Over the past few weeks, I have given talks on compassion in various places – at Parc prison in Bridgend, at the Theology Cafe at the Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff, at numerous Mothers Unions across south-east Wales, and for a Living Faith group (the diocese of Llandaff’s course aimed at exploring faith in today’s world) at my chaplaincy in Cardiff University. Next week I will give a paper on compassion and healthcare at a conference in Birmingham. Before I go, though, I want to post something on a question that has been asked at many of my talks and has been e-mailed to me as a response to my blog posts – why do we have to be quite so radical in our compassion? I have therefore adapted a section from my book The Compassion Quest and hope you find it helpful in considering this question. Over the past few months, I have been assisting at St John the Baptist’s church in the centre of Cardiff, so I also include some photographs that I have taken of the stained-glass windows there, which take up the theme of compassion.
While the Old Testament presents God as compassion and urges us to imitate him in our everyday lives, the New Testament goes a step further, by giving us a tangible, living example of God as compassion and providing a blueprint for a radical model of compassion in our own lives. The person Jesus embodies the very heart of compassion. Christ’s love is a love that empties itself of status, power or privilege and takes on the form of a servant to others. Referring directly to compassion, the New Testament in fact uses two different Greek words. The first word is eleeo, which is primarily used by those who appeal to Jesus for healing. The second word, splanchnizomai, expresses a deeper and more passionate form of compassion. In modern parlance it could literally be translated ‘to be moved in one’s guts’, and is used for Jesus’ own reaction to those who are pleading for healing. Jesus, therefore, responds to those who plea for basic compassion (eleeo) with a compassion that is intimate and intense (splanchnizomai). The pain and suffering of others engenders not merely superficial sympathy in Jesus, but rather affects him in the core of his being. Jesus was compassion incarnate – compassion made flesh – and it is this deep-seated compassion that leads him to do something about the suffering with which he is confronted. It might be said, then, that it is not necessarily the physical healing itself that reveals God in Jesus’ miracles, but that God is revealed in the compassion that leads to the cure. ‘The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away,’ wrote Henri Nouwen, ‘but that God first wants to share the pain with us.’
Not so long ago, Philip Pullman, the agnostic author, published an apocryphal retelling of Jesus’ life, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This book vividly expresses the scandal of such radical compassion. Jesus is presented as having a twin brother, simply called ‘Christ’, who follows him around the Palestinian countryside, interpreting his teachings and his actions. He is particularly shocked at Jesus’ teaching about God’s compassion and grace. The parables Jesus tells (the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the great feast, and so on) describe a universal love that is arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery, and the twin brother believes that this is simply a ‘horrible’ way of viewing love. Furthermore, Jesus’ lifestyle reflects this ‘unfair’ concept of love. He mixes with undesirables like tax collectors and prostitutes, he claims to be ushering in a time of compassion by announcing the coming kingdom of God, and he condemns much of what was considered as virtue at the time. In Pullman’s tale, the whole situation seriously disturbs the scoundrel ‘Christ’, and so he completely rejects his twin brother as naive and delusional. Yet it is this very attitude that is the crux of both the teachings and the actions of the Jesus that we Christians follow – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional compassion that transcends religious, political or ethnic differences. ‘What is needed is a radicalism that leads beyond both the right and left,’ writes Jim Wallis, the Christian political activist who serves as spiritual advisor to Barack Obama, ‘that radicalism that can be found in the gospel which is neither liberal nor conservative but fully compassionate.’
Compassion should therefore be at the very centre of the life of every Christian, rather than at the periphery. We should be championing it to our children and teaching it in our schools above the desire for success and achievement. Albert Schweitzer argued that children have a basic capacity for compassion, which needs to be nurtured if it is to grow and thrive. Furthermore, once compassion is fostered in our children and in ourselves, we would more than likely see a snowball effect, as people ‘pay it forward’, as the film of that name put it. The more we give, the more others (and often ourselves) will receive in return. Individuals, communities and societies are thus enlivened and brought hope through this process. Like ripples on a pond, our compassion will have far-reaching effects on far more people than we realize. ‘If money goes, money comes,’ claimed Dr Aziz in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, ‘if money stays, death comes.’ Our faith does not remain behind stained-glass windows, where its pious and sanctimonious character confirms itself as irrelevant and trivial. Rather, we give ourselves joyously in radical compassionate love for others, as we act, in the words of Etty Hillesum who died at Auschwitz, ‘as a balm for all wounds’.
For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.
- “Jesus, do you hate me?” Gay Marriage, the Church and Compassion
- Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott deserve any compassion?
- “Everything terrible is something that needs our love”: Some thoughts on Margaret Thatcher and compassion
- “Get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”: Speaking for those with no voice