When many of us hear the word compassion we are filled with good feelings and thoughts of love and joy by the mention of it. We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people, after all who wouldn’t have compassion on a “poor” old man whose body has broken down, a malnourished child, a woman who has been sold into sex slavery, or a family on the streets.
The problem we have here is a semantic one. What Western Christianity understands compassion to be and what it has always truly meant are worlds apart. Compassion isn’t the same as having sad feelings for someone’s situation, or thoughts of pity for those who are poor or oppressed. Those thoughts are just that; thoughts of pity. This is not compassion. For many of us, when real opportunities of com-passion present themselves, we are too gripped by fear of loss and pain, or frozen by feelings of not being able to do anything about the situation, so we often never enter into compassion.
At the root of the word compassion are two Latin words, pati (with) and cum (to suffer); meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion happens when love intentionally moves you into the suffering and brokenness of others; it is to allow your love to meet someone’s worst moment. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts… to be weak with those who are weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.” Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, 3-4.
Feelings and thoughts of sadness and pity is not compassion, however, they can be the beginnings of us moving into compassion.
This is fully seen and realized in the New Testament account of Jesus’ final week before he was crucified. Many people call the week before the crucifixion, “Passion Week.” We learn in the gospel narratives that Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, the very place where he would suffer intentionally, where he would move into our place of sin and brokenness, so that we would receive the fruits of his compassion; light shining out “of the darkness”, offering a divine presence in the midst of our brokenness. Maybe we should call the Holy week, “Compassion Week,” since his suffered was for our sake.
Thus, compassion is not a natural human virtue as is sometimes understood to be. If compassion were to be seen as a front and center virtue of the Christ follower’s life, we might begin to question the fruitfulness of compassion because of the cost it would place on our lives. A society governed by compassion may very well be seen as a foolish and weak society, and indeed, Christ was seen as foolish and weak. Nationalistic movements among Christianity have historically not cared for the weak or foolish within their societies, and view the call “to suffer with” as a death wish that destroys healthy progress in society.
Many people may even say or think to themselves, “Our world will not survive if compassion is a chief virtue.” This thinking would be especially true in a society like ours today, where our greatest ideals are to maximize our satisfaction and limit the amount of loss and pain we experience. We see this is in our business ventures, in start-up ministries/churches, in the way we pick neighborhoods to live in, how we choose to raise our children, in the laws we legislate, etc.
This is not all bad. In fact, much good comes out of limiting loss and pain, but in the process of longing for a better society, we forget that there is still suffering, and those who are on the margins of society likely do not have the ability to choose differently. In our pursuit of our own “right” to happiness, we have lost sight of those who have been robbed of theirs. Thus, on this side of redemption, compassion is a necessary and central virtue among God’s people.
We would do well to turn our ears on to the moment Jesus calls us to compassion: “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” Luke 6:36. This, in the context of real compassion, is a daunting call to sacrifice. This is a call to renewal within a “Christian” system that seeks to protect number oneself or one’s nation as “first” priority. This is a call that we ought not take too lightly.
As Jesus has first died to offer us life within these decaying bodies, he is now our example and leader in sacrificial living. Salvation for the Christ follower is not merely a cognitive belief that places them in the security of the heavenly realms with no earthly commitment to good. Salvation is a call to a whole new way of being human; a call to living out the upside down economy of God’s kingdom on earth; a call to be willing to lose it all for the sake of God’s kingdom being realized and embraced by those who are in darkness; a call to be the liturgy of the church and not merely partaking in liturgical acts.
To the Christ follower, Jesus’ life is not the exception, but the norm. My prayer is that Christ followers would begin to take seriously the implications of the life of Jesus and allow God’s Spirit, who lives in his people, to move them into compassion, not for approval’s sake, but for obedience’s sake. After all, Christ, our savior and leader, learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and we are not exempt from this learning method. The renewal of the Western Church is dependent on the compassion of Christ followers. No compassion, no true renewal.
“In a poem entitled ‘The Good Samaritan,’ Mark Littleton captures the essence of compassion”:
The stoop of a listening father.
The touch and wink of a passing nurse.
The gnarled fingers of a grandmother steadying a swing.
The clench of a surgeon’s teeth as he begins his cut.
The open hand and pocketbook of a traveling Samaritan.
The dew of heaven on dry lips.
–Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Prediger and Walsh, 221.
The call to compassion, to suffer with others, is not a call to induce suffering in your life, but a call to courageously stand, sit, walk, or crawl with those whose lives are fragile, broken, in tragedy, emotionally distraught, hopeless, diseased… you get the point. Christ came to us in our death moment, we are called to presence ourselves to others in their death moments.