Beware of Telescopic Charity



So, Scott Alexander’s essay “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” is one of the most fascinating essays that I’ve read (or in this case, re-read) in a long time. If you think about “tolerance,” the image that comes to mind is probably one of treating the alien compassionately: that is, acting generously and charitably towards someone quite unlike you. Alexander argues (convincingly, in my view) that this is a cheap sort of tolerance, and that the difficulty is getting along with those you’re closest to. That conclusion struck me as ironic, but he argues it persuasively:

Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese. The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But the Nazis and Japanese mostly got along pretty well. Heck, the Nazis were actually moderately positively disposed to the Chinese, even when they were technically at war. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews – some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate – is the stuff of history and nightmares. Any theory of outgroupishness that naively assumes the Nazis’ natural outgroup is Japanese or Chinese people will be totally inadequate.

And this isn’t a weird exception. Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

And of course, this isn’t just about global geopolitics. Alexander uses this as a launching point to argue that one of the deepest divides we see right now in the U.S. is between political tribes. You’ll gladly welcome a person of another ethnicity or religion to dinner, but someone of opposing political views?

Now, “tolerance” isn’t a virtue, but love is. In fact, it’s the highest one (1 Corinthians 13:13). And “love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude” (1 Cor. 14:4-5a). And what Alexander is arguing – that it’s the people closest to us that are often the hardest to stand – is no less true of charity than it is of tolerance. We need to be wary of “telescopic philanthropy.” That’s the term Charles Dickens used in Bleak House to characterize Mrs. Jellyby, who is described as

a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives — and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.

The narrator is shocked when, upon arriving to her house, he finds her husband and children neglected and her house in disrepair. Mrs. Jellyby found it easy to “love” those far away with grandiose philanthropic programs, but failed to live out the actual nitty-gritty love of her own family.

Maybe at this point you’ve got a pretty specific person in mind, a neighbor or a friend or a spouse who is particularly guilty of this. If that’s the case, pay special attention to the Gospel at Mass tomorrow (Luke 6:39-42), and maybe look a little closer to home yet (I mean you). A few specific questions worth considering:

  • How are we treating our own families?

Are we living out our domestic duties? Even more importantly, are we loving our families? St. Paul cautions that “if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5), shortly after he cryptically hints of the woman who will be “saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (1 Tim. 2:15).

  • How are we treating fellow Catholics  (and other Christians) both online and offline?

Paul encourages us to “not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9-10). To modern ears, Paul sounds almost bigoted. We don’t love because the other person is Christians, we love because we’re Christians! But Paul knows the risk of telescopic charity. The logic that says to work on your domestic church, your family, before you try to set the parish straight is the very same logic that says that if you want to live our charity, start with your own coreligionists. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

But Paul knew something even more important. Christ is made present in the baptized Christian in a radical and unique way. Through Baptism, we become members of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). So in serving our fellow Christians, we are quite literally serving Christ – and even more directly than we serve other people, or cultivate Creation.

The question is, do we recognize these things? Look at how we Catholics speak of Pope Francis, our bishops and priests, prominent Catholic bloggers and personalities, and the rest. Do we speak and act as if we realize that they’re part of our own household of faith, and that it’s our calling to strive to serve them as we can? Or might we not say with St. Josemaria, “What great offence is given to God, and what great injury done to many souls — and what means of sanctification provided for others — by the injustice of the ‘just’!”

Go back to Scott Alexander’s description of ingroups and outgroups. If we’re accepting of atheists and agnostics, but are spiteful towards (say) the Traditionalist Catholics or the Presbyterians down the block, that’s cheap “tolerance.” And it’s certainly not charity.

  • Are we living charity in the small things?

All too often, we think of charity as involving the grand spectacle: some amazing act of greatness exercised towards our fiercest enemy, or a total stranger, etc. But mostly, charity is loving people close to us even when they’re obnoxious, it’s doing what’s asked of us even when it’s frustrating, and it’s a thousand tiny sacrifices rather than an epic martyrdom. St. Francis de Sales puts it beautifully:

Be ready then, my child, to bear great afflictions for your Lord, even to martyrdom itself; resolve to give up to Him all that you hold most precious, if He should require it of you;—father, mother, husband, wife, or child; the light of your eyes; your very life; for all such offering your heart should be ready.

But so long as God’s Providence does not send you these great and heavy afflictions; so long as He does not ask your eyes, at least give Him your hair. I mean, take patiently the petty annoyances, the trifling discomforts, the unimportant losses which come upon all of us daily; for by means of these little matters, lovingly and freely accepted, you will give Him your whole heart, and win His. I mean the acts of daily forbearance, the headache, or toothache, or heavy cold; the tiresome peculiarities of husband or wife, the broken glass, the loss of a ring, a handkerchief, a glove; the sneer of a neighbour, the effort of going to bed early in order to rise early for prayer or Communion, the little shyness some people feel in openly performing religious duties; and be sure that all of these sufferings, small as they are, if accepted lovingly, are most pleasing to God’s Goodness, Which has promised a whole ocean of happiness to His children in return for one cup of cold water. And, moreover, inasmuch as these occasions are for ever arising, they give us a fertile field for gathering in spiritual riches, if only we will use them rightly.

If we’re already living this, great. It’s okay if nobody notices – the One Who Matters notices. And if we’re not living this already, today is a good day to start.



  1. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Egypt and Israel, and even Jesus and his own town of Nazareth, are also Biblical examples of hatred, or jealousy, amongst those living in familial or cultural proximity.

  2. Hey Joe! Good article and good points. I’m having a bit of difficulty in this area precisely when it comes to priests and bishops in the hierarchy. I know that they are given powers that I a layman do not have. The Bishops are successors of the apostles which commands authority and my respect. But so many of them frustrate me to no end! I am maybe being a little scrupulous when I talk about this and feel guilty of judging them too harshly. They have an enormous responsibility that I don’t envy. But some, it seems, just don’t believe the faith anymore and are not concerned with the salvation of their flock and instead focus on temporal, fleeting issues. I know you are most certainly not one of those but what should we do about the present situation in the Church which is by all accounts, in a major crisis (especially the West)? I definitely do want to take care of my domestic church first but I also don’t want to ignore issues on a larger scale. Thoughts?

    May God be with you.


  3. Regarding worrying about the virtuues or vices of others, I like the saying of Jesus to Peter regarding John:

    [21] Him therefore when Peter had seen, he saith to Jesus: Lord, and what shall this man do? [22] Jesus saith to him: So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? follow thou me. (John 21:21)

    Basically, we have enough to worry about our own salvation. We have a long way to run, if we are to run the good ‘race’ that Paul talks about. If we can help a Bishop along the way, all the better. If not, we have our own job to do, just like Jesus says above.

    Just my simple layman opinion.

  4. Hi Joe,

    Great post, and yes, the infighting seems to be spiking recently. There’s a lot of tension within the Church right now, for several reason. The Catholics in America seem to be really on edge because of the upcoming election as well. The call to charity is even greater at these times. I think you touched on the issue at hand really well.

    I wanted to share with you an expression from Pakistan that is apropos to your thesis above. A former dominican missionary in Pakistan explained it to some of the brothers at table in novitiate. He pronounced the expression in Urdu, but I cannot remember it well enough to repeat it here. However, the expression, ‘the lampstand,’ is used to describe a person who is nice to those outside his home all the while being rude and mean to those in his home. The expression refers to the shadow a lampstand casts near its base. Essentially, those closest to the said person are too close to receive his or her love. Harsh reality, and one we all need to beware of.

    Keep on writing brother.

    In Christ,
    Br. Irenaeus, OP

  5. This post reminds me of a quote from G.K. Chesterton in his book “Heretics”

    “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour.”

    1. And the other great Chesterton quotation from the Illustrated London News (16 July 1910): “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

  6. “But some [bishops], it seems, just don’t believe the faith anymore and are not concerned with the salvation of their flock and instead focus on temporal, fleeting issues.”

    Every time I hear (or read) this, I wonder if the person making this complaint is mainly upset that the particular “fleeting issues” being focused on are not his issues, or else he just doesn’t agree with what the bishops are recommending. I know nothing of your politics, Matthewp, but are you a conservative who thinks the bishops are too liberal? (Or a liberal who thinks they’re too conservative?)

    There ought not to be any conflict between faith, salvation, and mundane “issues”. I live in Baltimore, and police-neighborhood relations are a HUGE “temporal, fleeting issue” here. Archbishop William Lori is deeply involved in this matter, and speaks of it often, perhaps even daily. He believes that the Church needs to be not just involved, but truly enmeshed, into the life of the city. Is this wrong?

    1. Hey Bob. It’s not so much as the Bishops saying things that are openly heretical (that’s rare) but a faulty conception of priorities. There is no moral equivalence between something like immigration and abortion. And I’m sorry but I think that Catholic politicians that support abortion need to be excommunicated immediately. St. Paul had no problem with “giving a man to Satan” for his own good. It is meant as a warning and doing nothing, to me, shows a lack of concern for their soul.

      In general I dislike the terms “conservative” and “liberal” applied the Church. They’re politically charged buzz words so I prefer the more accurate”orthodox” and “heterodox.” And drawing an equivalence between something like abortion and immigration is actually heterodox. Abortion not only kills lives, it wrecks souls. It’s high time we started acting like the souls of the Nancy Pelosies of the world still matter and warn them of the danger they put themselves in through supporting abortion.

      May God be with you.


      1. So it seems I was correct in my speculation. You’re upset because (quoting myself here) “the particular “fleeting issues” being focused on are not [your] issues.” Yours are apparently pro-life and anti-immigration.

        As for “faulty” priorities, there is no One Size Fits All. The priorities in one diocese, or even in one parish, might be completely different than in another. Here in my city of Baltimore, a few years ago a priest (now deceased) was appointed pastor to St. Bernadine’s Church with the assignment of shutting it down. (It was a failing, inner city church with virtually no congregation left to it). He was given, I believe, 5 years in which to do so. Well… The first thing this Good Man did was to knock on every door in the neighborhood of the church, asking the same question over and over again – “What is it that you need to know?” Not just “need” mind you, but “need to know”.

        The answer was overwhelmingly a need for, of all things, how to toilet train a child. So a class in toilet training was set up in the church and, once again door to door, advertised throughout the neighborhood. From that seed, one thing led to another, and guess what? Today St. Bernadine’s is not only not closed, but is one of the most thriving parishes in the city, with overflow crowds at Sunday Mass, and a deeply involved laity.

        So the priority is not always “something like abortion”.

        1. It seems to me that you can have it both ways. Absolutely a person can be disappointed and confounded over how a bishop, or priest, can act the way they do. I’m pretty sure Jesus was confounded with the treachery of Judas, for instance. And, we all know that He wept of over Jerusalem. This weeping of Christ teaches that such emotions are normal when we have great love and hope for people, priests, family and friends, but see by their words and actions that they don’t seem, at present, to intend to ‘straighten out’ or amend their attitudes or deviant ways. It’s very confounding at times, and I think this is what MatthewP is trying to say.

          And so, what is the correct attitude or actions that we should take after we realize that nothing seems to be working with our priests, family or friends? Was this not something that St. Monica might have asked God while sorrowfully praying for her talented, but wayward, son Augustine? I think Bob gives the right example, above. We have the option of fretting, worrying, complaining, weeping and even despairing due to such concerns. But this ‘Good Man’, in his example above, chose the best way, that is: overwhelming charity and maybe even joy, in light of the greatest challenge of trying to resurrect his dying Parish. Fretting wouldn’t have helped at all. So the logical option was to get to work and meet the people where they’ were at. This is similar to the way that so many missionaries did their evangelical work in past times, thinking of the future fruits possible, than the present. They first proved their true love and concern by physical acts of charity and mercy. Doctrine only came second. Maybe Jesus’ miracles also served such purposes in a like manner?

          So, the priest in the example above started of by showing great love for all the people of his parish by reaching out to them in their own homes. And this is what Jesus also taught his disciples to do in His holy Gospel. This was the Lord’s strategy as well. Not to mention Pope Francis’ and St. Theresa of Calcutta’s strategy, too. This is to say, that instead of despairing and fretting, it’s better to get out, communicate positively, have hope, do some good and… be patient to see what happens. And then be happy if only one little green sprout shoots up and only one person comes around to see through your eyes. Then, repeat.

          What can everyone do to encourage these green sprouts? Promote to everyone Ewtn Radio in your local vicinity. If you fret over why people are so worldly, even priests and bishops, tell them how good the radio broadcasts are. Then, if you have the resources, give people biographies of the Satholic Saints to read. This has helped many people turn around in the past…such as St. Ignatius of Loyola. And if you don’t have the money to give good books, then give good websites. They’re free. I’ve given many people this very blogsite, and sometimes even asking if they have a mobile phone in their pocket, and then bookmarking it for them right then and there on the spot. I can’t count how many times I did this, but probably over 2 -3 dozen.

          So, in my opinion, positive charitable action is the best way ahead when there seem to be no other solutions. Worrying, arguing, fretting about others’ virtue and salvation are all normal emotions, but serve very little to solve anything. Patience, joy, good example, charitable words, etc.. on the other hand, provide the hope that something positive might result in the future. And ANY seed sown, no matter how few, is better than NO seed sown. And just maybe, as it did for the Good Man above, and for countless Saints in the past (like St. Monica), the patient effort and holy labor will not be in vain. Maybe God will use your works and words of holy charity for these very persons salvation?

  7. I really wanted to read the Ingroup-Outgroup dissertation by the Jewish psychiatrist. I suppose I’m guilty of the sin-crime which Scott and Joe both discuss. I could read Joe’s essay but could only skim with confusion and impatience what Scott tried to say with stoo many words.

  8. It is a true observation (sure to de denounced as “anti semitism) that the Jews are the new Nazis in that they are racial supremacists, but, that is true only insofar as that appears to be a relatively new historical truth whereas one can find evidence in the Talmud that the Jews have always been racial supremacists and, of course, Jesus publicly scolded them for their racial supremacism and said their father was satan.

    It is not at all odd to note that Nazis are aways the most evil of men routinely invoked to make a point but the Communists were far far worse than the Naziz but the routine reference to Nazis indicates who it is who controls cultural discourse.

  9. I haven’t been able to find the source for this quotation, but there’s an applicable quotation ascribed to St. Mother Teresa:

    “It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”

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