The question is not merely churlish or academic; it is the stuff of daily headlines. Debates over the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. role in Iraq, the USA Patriot Act, refugees resettling in the U.S. and food aid to Africathese are all debates about what it means to help.
This year about 20,000 refugees, people running for their lives, fleeing persecution and death in their home countries, have been denied admission to the United States because of a change in antiterrorism laws. Catholic relief and resettlement agencies have long been at the forefront of helping refugees establish new lives in the United States. But because of today’s interpretations of the material support bar, people who were robbed by violent or terrorist groups, or who paid ransom for the release of a kidnapped relative, are now barred entry to the United States for helping terrorists. Whole categories of refugeesthose from Colombia, for exampleare now banned from the United States because they supposedly helped groups who were torturing, robbing or kidnapping them.
Most of us would agree that intention has to be part of the definition of help and that actions forced at gunpoint do not amount to help. Certainly anyone with a toddler may believe that help is defined by good intention. I know that when our three-year-old helps in the kitchen, this does not mean the task will be done more quickly or efficiently. But even as we scrub pumpkin muffin batter from the ceiling, we don’t discourage such help. We only hope the good intention of helping will mature over time into a greater capacity to be truly helpful.
Good intentions alone do not cut it for adults. We have the capacity to do better, and to know better. No one doubts that officials at FEMA intend to help people in need because of natural disasters. But no one believes that good intentions alone absolve FEMA of responsibility for its disastrous performance in response to Hurricane Katrina.
Similarly, good intentions do not equate to help in Iraq. Georgetown’s Professor John Langan, S.J., compares the U.S. military intervention to transform Iraq to undertaking surgery without an X-ray or anesthesia or the consent of the patient. Generals who argued that insurgency and civil war would result after the toppling of the Hussein regime were disregarded. Even if you believe that the United States intervened with good intentionsto stop Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction or to emancipate the Iraqi people from a dictatorial regime that abused human rightsthose good intentions are not enough. We had the capacity to do better, and we should have known better. The questions now about whether or for how long or in what capacity the United States should remain in Iraq are largely questions on the nature of help: Does continued U.S. presence in Iraq help or hinder stability there? Should the nature of U.S. help be determined by U.S. domestic politics? What do the people of Iraq think would be helpful?
As the holidays roll around, images of bounty here contrast with images of need around the world, especially in Africa. Food aid seems straightforward. Didn’t Jesus tell us to feed the hungry? Yet the food the United States wants to give can be unwelcome in Africa. An influx of free foreign food can undermine the local market, bankrupting farmers able to produce such food themselves. Genetically modified (G.M.O.) grain, sometimes purchased as part of farm subsidies to U.S. farmers, is seen as a threat to future African harvests. A G.M.O. taint could ban future African trade internationally, since many importing countries reject G.M.O. products. Catholic Relief Services responds to these issues by working with local partners. This may require buying food locally where possible so as not to disrupt local markets or milling modified grain before shipment so the seed will not contaminate future crops.
Jesuit Refugee Services addresses these issues with a mission to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees and forcibly displaced people. By focusing on accompaniment, J.R.S. does not divide the world into victims and helpers but affirms the fundamental human dignity of all, seeing beyond peoples’ needs to their humanity. Solidarity requires moving beyond ignorance and apathy concerning others’ needs. But dignity requires recognizing others’ worth and participating in the helping process. How do others define their own needs, and what do they believe would be most helpful?
As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us will count our blessings and look to share them by helping others. But as we do so in our neighborhoods and our world, let’s do so reflectively, with greater understanding and awareness of what it means to help.