According to many reports, the outpouring of donations for tsunami relief in Asia is setting records, especially for online donations. Yesterday, NPR’s “Talk of The Nation” featured a call-in with international aid executives. As I drove around town on my errands, a man telephoned to ask whether American taxpayers were going to have to make up for the $350 million President Bush has thus far pledged, and if so, where was the money going to come from to help people abroad when we have so many problems at home?
I briefly wondered whether the caller had expressed the same concerns about paying for the war in Iraq (according to the National Priorities Project, it is now nearly $150 billion, over 400 times the U.S. tsunami relief pledge and rising).
The aid executive’s answer was yes, if Americans want resources on hand to deal with future needs, the pledged funds will have to be replenished. She also said it was good to help others and a boon to our image to show generosity. She didn’t go so far as to say that we need quite a few correctives to address the reality that the United States is not exactly beloved for its recent actions abroad, but that’s what I was thinking. Indeed, mindful of image as well as need, my husband and I made our donation through the excellent American Jewish World Service, thinking it might help to counter some of the anti-Jewish propaganda that abounds in the affected countries.
I keep thinking about that caller who found it difficult to stretch his feelings of empathy and responsibility beyond national borders. But millions have already made the stretch, reaching out to help absolute strangers who share no affinity of language or religion, just the core commonality of human vulnerability to natural disaster. The progressive organizations I belong to sent aid pleas to their members, and although I wasn’t able to find much along the same lines on right-wing organizations’ Web sites, I have a hunch that donations are coming in across the political spectrum.
Yet even as our citizens pour compassion on Asia’s wounds, our national government rubs them with salt: in December, the Bush administration sharply cut the U.S. contribution to international food aid (the UN estimates that 800 million people in the developing world are chronically hungry, and half the deaths of children under five are associated with malnutrition). Also in December, President Bush nominated Albert Gonzales as Attorney General, a man whose claim to fame is advising the White House that the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to the “War on Terror.”
I am encouraged that empathy persists, that generosity endures in the hearts and minds of our citizens. The kernel of empathy that sprouted in response to the tsunami is precisely the seed we must nourish and tend to extend compassion not only to tsunami victims but also to our nation’s many innocent victims in Iraq, to the millions who starve in the developing world, and yes, to sufferers from “those problems at home” cited by the NPR caller.
My prayer and vison for this year is a tidal wave of compassion that washes onto our own shores, sweeping up our own neighbors. In Amos’s ancient words, cited in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”