WHY WE RESPOND TO TRAGEDY

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Hurricane Harvey. An enormous storm wreaking havoc on the state of Texas. Record rainfall, but also record altruism.  Every media outlet is replete with notable acts performed not only by rescue workers but by everyday citizens risking life and property to ensure the safety of others. I can’t help but consider how these acts embody the very definition of altruism. Citizens showing disinterested and selfless concern (meaning they have no hope of reward or recognition). They are helping simply because it’s the right thing to do.

But has anyone asked where we derive this innate sense of selflessness that often appears during times of emergency or natural disaster? You see someone clinging desperately to a car in a flooded river, and you rush in to save them. You don’t know the individual, nor can you with any certainty say whether either of you will get out unscathed. Why rush in?

Now, consider this. Society generally applauds altruistic acts of selflessness, while we generally denounce acts of selfishness. If someone is in need of help on the street, and you simply walk by, this response will unquestionably elicit anger and denunciation, perhaps even legal recourse. Conversely, if you stop to help the stranger, you will be praised, applauded, and afforded legal protection. If I may be so bold, this is exactly what Jesus taught. In fact, he took it a step further. Not only did he teach selfless kindness, he taught enemy love.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43 – 48 (ESV)

Jesus taught that in no situation is it permissible to neglect the needs of someone else. The amazing and beautiful aspect of this teaching is that it often brilliantly comes to life in situations such as Hurricane Harvey. People are helping on the ground, donating money and organizing campaigns for relief. We were made in the image of God and therefore (particularly in instances such as these) exhibit an innate sense of goodness. And, if that goodness isn’t being demonstrated, we are able to recognize it and call attention to it. For this same reason, large companies or wealthy individuals are expected to be philanthropic. If Apple failed to donate any of their billions in earnings to charity, they would be derided and criticized as selfish.

Tim Keller made an excellent point regarding altruism in a recent Tweet:

Without God, morality becomes subjective, and the there is no basis for telling someone to behave selflessly. But this isn’t what we observe. Unquestionably, humanity exhibits altruism during times of crisis or natural disaster. But this isn’t always the case in our day-to-day lives. These instances elicit a very apparent response, but Jesus is asking us to exhibit this type of altruism on a regular basis. To love and be kind to even those who are vile toward us. I would submit there is regularly a multitude who are nearly as destitute as those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Those without food, shelter, clean clothing, etc. Internationally, there are many who are probably far worse off than those in relief shelters constructed or utilized for Hurricane victims. It’s their everyday lives.

I don’t think it’s purposeful neglect. I think we become complacent. It’s easy to move through our daily lives without thinking too much about others, especially those outside of our immediate sphere of influence. And heck, we often face considerable issues in our own lives. I know there are days when I’m feeling so overwhelmed with my own stuff that it’s difficult to think about taking time to help someone outside of my immediate family. But I still can’t help but think of the unrealized potential of the global church, both in terms of raw manpower as well as financial resources. What if we exhibited a “Harvey” like response more often? Pick a problem, local or abroad. They are plentiful. It gives me hope to see humanity join together in responding to tragedy. I see Christ reflected in these actions, and it inspires me to do more.

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