Politics & compassion: Teach thy children well

by Kristin on November 4, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by mollypop

On Tuesday as we walked home from school, S immediately noticed my “I Voted” sticker. Kids have a way of sensing “important days”—there’s something in the air (plus, how often do grownups get stickers for doing something good, and then proudly wear them on their shirts?).

“Is election day exciting?” S asked. I responded that I was more nervous than excited—I didn’t know if many of the people I was voting for would win. Both big races in Illinois—for the governor’s seat and a U.S. Senator’s seat—were predicted to be very close. (As of this writing, the gubernatorial results are still up in the air.)

“What will happen if the Republicans win?” she asked, sounding a bit worried. I quickly reassured S that her day-to-day life wouldn’t feel different, at least not in noticeable ways. “Then why does it matter?” she reasoned.

If nothing seems to change, why vote?

Ah, there’s the real question: Why does it matter? If both sides are greedy and not trustworthy, if they both fight dirty and let ulterior motives drive them, and if, at the end of the day, no one can affect real change that we can see and feel, why does it matter?

I’m sure that’s what kept many people I know from voting at all this year. Who cares? What’s the difference? Why bother?

It’s not an easy thing for an adult to grasp, let alone to explain to a child. But there were issues surrounding this year’s gubernatorial race in Illinois that helped crystallize an answer to the “Why vote” question, at least for me: Because it’s not about me. I’m not casting my votes according to what’s best for me.

Our responsibility to the “least of these”

I told S about minimum wage—about people who work more than one job and still go to the soup kitchen at our church to help make ends meet. I explained how real people’s lives will be impacted if minimum wage is lowered (which gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady promises to do in his quest to “balance the budget without raising taxes”). I shared with S other examples of people whose lives may be affected by the outcome of the election—mostly people whose lives are already harder than ours. People with disabilities. People without health insurance. Families who live in Chicago’s worst neighborhoods and send their kids to the worst schools.

I realize that balancing the budget is a much more complex issue than I’m painting it to be here, but I don’t believe politics and economics are ever so complex that suffering people have to suffer more.

“It’s not my job to vote for the candidates who will do the most for me,” I told S. My heart was pounding in my ears as I said it. I knew it to be true, to my core. “Balancing a budget isn’t just about math. It’s about real people.”

Identifying victims, directing compassion

On Wednesday morning, as I waited to hear who won the Illinois governor’s race, I went to the gym to work out some of my anxiety and made the mistake of turning on the TV. There was the newly re-elected Eric Cantor (R-VA), talking about how wonderful success and prosperity are—that we should celebrate it, not fight it. “We in America…admire those who are successful—we’ve got to end this war on success.” (TODAY Show, November 3, 2010)

My jaw dropped. This “war on success?” Cantor was painting our nation’s most successful citizens as victims. He was calling for us to have compassion on them, and lower their tax burden. He was saying that our best chance at prosperity, in this free country, is to bow to the wealthy and hope that some of their abundance spills over on the rest of us.

No. I’m not willing for my children to grow up in that economic system. I am not willing for my children to learn that definition of “compassion.” And I’m not willing to go to the polls thinking only of what benefits me.

That is why it matters. That’s why I voted.

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” – Charles Darwin

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  • http://rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    Great post, Kristin. You managed to put into words what I’ve been feeling for a while. (Funny how conversations with kids have a way of stripping ideas down to their essence.)

    Love this: “It’s not my job to vote for the candidates who will do the most for me.”

    Also – Adults getting stickers IS a big deal! :-)

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    I’m with you. The discussions I’ve had with my family this week are…so far beyond frustrating. They vote straight Republican. Why? Because they are very Catholic. And they are Pro-Life. And they have been informed at Church that a Republican ticket is a Pro-Life ticket, which is the ultimate and only issue. They have been told that the unborn are the most important “least-of-these”. They were basically handed a list of who to vote for. And they wouldn’t dream of deviating. Truth be told, I am hugely uncomfortable with abortion, too, despite my “irreligion”…but I’m also not naive enough to believe that most of these Republicans aren’t just voting the party line and have no interest at all in the abortion debate.

    I’m not trying to start a separate argument here, more like venting and commiserating, and hoping that our votes have gone toward the creation of a more just world for those who need it most. I’m not thrilled with the election results, and I have family members proudly crowing and wagging their fingers and “I-told-you-so-ing” and it feels good to know I’m not alone in going, “What the hell is going on here?”

    I so hope this “bi-partisan blah blah blah” will become a reality. If not, perhaps people will be as impatient with the Republicans as they have been with Obama, and they’ll vote him in for another term.

  • Kirstin

    You hit this one out of the park, Kristin.

  • Nicola

    We’ve been talking so much in our household about how people in this country, and really specifically for this election it seems, tend to vote in ways that favor themselves, or at least their wallets. What the heck is that all about? I’m so frustrated by how shallow and cold we are as a nation and how we continue to judge people wihout money as unworthy of help and compassion. Really, I can’t even think straight (let alone write) about this! In this time of giant military spending, budget cuts that have slashed education and social services to the bone, we voted in the Republicans largley based on tax-cut issues that favor the upper middle class and wealthy! I really, honestly have a hard time wrapping my mind around it…

  • http://www.bigmama247.com Alise

    What a great post.

    We had this discussion with our oldest son 2 years ago during the presidential election. Jason and I were heavily behind then Senator Obama and James asked us why. We had to explain that there were things that he wanted to address in the country that we felt were important. We also explained that if Senator McCain won, the country wouldn’t be bad — that both men wanted the job because they wanted to help America. It was important to me that my kids not feel afraid or angry the “other side” won.

    Someone in my family posted that her son said that elephants are good people and donkeys are bad people. That’s NOT the message that I want my children to get. But balancing between condemning policies that I think are harmful to the least of these and condemning people is pretty tricky.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    Fantastic post – and great comments too.

    I remember having several conversations over the years with various people about “why we vote.” I distinctly remember one ex-boyfriend telling me I had a “moral obligation” to vote for Republications because of the pro-life issue. But my brother brought up the idea that voting solely for yourself or solely for one issue leaves a lot to be desired. We’re not getting elected officials who will only focus on one person or one thing and the gov’ts job is much more complicated than just one person or one issue. That’s why I think we need to think beyond ourselves when voting – the consequences are rarely as selective.

  • Michelle

    Fantastic post and Fantastic comments. I’m heartened to read all your thoughts as this election has been difficult to deal with. It’s frustrating to watch the Party of No sweep the nation while the Democrats have, although not perfectly (but what is), implemented health care reform, higher minimum wage, better gas mileage, halted the recession progression, etc.

    And the fact that the 2 highest Republicans have already stated that their primary goal, while being in prime leadership positions of the US, is to defeat Obama in 2012 is beyond my understanding. Thank you, Grand Ole Party, for halting any progress in America for your power hungry egos. America deserves better than that. But that said, people need to get to the polls, even in elections that aren’t as noteworthy as the one in 2008.

  • http://www.mennoniteroad.com Chris

    I agree with Kirstin’s comment-this is a home run, Kristin. A great perspective to go to the polls with. Thank you.

  • http://ballymennoniteblogger.blogspot.com/ Robert Martin

    I agree with the general sentiments of this article. Well written, Kristin, with a perspective of the least of these.

    HOWEVER… I disagree that government in ANY way is an answer to the care of “the least of these”. A question I ask myself constantly, “When the nation of the USA collapses, what will be left to take care of ‘the least of these’?” What I see happening, on both “sides” is a dependence on the government to do our job for us. We are supposed to be the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus, out in the world. “As I was sent, so I send you.”

    Both the right and the left have the same problem, that being the general idea that large institutions, big programs, large legislature, etc, are the answer to big problems. Considering our savior, how did he work? Did he make massive changes to governments and religious institutions? Did he restructure the temple and the monarchy of Israel? Did he politic and stump for certain Roman authorities and decry others? What Jesus did was change lives, change people, on a local, intimate, relational level and, by doing so, changed the world forever.

    I voted Republican on Tuesday, not because I have any faith that they are going to be a better answer to our country’s ills but because the alternative was to put more programs, more institutions between the people in need and the people who can provide. I voted for the men that I voted for because they advocated removing those buffers and barriers and opening the doors for people to actually start relating to people again.

    Now, my job is clear. The opportunity is there now to, rather than sit back on my laurels and continue to let others do my job for me, but to step out in faith and do the job I was called to do.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Rachel, what you said about conversations with kids is so true—in fact, it’s one of the best things about being a parent. There are many things we are so sure we *think* we understand that we don’t take the time to *really* understand them, let alone articulate them. Kids give us that push we need to put it into words.

    Genevieve, I am SO thankful that I’m not having discussions like those with my immediate family members—I think I’d lose it! It’s such an imperfect system, with imperfect results. I’m with you in “…hoping that our votes have gone toward the creation of a more just world for those who need it most.” Here’s to lots of that “bipartisan blah blah blah” for good. :)

    Kirstin, it’s good to know you feel that way, because there are certainly plenty of people who don’t!

    Nicola, a big yes to this: “I’m so frustrated by how shallow and cold we are as a nation and how we continue to judge people without money as unworthy of help and compassion.” It is so hard to wrap my mind around this take on the world—sometimes don’t you feel like you are living in an alternate reality, with alternate creatures that just *look* like human beings?

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    You can add my voice to those who have said, “great post,” because we do, indeed, have a responsibility to vote for the benefit of the least of these. I have no patience with those who vote only to enhance their personal bank accounts.

    Now comes the part where I test our friendship: I voted predominately Republican for the very reasons you recommend–to help the least of these. I have no desire to debate whether Democrats or Republicans have the best solutions for our social and economic ills. But it is worth remembering Chesterton’s observation that nearly everyone agrees concerning what is wrong with the world, but we are willing to attack one another over how to make things right.

    During the Clinton Administration I was forced to make a decision–was I willing to believe that Bill, Hillary, and the rest genuinely had the nation’s best interests at heart? I had to conclude they did, indeed, want the best for America, even though I was sure they were going about it in the wrong way. But the realization that they, too, had good intentions caused me to repent of incivility and a judgmental, kill-the-beast attitude. Just because I thought I was right did not give me license to savage them as people.

    I still disagree with the standard Democrat approaches to our nation’s problem, but I believe Democrats want the best for America. I could take time to argue economics or theories of government, but I’m not interested in arguments anymore. I’m interested in loving my neighbor.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Alise, I really appreciate the balance you’re describing—”balancing between condemning policies that I think are harmful to the least of these and condemning people is pretty tricky.” It sounds like you’re striking that balance, as a parent. Sometimes it’s important for our kids to know the basic facts, just so they don’t feel overwhelmed or afraid, but it’s also important for them to understand there are complexities involved. I think too many adults try to protect their kids from complexity (or they just don’t want to take the time to explain it).

    Meredith, your brother’s take on this is great—a different way to get at what I’m trying to get at. There are certain people—like the person who cuts my hair—that I select and continue to support because of how he cuts MY hair, not what he does for his other clients. But when it comes to politics, our elected officials are supposed to be addressing the bigger picture, so that’s the picture we should take to the voting booth.

    Michelle, yes, that primary goal—getting Obama out of office—just makes me mad. And to be so blatant about it! (Although maybe transparency is better than feigning interest in some other goal.) Thanks for reading and jumping into the conversation.

    Chris, thanks for that. I like the way you put it: “A great perspective to go to the polls with.” That’s what I’m after—a way to think about things, a way to frame our decisions, not a way to convince people to vote for my candidates.

  • RevBug

    Blessed are you who are rich for they shall know how truly successful they are. Blessed are they who are full and satiated for you know the fruits of your labors
    blessed are you who laugh for you’re in on the joke.
    blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you, revile you, and defame, you simply because you’re successful.

    Mr. Cantor – I don’t think this version quite made the cut. please try again.

  • sarah louise


    I never thought about voting that way. Thanks for the bigger perspective. (That is why I vote, but I never articulated it that way.)


  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Robert, thanks for sharing your perspective so eloquently and respectfully. I can’t tell you how deeply I wish the majority of people saw this problem and solution the way you do, but the reality is they don’t. Most people—Christians included—aren’t willing to devote the time and resources to helping others, and it’s not the government programs that are getting in the way. It seems to be a culture of selfishness and entitlement that is blocking our societal sense of responsibility and compassion. Until we can change that, at its core, I have no trust in the public to care for the “least of these.” It seems the best we can do, for now, is work in conjunction, alongside, government programs. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, in the least. I see many important ways government is helping people in my city, and I also see the free health clinic my pastor set up and the soup kitchen that’s hosted at my church. I’m curious, though, about your logic regarding “programs” as “barriers.” Are you talking about budgets, or actual programs? Can you give me some examples of how this has worked under Republican leadership in the past?

    Ray, I have a lot of respect for you, and I’m pretty sure nothing could rock our friendship—certainly not politics. :) I do think we’re starting from very different perspectives, though, if you agree with Chesterton’s observation: “nearly everyone agrees concerning what is wrong with the world.” I don’t think that’s true at all. I wish it was. I can look at a group of people who are struggling and say the problem is that people are undervalued, living in fear, and not given equal education and opportunities, while others will look at that same group of people and say the problem is that they’re lazy and weren’t raised right. Americans *don’t* agree about what’s wrong with the world, so of course we don’t agree about how to “fix” it. I agree that *most* politicians–Republican and Democrat–do want what’s best for the America. They just don’t agree on what that “best America” looks like.

    RevBug, I love it! It’s very very sad, but I love the way you’ve made your point (especially this: “blessed are you who laugh for you’re in on the joke”).

    sarah louise, it’s funny—I’m sure it’s why I vote, too, but I had never articulated it, either. Blogging is a great medium for “thinking out loud” and through conversation. Thanks for being a part of it.

  • http://ballymennoniteblogger.blogspot.com/ Robert Martin


    Thank you for your respectful response. I do appreciate civil dialogue. Let me see if I can answer your questions.

    Truthfully, Republican programs are not much better than Democratic programs, they just benefit a different group of people. Programs in general, as I mentioned, are a barrier between those who can provide and those who have need. See, my perspective is that true charity and help for those in need is best done in relationship. When there are too many programs or the programs are to big, there then exists a layer of separation between the people providing and the people receiving. If we are to be incarnations of Christ to people in our provision of needs, if we ourselves are not doing it, then instead of seeing “little Christs” acting for the good of the world, all those who receive see programs.

    Additionally, the communal relationship that is central to Christian fellowship is encouraged and grows in those relationships. If our mission in Christ is to bring people into that communal fellowship, if we depend upon the proxy of programs, it will be much more difficult to build those relationships.

    This is what I mean by barriers. The more programs, the more organizations, the more institutions we place between the people in need and the people who provide, the less we encourage those communal relationships that allow for the incarnation of the body of Christ and the less we establish those interpersonal relationships that express love and show God to people. We need to provide for the physical needs, true, but in the Kingdom of God that is only part of it. We need to provide for the spiritual needs as well and the generosity of the grace of Christ is the best way, I believe, to do that.

    I know, kind of wordy, but this is what I mean by programs being barriers. Relationships are where the work of Christ happens. And yes, relationships can happen through programs, but it is harder to establish those close relationships with distant government or even large churches. It is easier to establish those relationships when Christians go out into the world and live out their faith in the little things that they can do every day.

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    I found myself just watching (and being amazed at the technology) of the NYT’s interactive maps on Election Evening. Pink going Red and Light Blue to Blue – what a great way to (well) inform.

    But then I saw Light Green – I think that it was Maine’s Govenor’s race. GREEN?! Holy Cow, a state of independent thinkers. I’m not sure if the light green turned to dark green . . . but I do know that I thought of a national map interspersed with much more green in a similar way of holding a $1 lottery ticket.

    “What If.”

  • Melissa

    I love how you distilled the reason you vote for S. Very succinct. And I wanted to post this quote by FDR:
    “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

  • http://jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com James Pate

    I’m unclear about how lowering the minumum wage will balance the budget without raising taxes.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Robert, thanks for trying to clarify that for me. I do agree that the BEST way to care for others is through direct person-to-person relationships, but I still don’t agree with the premise that “programs” prevent people from getting involved in that level of care. People who are compassionate and want to help others can/will/do just that—no amount of government programs will get in their way—and those who want to find excuses not to help others will always find them. What we need most in this country is to nurture and grow a sense of respect and value for all people—that all people matter and deserve to be cared for. Government programs can help set that tone just as churches can (and sadly, too many churches are not doing much of anything to establish that belief).

    Dave, “what if,” indeed. I’m not sure what the best solution is, but the current political system is clearly not working.

    Melissa, thank you—I love that quote, and I don’t think I’ve heard it before. Part of what’s so great about it is it questions our societal definition of “progress.” We need to ask ourselves, and explore more fully, what ideas like “progress” and “success” look like.

    James, right—I’m unclear about everything the IL Republican gubernatorial candidate was proposing, because he wasn’t sharing any real details about his plan.

  • http://ballymennoniteblogger.blogspot.com/ Robert Martin


    There’s two things here that I’d like to add some additional clarification. First, it’s primarily a matter of the programs getting in the way of the people who want to help, it’s a matter of programs getting between the people who need help and the source of all our help. What happens many times (not all the time, mind you) is that people begin to look at the program as the source of their help rather than God behind the program. The bigger the program, the bigger the organization, the more it becomes a matter of “The Salvation Army helped me” rather than “Jesus helped me.” That’s what I mean by barrier… not a prevention of help happening, but an impediment to getting to what I believe to be the true call of the church: right relationships.

    So, what I hear from you is that we are in agreement with that statement, that interpersonal relationships are the ultimate key. For me, what that means is that instead of going out of my way to support or advocate for more programs, I look at trying to solve a different problem, the problem of the people who, as you said, “want to find excuses not to help others” and will always find them. And that’s my second clarification point. If we create programs and institutions, we may fall into the trap of Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol”. Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons? Are there no soup kitchens? Are there no homeless shelters? Why else do I pay my taxes/tithes to my government/my church? My money is already being put to work, don’t ask anything more from me. By creating these programs, instead of solving this kind of mindset of excuses, we are almost encouraging them. Why should I get involved if there is already an organization set up to do so? I’d prefer to make it more that we encourage people to get involved themselves rather than “proxy” the involvement to others.

    Can good happen in large programs/institutions? Yes. Can bad happen? Yes. You responded to Dave about the current political system not working. I agree with that. Our current system in the US, from FDR and later, has been to provide helps and supports using large government programs, sweeping changes to public services, and creating massive organizations and administrations to perform all these tasks. I’d like a change from that and, frankly, most Republicans and Democrats, while they speak like they have different views, still, at the heart, have a lot of the same philosophies. The system is broken. Rather than continue it, it needs to change even more fundamentally than what even last Tuesday did. To me, that means not going down the route of big programs, but going the route at smaller, incarnational methods of helping others. This is why I voted as I did. And, as you pointed out in your article, my motivation was not to improve my own life, but to, instead, try and help others in the process.

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    Robert, you said: “What happens many times (not all the time, mind you) is that people begin to look at the program as the source of their help rather than God behind the program. The bigger the program, the bigger the organization, the more it becomes a matter of “The Salvation Army helped me” rather than “Jesus helped me.””

    Robert, I guess I don’t understand why it matters who the poor think helped them…isn’t it more important that they’re getting the help they need, and that more people are getting that help? Can’t credit and the how’s and why’s wait for later? And cutting government programs won’t make a poor person any more likely to credit God for what they have…this seems like two different questions to me, one of how to feed as many poor as possible, and the other of how to convert as many poor as possible.

    I can’t recall who said it, but I’ve always taken it with me…something akin to ‘you have to fill a man’s belly before you can talk to him of God.’ Let’s focus on filling as many bellies as quickly as possible. Let them worry about who to thank when they’re no longer dying in the streets.

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say that government programs reduce the incidence of charity. The percentage of people who freely donate to charity is already low. Take away tax funding for government poverty prevention programs and…I really don’t think more individuals will get involved. Charitable people are charitable with or without taxation for aid programs. Uncharitable people are only “charitable” with them. It’s basic math–government programs increase the pure amount of aid going to those who need it. I don’t see how it’s a Christ-like solution to lessen aid for those who need it just because the IDEAL would be if everyone gave of it freely without being taxed first. Wishing will not make it so and we must work with the world we are given.

    And as regards minimum wage…I have tried to live on minimum wage before as a single person, tried being the operative word. And I just spoke to a girlfriend who’s convinced that she and her three children would have died had it not been for our, albeit limited, food stamps program. Having been touched by these personal experiences, I’m convinced that if most Republicans had to make do on these programs, they’d never even think of not raising the minimum wage, let alone dropping it. For shame.

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I’m getting caught up on about a month’s worth of your blog, but I wanted to let you know that you’ve very eloquently put into words what I’ve struggled to figure out for myself. I’ve been so bothered by politics for the past few years (yet I vote anyway), and this is why, this attitude of entitlement and selfishness. It’s important to fight that attitude both at the polls and in our daily lives.