily, with that same power, have waved a magic wand. In fact, a wand would have reached more people than a touch. He could have divided the crowd into groups: paralyzed people over there, febrile people here, people with leprosy there, and raised his hands to heal each group en masse, but he chose not to. No, his mission was to people, individual people who happened to have a disease. They came to him because they had a disease, but he touched them because they were human beings and because he loved them. You can’t readily demonstrate love to a crowd. Love is person to person.
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