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Is Compassion Conditional?


One of the difficult realities of life in China (or any other developing country) is the daily encounter with beggars. Since many foreigners working in China are from the western “middle class,” the chances are high that, unless we’ve traveled extensively in the developing world, we  have rarely seen beggars, and thus have little experience dealing with all of the emotion and confusion and often distress that comes when encountered by a beggar.

In the China of the early 21st century, with its plethora of social and economic upheavals, beggars are becoming an increasingly common sight, particularly in the larger cities to which many rural people flock in search of work. Mostly they can be found in areas where either rich folk tend to shop and work, or those places frequented by foreign tourists.

An encounter with a beggar can be a difficult thing. The emotions swirl–embarrassment, frustration, anger, compassion, a desire not to be cheated. The questions surface. How much should I give? Should I give food or money? Should I give anything at all? If I give, won’t I just attract more beggars? How do I know the person is truly in need and not a “professional beggar,” working for a boss?

There are few things that Westerners, particularly Americans, find more distasteful than being cheated, and this becomes apparent in our dealings with beggars. Often, the first thing that wells up inside of us when we are confronted with a beggar is the overwhelming desire not to be cheated. We act as though not being cheated is one of our inalienable rights. And often in our focus on not being cheated, we completely overlook the other issue at stake, namely compassion.

We walk away smugly, feeling sure that they didn’t get the better of us, forgetting that the beggar may indeed be walking away hungry. The fact of the matter is, we have no way of knowing the actual condition of the beggar. They may truly be in need or they may not. At this point, the question at issue should be one of compassion, not of rights.

If we are going to err, isn’t it better to err on the side of compassion? Should the beggar truly be in need, then we have helped. And if he’s not, then we are only out a few mao and we have demonstrated a heart of compassion, which of course really isn’t a demonstration of our own heart, but the heart of God. 

I recently listened to a sermon by John Piper, when he was pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, that touched on the issue of compassion. “The point of compassion,” he said, “is not merely to feed, clothe, house, and help, but so that another might know the big picture…so when we give to a beggar, we do it in the name of Jesus, that his life be manifest in the act of compassion.” 

Maybe the best thing to do, then, when stepping out in China is to carry a few extra mao in one’s pocket…in the name of Jesus.

Image credit: Beggar, by Gordon Lew, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio


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