A Compassion-Formed People

Compassion is a radical critique of the imperial imagination because it announces that the hurt of the people, even of one’s enemies, will not be disregarded but will be taken seriously. To do otherwise is to make pain normative, injustice permissible, and evil god. Empires live in callous disregard to the human pain which they require to sustain themselves. God and God’s people live in compassionate empathy with the broken ones. God and God’s people offer hope to the hopeless. – Harry Huebner

For the past three and a half years I have done a monthly radio broadcast for the Mennonite Church of Manitoba. Because the radio audience and the audience I have (or might one day have, perhaps) in blogging are quite different, I have never shared my programs online. Last Sunday’s program felt like an exception to this – perhaps it is that my program should have been written for the blog not the radio. In any case I think it is fitting here, so here’s an excerpt.

“Lo! Jesus meets us. Risen from the tomb, lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom. Let his church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, for our Lord now liveth; death hath lost its sting.”

This month I’ve been left wondering what those of us who sing of Jesus’s triumph are to do in this world. The horrifying violence in Charlestown, where people were shot down while at a church Bible study sent ripple effects through much of the Christian church. One Christian legacy, that of a terror driven and terror creating White Supremacy, struck once again at another Christian reality: the quest for Christ-centred justice revealed to us by the black church. For those of us who do not share the history and present reality of oppression that the black church has and continues to experience, and even find ourselves complicit in such oppression, it is not a simple matter of knowing what to do and what not to do.

Before these shootings, the findings of the truth and reconciliation commission will have left many of us wondering whether our churches can accomplish any good for the world. I would say that if the findings did not leave us with a deep questioning of our institutions and practices, past and present, then we were not listening properly.

Many of us are now looking at Greece and the rest of Europe, where at least one dominant narrative says that, if the world is to be just and fair, people have to pay the price. It doesn’t matter if paying the price will help to make anything better for anyone, if it will in fact make matters worse for people on both sides of the equation. It doesn’t even really matter if people are actually culpable or not. What matters is that we can choose between unfair chaos and a world of cold justice, where people have to pay the price.

And meanwhile, throughout all of this, it seems that a federal election campaign has begun, with vitriol and half-truth polarizing us and telling us to make decisions based on fear and hate. I think this begs the question of the kind of people we are called to be. Of the life that God enables us to live now that Jesus has risen and death has lost its sting.

If we look at biblical understandings of justice, from the law to the prophets to the gospels, we see a justice rooted in compassion. Compassion comes first, and that must fuel and shape whatever conception of conception of justice we might hold to. Compassion must inform whatever it is we hope to do.

I think that across the political spectrum we tend to have lost sight of such a compassion fueled justice. Consider the rhetoric of the so-called left and its obsession with the terminology of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. So often it is an envy driven logic. They have something that I don’t have, and that is not fair. It may not be fair. It may also be the case that widespread wealth disparity is not good for society.

However, if our vision for justice is based on compassion, this will not be our focus. In particular we will reject a politics of envy. Instead, we would do well to focus our attention on the 10 percent or so of Canadians living in abject poverty and the 10-20 struggling with unsustainable low income. But this rarely captures anyone’s attention.

Or consider the so-called political right’s turn to tough on crime policies. In this logic, it doesn’t matter that the policies are proven to be ineffective – with ballooning costs, higher re-offence rates, and an absence of preventative effect. What matters is that justice becomes retributive – it’s about getting back at someone. This feels good; it restores our sense of order to the universe; it firmly places justice above compassion, if it leaves any room for compassion at all.

Many of us will have been disappointed when we heard that Circles of Support and Accountability, an MCC offshoot that provided support to sexual offenders, lost much of its federal funding. We were disappointed not only because COSA had such an astonishingly high success rate at preventing re-offence. We were also disappointed because it represented a further regression of justice based on compassion: Compassion for vulnerable persons who may become future victims if high-rates of re-offence are not stopped. Compassion for the health of a society that seeks re-habilitation and reconciliation. Compassion for victims looking for healing. And compassion for offenders in need of a lifeline, nearly all of whom were themselves sexually abused.

And so, my suggestion is that we as the church focus first on forming ourselves into a people of compassion. A people whose hearts and minds are formed to a care and love for others that supersedes all else and all other ideologies. Compassion is a radical critique of violent and selfish imaginations: it proclaims that the hurt of people, even enemies, will not be disregarded.

A collective and personal character of compassion may inspire many different responses: rage, inspiration, work for justice, critical thought, silent contemplation, desperate prayer. And these responses – such as the best ways to put our compassion into tangible effect by seeking justice – will vary widely. The point is not that these don’t matter, that it’s all equal if it’s based in compassion. Some responses and strategies will prove more or less effective, more or less Christ-like, more or less sustainable, more or less self-indulgent (and thereby undermining to its own foundation). But my hope is that if compassion is the ground floor of our responses, conversations, and visions, God will find ways to use us in the best ways possible

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