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Marvin Olasky: The Tragedy of American Compassion


Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 299 pages, ISBN 9781433501104.

Under review is the second unrevised edition of The Tragedy of American Compassion originally published in 1992. There is good reason for a second unrevised edition. The circumstances described by Olasky in this history of social work and charity in America as existing in 1992 remain much the same in 2008-10.

The title is derived from a phrase found on page 189 where Olasky writes of a “compassion fatigue” brought on by depersonalization. He identifies governmental bureaucracy in social work as contributing to the breakdown of personal involvement with the homeless and others in need. He quotes a social worker’s comment which appeared on page 17 of a February 8, 1971, Time magazine article: “…the paper work is just amazing … I have yet to solve any social problem.”

The author also noted a semantic shift over time from when compassion meant a personal act with another to a “feeling” requiring “a willingness to send a check” (p. 197). This, too, constituted a tragic breakdown of charity and personal social work in America.

The Tragedy of American Compassion is a chronological social history of compassion and caring in America from colonial times to the present noting the changes from a time of more personal involvement and action to the present situation of de-personalized help. A second stream of narrative in the book is the flow from discussions over who merits special attention as recipients of charity to full-blown arguments and policies over who merits care. The time when discussions turned into arguments was close to 1845. As the country’s urban areas became more populous and industrialized, those arguments got more energized and more developed as philosophical differences over private caring and governmental welfare. It went from “should we not do more” to universal indiscriminate welfare.

The tragedy: The meaning of compassion has shifted from personal acts and involvement to depersonalized “feelings” and willingness to send money.

Olasky devoted two long chapters to the issues raised by Social Darwinists and by those who set out to prove the Social Darwinists wrong. Among the latter were the newly formed private charity organizations and the colorful figure of Jerry McCauley, the founder of the McCauley Mission in New York City. McCauly’s Christian rescue mission concept set off a rash of such missions which spread rapidly across America from coast to coast in the late nineteenth century.

In chapter six Olasky lists what he identifies as “seven seals of good philanthropic practice.” These included Affiliation, Bonding, Categorization, Discernment, Employment, Freedom and God (page 101). Affiliation refers to family, ethnic ties, and church or synagogue. Bonding refers to the direct contact and personal relationship between volunteer and recipient. Categorization refers to identifying the type of help needed and what is worthy of relief. Discernment refers to the acknowledgment of any lurking deviousness or pretension in a person seeking help. Employment is self-explanatory but with a stipulation of “long-term” work. Freedom refers to the opportunity to work and worship without government restriction. God is the seventh seal on the social covenant of compassion.

It is difficult to show compassion for people you do not know or have any meaningful contact with.

Chapter ten is important for the analysis offered of the revolution of the 1960s in welfare and of the heartbreak which followed in the aftermath when several of these seals were broken under the influence of a growing belief in universal social welfare without any discrimination applied. Chapter eleven offers a critique of depersonalized welfare, the entitlement mentality, checkbook compassion, universal social welfare (social universalism), and non-discriminatory welfare.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Winter 2011

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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