Is Compassion an Oudated Concept?

By guest blogger: Julian Hillman, United Trustee


Active compassion seems to be approved, nay required, across all the major religions.  In  both Islam and Christianity great emphasis is placed upon the giving of alms.  “Giving alms, or Zakah, to the poor is the third pillar of Islam”*.  The Good Samaritan parable in St. Luke’s gospel , where a man is found half dead on the road, requires Christians to help everyone not just those from their own tribe.


 As an agnostic these religious traditions still ring true for me.  Although much of the U.K. population is secular or not religiously active, it seems reasonable to argue charitable giving is part of our universal heritage and perhaps in our DNA.


Compassion is surely about experiencing the suffering of another group or individual and making an emotional identification. Watching the news often threatens severe compassion overload.  Things nearer home tug more powerfully.  In early August I saw horrific BBC new footage concerning two mass shootings in America and yet on reflection the next item about the damaged Whalley Bridge dam where no one had been harmed so far, hit home more powerfully.  I know where the place was, I have been there.  Imagine abandoning your home and wondering whether it would be there when you came back.  Consider the mindset of the people who had gone back and were now refusing to leave for a second time.


Thinking about the mass shootings in America it is not hard from our perspective in the UK to think “Why do they sell all those guns?”, “Why has the President provided opportunities for white supremacists to feel better about themselves?”.  In some ways I don’t need to identify so closely after all it is not my fault or my neighbourhood. But it is senseless murder, people have lost family and innocent lives gone forever.  Isn’t this more deserving of my compassion than a dodgy dam?


What I am arguing here is that compassion needs some thought as well as some passion.  However one can over think.  Maybe if I give a quid to that grubby looking guy outside Sainsbury’s he will spend it on something that harms him.   However if I give £100 to my old college’s building fund I will get my name in the brochure, my old university mates will be impressed and the grubby guy probably is his own worst enemy.


Let’s think about helping others and reflect on our judgements and prejudices, but let’s not persuade ourselves that the great tradition of “giving alms” is in the past, because the choices are too difficult, the need is not there, or we are too busy with our own lives.  


*Ed Husain “The House of Islam” p. 36