Over the last few months our new puppy Duchess adjusted to life in our home. She’s my constant companion in the kitchen, always ready to taste whatever I’m making, last night she loved the chicken liver pate. But the one thing she can’t get use to is our slick floor.
We have laminate tiles in our kitchen and family room. Easy to clean, perfect for us. But it’s very smooth. Now Duchess loves ice; it’s a favorite treat. If only I could convince myself ice was a dessert! Wherever she is in the house, Duchess can hear the freezer door open. She comes running then hits the slick kitchen floor. Suddenly she’s sliding, careening past, running into the cabinets.
Watching Duchess reminded me of a quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He observed, “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction ... we are unable to walk. We want to walk, so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” Duchess knows what Wittgenstein meant: we need friction in order to get somewhere.
Of course Wittgenstein meant it as a metaphor. What gives us the friction to walk? It’s our emotions, and especially the emotion of compassion.
We want other people to be compassionate and to show us compassion, but at the same time our culture remains doubtful about the value of compassion. Immanuel Kant once called compassion an effeminate emotion. And often that’s how we view it in America, as a weak emotion, one for those not tough enough to make the hard decisions. Think about it: when was the last time you heard someone say, “What a stud! He’s so compassionate.”
While the Marlborough Man might not appear compassionate, we make a mistake when we think compassion a form of weakness. Compassion, as Marcus Borg once observed, “does not mean simply being ‘nice.’” Think of the opposites of compassion: hatred, abuse, brutality, indifference, selfishness, and self-righteousness. Far from tolerating everything, compassion stands against hard-hearted emotions.
Jesus’ life arose from his compassion. Several times in the gospels we hear of Jesus acting out of compassion; again and again, Jesus saw someone and felt compassion. The gospels were written in Greek, a language in which the word for compassion literally means entrails, guts. Jesus acted because of what he felt in his gut. Compassion is a core emotion: it doesn’t start in our minds or in our hearts, but from the very deepest part of ourselves, our guts. A similar linguistic insight comes from Hebrew. There the word compassion comes from the same root as “womb.” Compassion brings forth life.
Compassion is a gut emotion: whatever is in our guts or in our wombs must come out. Compassion is not just something we feel, it’s something we act on. In fact, compassion is always more than just a feeling; it must come out in how we live and act in the world.
At the beginning of Lent, I imagined preaching a series of sermons on our baptismal promise to live lives of integrity, justice, and compassion. I began with a sermon on integrity. Last week Jerry Hancock preached on justice, and in particular what it means in terms of prisons today. And then I thought I would preach on compassion today. But I’ve found compassion can’t be spoken of in isolation.
Compassion touches on both integrity and justice. In terms of integrity: our inward and deep feelings of compassion need to be expressed outwardly in our lives. And in terms of justice: compassion provides the energy which powers our work, it’s the friction making change possible.
Krista Tippett, NPR anchor of the show On Being, spoke of this once. She ended a reflection on compassion by saying, “So I want to propose a final definition of compassion, and that would be for us to call compassion a spiritual technology. .... Humanity - the future of humanity - needs this technology as much as it needs all the others that have now connected us and set before us the terrifying and wondrous possibility of actually becoming one human race.”
Starting in our guts, compassion comes as our strongest spiritual technology, one with the power to transform us and those around us, to bring forth the true life of humanity.
So compassion comes intertwined with integrity and justice. And yet there’s a problem. We can all feel compassion in our guts, but at the same time disagree about how to express our compassion in the world. Across the theological and political spectrum, we may ache in our inward being, but what that compassion causes us to do can vary dramatically. Compassion may be a spiritual technology, but we disagree on how to use it in the world.
In other words: we may all feel compassion in our guts, but what ought we do? Our deepest self may groan with the same empathy, but our approach to justice can differ.
Our different approaches to expressing compassion in the world can be linked to each of the three parts of our statement of faith. Each approach can be grounded in our faith and yet have a shadow side, each faithful and limited.
In our statement of faith we begin by saying, “I believe in God, who called the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death.” The statement of faith celebrates God’s role in creation. And justice, inspired by this statement, places an emphasis on God ordering and structuring human community.
Its the story of the Ten Commandments. God freed the slaves of Egypt; and now God helps them establish new norms for their community. Often we think of it as a story of rules - don’t do this, don’t do that. But it’s really a story of justice. Think of the life of slaves in Egypt: each of these commandments established for them a new way of life that they could not have experienced in slavery. Slaves don’t get a day of rest, but God established one. Slaves are treated like property, but God told the freed people not to covet each other as if they were material objects. Slaves could be killed on a whim of their master, but God outlawed murder. Slave families could be broken apart, but the newly freed people would honor the bonds of family.
God’s justice built human community with structures and institutions and norms. Justice work inspired by this approach of God works through human community, both inside and outside of the church, in families and in the government. Justice work inspired by this approach seeks to partner and work with others, to work through existing institutions in a complementary way. It sees other people from diverse backgrounds not as enemies but as partners, who can do meaningful work together. It’s the approach that works for a bipartisan answer and sees good in people across the political spectrum. Just as God ordered creation, this approach seeks to live out just policies in one’s own life.
But there is a shadow side to this approach to justice: it can seem like a compromise with the status quo. It can seem like an acceptance of what is broken in the world. People critique this approach as a band-aid on the problem, as doing good but missing the big picture of what’s wrong in society.
And so others seek a different approach, one we might root in the second part of our statement of faith. “I believe in Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, who shares our common lot, conquers sin and death, and reconciles the whole creation to its Creator.”
This approach focuses on the radical confrontation of Jesus, drawing inspiration from Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. Jesus saw an injustice - the mercy of God for sale - and acted in a dramatic way to confront it. Long before Occupy Wall Street, Jesus tried Occupy Temple Mount. It was political theater - overturning tables, chasing sheep through a crowd, loudly shouting slogans.
It’s an approach powered by conflict. And we see it on both the left and the right. Liberal Christians, in the name of Jesus, confront political, social, and economic structures. And conservative Christians, in the name of Jesus, confront a culture they see as fallen and unredeemable.
This can be a rousing, powerful, energizing voice of justice. And yet, like the first approach, this one has a shadow side too. The strident voice for purity divides the world into the good and the bad, the righteous and the wrong, those with us and those against us.
As I’ve grown older I’ve thought more and more about what it feels like to be labeled among the bad and the wrong. I’ve seen enough protestors holding signs naming me as the problem. I’ve heard enough presidential candidates run against my family. I know the pain this powerful voice for justice can cause. What was meant as a clarion call to justice can become just a self-righteous attempt to shame others.
I’ve found myself more and more engaged by a third approach to justice. We could root it in our third expression of faith. “I believe in God, the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who creates and renews the Church of Jesus Christ, binds in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.”
This approach looks toward the horizon, toward the future, toward what will be instead of what is now. “We shall overcome someday.” It sees the potential for all people to become united as faithful people. It looks for those manifestations of God’s future in our broken world today. For those times when it is on earth as it already is in heaven.
Often this spirit-led justice work only makes sense in light of God’s future. It’s like that moment in the gospel when a woman poured expensive ointment on the feet of Jesus. The disciples, speaking out of the first approach to justice, said, “That could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.” Others, speaking out of the second approach to justice, asked how she earned the money for the perfume. But Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing.” The woman’s action recognized the importance of Jesus when few could fully see who he truly was.
Such an approach sees divine meaning in symbolic actions. It’s what happened earlier this year at Marquette High School when high school students opened up their school to host residents of the Milwaukee Rescue Mission for an extravagant meal: three courses, with places set with china and white table cloths and crystal glasses. All for a hundred homeless guests. The event was called, “A Night to Remember.” A night for the guests to remember they were more than just their present homelessness, a night for the high school students to remember in God’s kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, a night for all to remember we are brothers and sisters to each other.
While I personally find much meaning in this approach to justice, I see its limitations too. Such an approach to justice can seem like a feel-good moment that doesn’t change anything. We rightly wonder about all the homeless people that night who didn’t get an invitation; one dinner seems like too little in the face of real human need in our city.
In the end, each of these approaches to justice expresses the compassion stirring in our gut. We need to work with others to build up institutions and guard against legitimizing the status quo. We need to speak out against injustice, but watch against dividing the world into us versus them. We need to experience moments of God’s future now, even though such actions pale in comparison to enormity of need.
This week, may compassion stir in your gut and lead you to seek justice in your own way. Amen.