Testing Compassion at the Church February 26, 2009

Testing Compassion at the Church

Here’s a cool experiment (with severely flawed methodology). Pastor Tommy Jackson pretended to be a drunk and homeless man wandering around his Texas church’s parking lot. As church members drove in for service that morning, they saw a man staggering around

Jackson wanted to test his congregation on their compassion for those in need. Playing the part to the fullest, he even had the police called on him. Some church members were [leery], but others offered food and shelter, not knowing who the mystery man was. Jackson revealed himself at the end of the Sunday service.

There’s video, too.

Ok, so if I saw a strange man around my own church’s parking lot one morning, and saw cameramen in the distance, I would just jump to the conclusion that something strange may be happening and I should be on my best behavior. Maybe that’s just me. And judging by the video, I’m shocked that no one seemed to recognize it was him. He changed his clothes, added a fake beard, and splashed alcohol on himself. I do that on a regular basis and everyone seems to know it’s me…

A better experiment may have been getting a non-church-volunteer to pose as the drunkard and approaching select people somewhere away from the church (grocery store parking lot, neighborhood park, etc.) where they may not feel a sudden urge to “act Christ-like.”

That said, I think it’s an interesting experiment and I like that the response was that several people were willing to help. It makes me feel good. I want to say that non-Christians would’ve been just as courteous.

Am I right?

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  • The Unbrainwashed

    I think the implication of this experiment is that selfishness is inherently good. I don’t agree. Helping homeless people does not make you a good person. These wayward individuals should be avoided because they’re a detriment to the functional members of society.

    Give the guy directions to the nearest shelter so he can mooch off the government so more.

    Note: The above doesn’t apply to all homeless people. Some have legitimate mental disorders and should be encouraged to seek proper care. Their family members should be burdened with the financial responsibilites of medical care, but if not able to, the government can step in.

  • nick aawesomeson

    I thinkk I’d jump to the most logical conclusion: Zombie. I’d then take a baseball bat, sever the head from the body, then go to the gun store, stock up, and find a good place with non-perishable food to hole myself up in. A church is no good, too many openings. Maybe, if there weren’t too many people, at the top of a large building, with access to a roof, so passing flightcraft could see me.

  • The only flaw with your better suggestion is that you might not find any members of your church at the grocery store.

    Doing it near the church guaranteed he could test his congregates – the purpose of the test, the only other way of doing it would be to stalk each member of the church during the week and test them individually – not only an invasion of privacy but would take ridiculously long to test.

    The purpose of the stunt was to test the church, I think it’s actually better near the church because it shows how many wouldn’t do anything anyway – an opportunity to shame them.

    I do agree that any non-Christian may be just as helpful or ignorant – probably ignorant if we’re all honest. There’s always reports in London of people getting attacked and passers-by looking the other way.

  • I really hate to agree somewhat with The Unbrainwashed, because he sounds like a libertarian…

    But I don’t find a drunk bum stumbling around to be much of a morality test. In some places it’s sadly a common sight, and I don’t see how you can expect anyone to reach out and personally aid every drunk bum they see. It’s just not practical. You wouldn’t be able to get from point A to point B without a shmaltzy TV movie occurring.

    Resources are available in most places, and it makes more sense to donate money to them if you want to help.

    Does the pastor personally fix the life of every drunk bum he sees? The whole thing seems pretty ridiculous.

  • David D.G.

    I’ll give the pastor credit for an interesting idea for the experiment, but I agree that the methodology was highly flawed. A drunk bum, which Abbie rightly points out as a pathetically commonplace sight, is hardly a proper equivalent to the mugging victim in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Let the pastor hire an unknown person to act that part (or something else of the sort, such as an injured runaway pregnant teen), and hide the cameras better, and then we might see more clearly who’s charitable and who isn’t.

    ~David D.G.

  • Miko

    cf. http://www.snopes.com/college/exam/compassion.asp

    The Unbrainwashed… sounds like a libertarian…

    (Since this isn’t a politics thread, to avoid the risk of “hijacking” this thread for libertarianism, I’ll state up front that I’m just making one comment and will not respond further here.) Unbrainwashed is perhaps offering a Randian position, but definitely not a libertarian position (which is not to say that there aren’t libertarians that hold such a view or that Unbrainwashed isn’t a libertarian in addition to holding this view, but just that it isn’t a philosophical necessity or even a dominant view among libertarians). There’s a pretty fundamental distinction between government and society; just because I reject the violence inherent in the former is no reason to think that I’d be against compassion in the latter, or in favor of any social-Darwinism pseudoscience. Indeed, speaking solely for myself: quite the opposite.

    There’s a fundamental distinction between thin libertarianism (non-aggression principle and not much else) and thick libertarianism (thin libertarianism coupled with other values worth promoting as well, typically in a non-coercive way). Saying “we should protect the rights of all individuals, but hope that the homeless die in the streets so that they stop leaching off the rest of us” is one example of thick libertarianism, but it’s a pretty odd one since it involves simultaneously caring so much about other people as to want to protect their rights to an almost fanatical extent while also caring so little about them as to think that their death would benefit society. For a version of thick libertarianism I find more desirable, I suggest checking out some of the works of Roderick Long, starting with his lecture on Culture and Liberty (mp3, 90min) from his seminar on the Foundation of Libertarian Ethics.

  • Since most of the biblical prophets probably suffered from schizophrenia, a better experiment would be to impersonate a person with sever schizophrenia. All good church-going folks should recognize schizophrenic behavior as the Holy-Spirit flowing unimpeded.

  • Randy

    I’d be more weary than helpful. A church my wife played piano at got robbed a few times. The thugs realized everyone was busy and went through offices, purses and even cars.

  • postsimian

    Of course people will act righteous. They’re in a church parking lot. They have an audience. I couldn’t even begin to recall all the holy pissing contests I’ve seen among congregations. When I was attending the Christian high school, people tried to out-holy each other all the time–as long as someone was watching. In private, especially off campus, people were considerably less Christ-like.

    I think if the parameters of the test had been changed, you’d still get a few consistent people who are actually sincere. But no doubt the number would be considerably lower than the one in this test.

  • Spurs Fan

    I must say that I’m much more impressed by those people who offered help or shelter (even if it was inside the church) rather than the people who just stayed in the parking lot, prayed for him, and then went about their business. Geez…

  • Turrboenvy

    When I see a drunk person, I don’t think “hey, they need my help!” Perhaps if they staged a hit and run type accident, like that old guy run over by street racers, who was left laying in the street while 20 people stared from a distance. That’s someone in need of immediate assistance.

  • absent sway

    While I respect the idea of calling attention to the need for compassion, the drunken homeless man cliche is not a consistent way to measure congregants’ compassion. I have frequently been approached by homeless men when I am alone, even to the extent of tapping on my windshield once I have entered my car and am preparing to exit a parking lot at night. As a young woman of small stature, this can be quite an intimidating scenario. I don’t think it’s at all the same thing for me to approach a drunken male stranger in public as it is for someone with a strong physical presence to do so, and I don’t think doing so would make me as compassionate as it would make me naive. There are many ways to help people who find themselves homeless that the pastor could have illustrated to his congregation which would have been more effective in encouraging their compassion.

  • Luther Weeks

    Some church members were [leery], but others offered food and shelter,

    What about God…did they offer him God and salvation? Come on! Food and shelter, what good is that without God…and with God why would one worry about food and shelter?

    I’d say the congregation has a ways to go when it comes to belief.

  • For all who would be cautious about approaching a ‘drunk’:


    Sometimes alchohol is not the problem. It’s a judgment call in the end but you can’t always just ignore a problem based on some lofty principle.

    And if you don’t want to help the poorer and lost members of society -fine, leave it to the churches to do it – but don’t complain when it feels like there are more and more evangelists on the street. 😉

  • Erik

    I’m kinda disappointed in most of the responses here. I know some people are uncomfortable with talking to drunks, and that’s understandable. But to say that drunks are undeserving of help based *on principle* — well that’s just not charitable at all.

  • Here’s one thing I’ve noticed. Most Christians – the suburban, generally wealthy or middle class ones like here in the South – they can deal with one or two people. They can deal with one drunk, one homeless person, one black person, one gay person.

    What they can’t deal with is being a minority. They have a great fear when they are the minority in any situation – they feel unsafe, and they feel they don’t have control. I’m a minority in my neighborhood – everybody in my neighborhood is an ethic minority; there is no majority. It’s a pretty safe community but most suburban Christians would never venture here – to them it’s a “ghetto” and “unsafe” – usually codewords for “there be black or brown people there.”

    This is often why we never see the suburban churches helping with the urban problems. In my city there are over 5,000 homeless and only around 2,000 beds in shelters on any given night. The suburban churches see no issue in building gymnasiums that sit empty more than half the week. They can spend 30,000 on a new video projection system. When a call goes out to collect 5,000 sets of coats and winter clothes for the homeless nets a half-hearted response of around 1,000 sets.

    The churches can usually collect some money because it doesn’t actually involve being around the poor and homeless. I saw photos of a church that recently hosted a “30 Hour famine” event to raise money. The youth group made card board boxes to sleep in on the front lawn of their suburban church, many painting and decorating their boxes. As somebody who has been around the homeless some over the past few years, it is hard for me to even being describing out outrageously out of touch with reality this people are. In fact, I find it rather insulting. It is if they are saying “I understand you and your situation even though I don’t care enough about you to even meet you or spend time with you or get to know you.” Why not spend the night at a homeless shelter or in a park frequented by homeless? Because it isn’t safe? And I thought you believed you had a God watching over you and protecting you? More likely it’s because you’d be so ashamed to be seen with Lazarus, right Rich Man?

    “I asked participants who claimed to be “strong followers of Jesus” whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time wit the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. i had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” – Shane Claiborne, “The Irresistible Revolution”

  • I’m kinda disappointed in most of the responses here. I know some people are uncomfortable with talking to drunks, and that’s understandable. But to say that drunks are undeserving of help based *on principle* — well that’s just not charitable at all.

    I’m not sure if the folks opposed to helping the bum are doing so based on some “principle.” The gestalt, as I understood it, was that people who behave oddly in public should be avoided in general. It’s just self preservation.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    to them it’s a “ghetto” and “unsafe” – usually codewords for “there be black or brown people there.”

    Well that simply comes from statistics. The more black people in a given neighborhood, the higher the crime rate. Of course, while it’s a very strong correlation, it’s not proportional.

    Even Jesse Jackson once remarked he gets nervous when walking alone and notices a group of black men behind him.

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