Statistics and the Least of These

On my way to my stat. lab this morning, I was thinking about statistics and how they relate to talking about the least of these.

The back of my recently received T-shirt reads, “There are approximately 27 million slaves worldwide.” Recent studies have shown that we are more likely to respond with charity to single anecdotes about needy persons than to statistics of the multitudes that are in need.

The theory behind this phenomena is that large numbers overwhelm the potential giver, and therefore, they do not give as much or at all. This isn’t at all surprising. Its not possible to capture a person with their own hopes and dreams, habits and quirks, personality traits and relationships in a number. How do you encapsulate the fact that a reflection of the Divine has perished into a statistic?

Of course, statistics are not supposed to capture these aforementioned items. They are, of course, openly reductionistic. They are utilized to generate information. They destroy information, to create different, potentially useful, information.

What’s interesting about these types of statistics is that there is a mismatch between intent and effect of presenting these statistics. These stats. are often presented with the intent of highlighting how desperate a situation is, so that people will be more motivated to act and help the situation. Instead, they feel overwhelmed and helpless.

Its a bit paradoxical what is happening when individuals are “put inside” a statistic and presented. We are presenting an abstracted representation of individuals: 1000 people. This, inherently, reduces the cognitive appreciation of those individuals, then we ask others to act in a way that appreciates the value of those individuals, which are the same individuals whose value is depreciated in the statistic in the first place!

(This is not, by the way, a tirade against statistics. Statistics are great and useful. I’m merely remarking upon the paradox that is perpetuated by presenting statistics of people.)

Contrast this statistical approach of motivating response to need with Jesus’. Its unlikely that Jesus had access to the psychological study mentioned above, but perhaps there is some wisdom in how Jesus supposed we should cognitively respond to a person in need. We are supposed to equate the least of these with Jesus himself. Statistics asks us to associate the needy with that which cannot be known: 1000 people’s hopes, dreams, and habits while Jesus asks us to associate the needy with that which the disciple knows intimately: Jesus himself.

I can’t help but feel a bit impoverished with regard to this association as a 21st century disciple. Jesus’ contemporaries can appreciate the associate more because they had more time and more information about Jesus’ personhood. Moreover, as a 21st century Christian, I often asked to think of Jesus as God. Both of these conditions make associating the least of these with Jesus similar to associating the least of these with a number: they both contribute to a limitation of my knowledge of the person of association.

At this point, I don’t know what to do. I am often heartless about the needy situations of others. By that statement, I mean something very specific: I do not have an empathic or compassionate response to suffering. I’ve tried to see the least of these as Jesus in the past (I think) and that does not provoke compassion.

I desire to be able to be “compassionate as God is compassionate.” (Borg’s translation of Luke 6:36) God help me.

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