The Way of Compassion in Christianity
Delivered at the
Building Bridges of Understanding Series:
Interfaith Understanding and Social Justice
Session Three: Compassion
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Creekside Room, Dominican University of California
I decided to approach the subject of compassion somewhat critically today – not because I believe compassion has no place in Christianity (I believe quite the opposite, as you will see), but because Christianity, particularly in the West, sometimes treats compassion as an adjunct to its theological premises, a sort of step-child to the full-blooded doctrines, canonical strictures, and theologies that have grown up over the years a bit like ivy growing up and clambering unchecked over old buildings.
At first glance, compassion seems to have a relatively small place in the heart of Christian tradition – the word itself appears in Christian Scripture only eighty times in one widely used contemporary translation (NRSV), and it almost always is associated with the divine response to human suffering and need. "Turn, O Lord! How long?" writes one Psalmist (90:13), "Have compassion on your servants!" For the ancient Israelites, who suffered frequent invasion and periodic exile, suffering was part of their spiritual landscape as a people, and the need for compassionate mercy and help from their God was essential to their hope and spirituality. But does that readily translate into the imperial Church of the later Roman Empire, the expansion in Northern Europe and development of a uniform Catholic tradition, the time of the Crusades, the Reformation, or, for that matter American Christianity of the twenty-first century?
To further illustrate my point, I might as well talk about my wardrobe – sometimes it's best to describe something that might prove to be a bit of a distraction, in any case! You are not likely to see too many Christians marching around Marin these days in a habit and wearing a funny hat. Even amongst those, you are unlikely to encounter Christians in habits who also happen to be married, as I am, and with children. As a member of a relatively recently founded order in The Episcopal Church, The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, I've inherited a hybridized tradition that draws on numerous sources, so simple questions sometimes receive complex answers!
Late this summer, while walking outside my parish in Mill Valley on a warm, sunny afternoon, an SUV rolled up behind me with the windows down, and from inside, I heard a voice say, "Shabbat Shalom." When the vehicle passed someone else inside said, "But wait! He's wearing a cross!" It was too easy to imagine the comical question mark hanging over the SUV as it turned the corner on its way. It's that kind of puzzlement, I suppose, most Christians, and indeed many religious traditions can encounter in the complexities of today’s world. The hat is not, of course, a kippa or a yamaka, but a zucchetto – literally it means "little squash" in Italian. It originated as head gear for Christian monks to cover their tonsures in the Middle Ages – probably for warmth in inclement weather – and later evolved into ceremonial garments for religious orders and clergy. The white habit is more ancient, tracing its way back to the earliest Christians who were dressed in white tunics as they were received into Christian community from the waters of baptism – a symbol of their spiritual rebirth, a sign of the new, cleansed life in the Risen Christ they had embraced as their old selves died with Christ on the cross. The cincture for me, a novice brother, is a symbol of my being yoked to a promise of obedience, the first step on a journey towards the three evangelical or Gospel counsels taken on as vows in ancient monastic traditions: poverty, chastity, and obedience.
I share all of this with you for two reasons. The first is to illustrate a Christian problem, and perhaps a wider problem of any longstanding religion, and that is that we tend, over time, to accumulate and practice layer upon layer of tradition. This practice of accumulation often buries the essential truths of Christianity, which brings me to my second and primary point this morning: that we can so often lose the importance of the "why" of our accumulated traditions, we can too easily lose the proverbial forest for the trees.
My eight-year-old son reminds me of this repeatedly these days when he starts the "Why" game, in which every answer to a question is met with another "Why?" In the West, Christianity of all kinds, ranging from Roman Catholicism to hardline Protestant fundamentalism and everything in between, including my own Anglicanism, can forget to play this critical game and end up propping up an inherited tradition without cultivating its heart, its core. So, why the funny clothes, and, for that matter, why the prayers and the practices and the stories and the theologizing? And that brings me back to the subject of compassion.
The ancient Greek translators of Hebrew scriptures and the Greek writers of Christian texts of the Bible that we commonly call the New Testament used the verb "splagchnizomai" which is derived from the Greek word for intestines or guts. In the ancient Near-Eastern mind, the seat of human emotion, the center of the human heart, was not where we locate it today with the muscle pump in the chest, but in the digestive tract, the bowels even. Compassion, for these ancient authors, was what we might call a visceral response to human suffering, and being a verb, it implied an almost instinctive, active response – the response of a parent to a suffering child, for instance; of a leader to a leaderless crowd (as it is employed to describe Jesus' compassion in the gospel narratives), or amongst the early Christian authors and expanding in later Catholic theology, of a God to a suffering humanity and cosmos.
Splagchnizomai, compassion, is the primordial response of the divine to us as a people, the visceral birth, if you will, of what early Christian communities recognized as divine love. It is not so much that Christian tradition and theology and doctrine demonstrate to us that compassion is a way to be Christian. Rather, Christians argue that it is only through the eyes of compassion and its full manifestation in mindful love that any theology, tradition, or doctrine is to be tested; it is only through compassion that the accretions of our tradition make any sense both in their interpretation and application. Put simply, I would argue that compassion is the heart of the Christian Way, and without it, we have only a hollow shell of a religion. We utter almost blithely, quoting scripture, when we say "God is love," but there is no more profound theological statement anywhere. Our struggle is only to embrace this more fully in every aspect of our lives.
Many of the problems we see in contemporary Christianity – from a dangerous idolization of inherited institution on the one hand, to a radical disregard for simple moral common sense and a willful deafness to the complexities of human suffering on the other – are the result of losing touch with our central call to compassion, the result of ossifying out hearts with weighty tradition and rigid ideologies. This is an old spiritual problem. The Hebrew prophetic tradition, in which Jesus squarely stood and taught, spoke of the need to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of living flesh again. Salvation, an oft-abused word employed too often these days to ostracize, judge, and condemn, in reality points back to this restoration of compassionate living, this healing of our core humanity. A world of mutual compassion undergirds the peaceable kingdom the prophet Isaiah hopes for, and Jesus speaks of a kingdom of God in which all are fed, all are free: a place more precious than any wealth or power the world can provide. And each act of mercy, of compassion, helps build and usher in this kingdom among us.
Jesus summarizes the Law of his Jewish heritage as love of God and love of neighbor, a love that clearly flows from compassion. We love, as an old children's song I learned standing around the organ in a little mission congregation in the Midwest, because God first loved us. Our response of thanksgiving to God's love for us is to be compassionate with one another and everything around us. This means the funny clothes I wear are meant to serve as a reminder to me and to others about the compassion I am to share with others, a witness to the love that flows forever from the heart of God. It's a love that we argue transcends death, a compassion that will embrace death if necessary so that others may have life, a love, a compassion that gives life and abides, in our central Christian practice of communion, in the deep union with everything that is and the Divine Life. Likewise, the old vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are disciplines for Christian community not as ascetic practices for the sake of spiritual pride, but as a means to live more fully into what we used to call in Latin, caritas, charity in the old language, or love and compassion and we more often use these days.
So that's all fine as a heady theology or idea. How do we put it to practical good use? In one Gospel story a lawyer well versed in the Hebrew tradition puts this question to Jesus in response to his central command to love God and love neighbor: "Who is my neighbor?" In other words, to whom am I to show compassion?
Jesus responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, which like many of his parables is filled with irony. The Samaritan, who above the ostensibly faithful religious authorities that carefully pass by on the other side of the road to maintain their ritual purity, is the only person to show compassion to a man who is beaten and left for dead by bandits. Samaritans were considered the dregs of Jesus' time, the outsiders who, to the authorities of the ancient Israelites, held only a distorted and corrupted version of their common faith. Jesus lifts him up as an example that not only undermines the lawyer's self-justifying motives in posing the question, but also illustrates that it can be the most assiduously religious who sometimes have the most to learn about the central call of compassion, of love. As a matter of fact, we insiders and outwardly religious sorts might learn compassion best from those we most easily ignore or ostracize!
In another famous story, Jesus talks of a stubborn widow who seeks justice from a corrupt judge. It is her insistence that eventually wears him down, and he grants her petition even though he has no heart for her cause. Christians these days often imagine themselves at best imparters of compassion. We "do it" for others. What we can forget, however is that compassion always resides in a social context, and it is not always ours to give. What about compassion when we find ourselves, like the widow, on the raw end of the stick? Her example, I wonder, might tell us that insisting on compassion – even from the seemingly pathologically unjust – is an essential part of our call.
Last weekend, I drove into the City to visit Occupy San Francisco. A group from our parish were led there by a youth member who was first moved by their witness and their call for justice. As we spoke with people who had taken up residence in the growing tent town across the Ferry Building, I was struck by the words of one woman who saw her role as a witness to the powerful – not to tear them down, but to appeal to them for fairness, for justice. She reminded me of the widow in Jesus' story, a witness to the call of compassion – of healing the world from below. Our media is rife these days with criticisms of the psychopathological tendencies of some of the most wealthy elites whose amoral greed and selfish ambition led, with our government's complicity, the world economy and financial system to the edge of the abyss. The result is considerable suffering. This woman's witness is a reminder that beyond the mere judging and cries for justice is a call to appeal to the perpetrators for compassion. When we need it from the powerful, we ask for it. Just as I get calls almost every day from people on the margins seeking not only financial assistance but a compassionate ear.
What would society look like, I wonder, if we all regularly appealed to one another for compassion, for love in this vein? Our tendency towards litigation and legislation is the familiar capitalist and democratic response to the injustices of this or any age. But the Christian response, the Way of Compassion, is an appeal to re-humanize our relationships, to go for the gut, if you will, to summon forth that primordial visceral response to need and suffering, and through that response, to participate in the world's redemption.
Location:Dominican University of California