The Foolishness of Compassion

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”:

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 surgeons 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.

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An Honest Conversation 

“I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom… Is there no virtue among us?… If there be not, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical (highly unrealistic) idea.” James Madison, late 18th century, via Habits of the Heart, 254.

This is indeed a powerful statement from a man who was the chief architect of our infamous Constitution that has helped shape a great nation. The power was always meant to be in the hands of the collective people, people with virtue and wisdom, people who are able to see goodness and honor, and to elect only those who displayed such characteristics. Is this not what we long for in America? Is this not why many people are outraged over the amount of support Trump has won over? The disregard of virtue and character disgusts us and confuses many in our country today. It also reveals how many of us have things we love more than goodness, truthfulness, and human dignity.

I would be neglectful however, if I focused only on Trump’s (or any other candidate’s) virtues and wisdom (or lack thereof) and did not take the time reflect on the virtue and wisdom of our founding fathers as well. The tension of this powerful statement comes from a man (James Madison) who did not count blacks as part of “We the people.” They didn’t even see them as fully human. To be exact, they saw them as 3/5 human. The “We the people” didn’t even fully include women, as they were void of many rights as well, including the ability to vote. This was a founding group of white men who forcefully took land, lives, and dignity from the natives, and to this day, has never fully been acknowledged and dealt with. It seems so easy to overlook this reality and romanticized the goodness of our founding fathers because of all the other good they stood for and the amazing Constitution they created, but to overlook this seems like a grave injustice and inhumane.

This is a generational narrative that has set an infinite amount of implicit rules that most white people are not able to see nor admit. Our nation was founded by white men who set up a nation to cater to people with the same color of skin as theirs. Within all this, implicit rules were established, rules that put white mans needs above everyone else. These unspoken implicit rules have set a culture that has so utterly permeated today’s culture, that to deny there is not equality or equity for people who have darker skin than the average Englishman is ignorant. There are forces at work that people in the dominant culture are not able to see unless they’re able to humbly get out of their privilege and see through the lenses of sub-dominant cultures perspectives.

I say this not to discount the goodness of what America has stood for in many other ways through out all the years, but to seek honest reflection about a nation that has become my heritage, my home. I do believe we live in a very great nation that has fought for justice and peace in many ways. But any good historian (and I am no where close to an historian) would never recount only the good and forsake the ugly of the past. Yet, we as Americans seem to easily neglect the mess as a way to anesthetize our senses to the dysfunction of our heritage, leaving cancer in our souls, slowly growing and hurting and killing us, like a frog boiling in water, and we wonder how we are in the place we are today.

So what is virtue and wisdom? How should we define those words? Does our founding father’s neglect of human dignity towards Women, Blacks, and Indians matter to any of us, or is it easy for us to overlook it and spin the truth of what it was like back then? Was our country founded with “integrous” virtue and wisdom? Does anyone care about our heritage? Do we even care that we’ve never fully acknowledged the atrocious acts of our beginnings? Are we willing to be honest about them, or is it too much for us to take in? Are white people scared to speak out and say that the race issue is the dominant cultures problem? Will white people read this and miss the point I’m trying to make, and become angry with what I’m saying? Where’s our virtue, our wisdom, our courage?

At this moment in history, we’ve been offered another gift. A gift that has exposed, once again, where we are at as a nation, where we are morally, where our allegiances lay, what we truly love and value, and our individual concern that has neglected the common good of the “whole.”

Many of us today are disgusted at what we see? The question is, what are we going to do with our disgust? Are we going to numb ourselves from it and say it really is not a big deal? Are we going to keep on spinning our heritage and twisting historical facts? Are we going to be selective listeners? Are we going to allow our disgust to move us to hate certain people and groups and create more division? Are we going to let the oppressive culture dictate how we treat people? Or are we going to let it move us to compassion that seeks alternative ways to live and honor each other’s diversity? Is it crazy to think that we would allow our disgust to radically change the way we live and love both privately and publicly?

The future holds the mysterious and unknown answers to these questions, and we will soon see what’s next for this people group called Americans. We are all responsible to act and change according to our convictions, and do so in a way that restores human dignity, with a virtue of humility and the wisdom of the divine. May we all be willing to not only take an honest loom at our heritage, but also an honest look at our own lives, our loyalties. We truly are what we love, and what our fore fathers loved, has shaped what we believe and how we behave more than we’re willing to admit.

What do you love, really? Be honest. It’s brutal at first, then you’ll realize you’re human, you’re flawed, and so is everyone else around you. Maybe then we’ll be able to offer more grace to others who are different than us, and will be able to see with a new set of lenses, our country, our families, our personal and public lives, and our need for one another.

Is this the world you want? You’re making it everyday you breathe the air of this world. What is your life song singing? Are you playing on tune? Are you playing in harmony with others or do you prefer solos, or should I say silos? We need each other more than we know, but we need to admit it first. Freedom is at hand, and it’s not the kind of freedom most of us think of. It’s a freedom to be exposed, to be wrong, and to admit it. It’s a freedom to not be in control, and to give up power, and to offer life to those who have had life robbed from them. The freedom we’ve been given, at whatever level we actually have freedom, has been given so that we are able to offer it to others as well.

Renewing Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal is a phrase that, for the last 50-60 years or so, has referred to the government program that wanted to revitalize urban slums. The renewal process included demolishing old or run-down buildings, constructing newer housing, or adding in features like a theater or stadium. Urban renewal is usually undergone for the purposes of persuading wealthier individuals to come live in a particular area where land owners, years earlier, left the neighborhood but held on to their property.

In the 1940’s this government program became a nationwide push to clear, rebuild, and redevelop slums. Although there has been good things that have come out of this program, critics of the urban renewal project have contended that although they bulldoze slums, urban renewal programs often have led to their replacement by office buildings and apartment homes for the well-to-do. The critique with hindsight has seen that “renewal” was seen through the lens of a Westerner Capitalistic mindset that paid little attention to culture, personal needs, and aesthetic beauty.

For instance, you may have heard of the phrase, “the projects” when referring to government housing in a “rough” neighborhood. These are apartment buildings intentionally built to be simple, same, and lacking any character at all. The plan was to demolish old buildings and houses, move out the poor, and build them new buildings without the frills. In some cities, you can see “the projects” built in rows, almost like corn fields, where all the people who were part of the crime and poverty of one neighborhood, were relocated to “the projects” (lower income housing) to start a new community.

The idea was that a new place with a new building was going to stimulate the neighborhood’s poor to live differently. This has not been the case. The projects, in many ways, have been a terrible project that have not only uglified neighborhoods, but has destroyed cultures of so many diverse groups. This is because when renewal is understood to be brought about by new physical buildings, we have terribly misunderstood the heart of what renewal is. It was also a bad project because no matter who the people are, when any neighborhood is made for only those who have little to no resources, you will always end up with a “ghetto”.

An older mentor of mine who has lived in the “ghetto” most of his life shared with me a dream he had one night. He said that he was speaking at a large church in a wealthy part of town, and he asked every one who has a broken family to stand up (divorce, abuse in the family, chemical addiction, porn addiction, addiction to needing material things to feel happy, homelessness, etc.). The whole church in all of it’s courage rose to their feet, and then he declared, “The ghetto is everywhere my friends!”, then he walked off the stage and sat down. Sounds like a profound dream to me; the ghettos is indeed everywhere.

The motivation behind this post is a desire to share my heart for true urban renewal, which has some to do with material things eventually, but has more to do with learning to address the issues of the ghetto, the issues that find their origins within all of us: namely, issues of prejudice (racial, social, cultural, political, spiritual, etc). Renewal begins with us; renewing what we think, desire, and believe in.

I believe urban renewal must address the whole person, the whole neighborhood, and the whole city, and all the issues that come with people, neighborhoods, and cities. But the starting place is confronting within ourselves the presuppositions (our worldviews, what we think and believe), the lenses that we interpret life through. No one has a neutral lens. So renewal begins with us, asking ourselves, what kind of people do we need to be in order to resist the destruction that our prejudices create? What are the virtues of true renewal?

In the series of posts to come, I want to make a case for the kind of thinking/believing/desiring that I think must take place in our minds and hearts if we are to ever experience the renewal in our lives and cities that we are longing for. I will spend more in-depth time talking about the virtues of peaceableness, justice, compassion, hospitality, simplicity, community, and wisdom. Here’s to renewing what urban renewal was always meant to be.