As I sat in my local doctor’s surgery last week, a young boy started staring at me. He was of middle-eastern origin and was not much older than the age of the Syrian child in the photographs that have recently shocked the world. I smiled at him and said “hello”, but he simply kept on staring with inquisitive eyes. Noticing this one-sided conversation, his father nodded his head towards me, smiled, and said in a strong accent to his reticent child: “come on now – say hello to your uncle”. A smile broke across the hitherto unresponsive little face and a big cheerful “hello” followed.
To be called an “uncle” by a complete stranger got me thinking of our response to those coming to Europe and those attempting to cross the channel to make a home in our “green and pleasant land”. A number of commentators have challenged us to see beyond labels that are placed on such people. They are certainly not “scroungers”, “criminals”, and “benefit cheats”, but we are also urged to see beyond their labels as “refugees”, “immigrants”, or “migrants”. We are challenged to see them instead as “people”, just like you and me. As Christians, though, our call is to go even further than this. After all, Christ did not simply see “people”, and to see the kingdom of God as a kingdom of “people” is to miss how radical a call we have on our lives.
Politicians of all sides of the political spectrum have used the word “compassion” on many of occasions in recent weeks. There seems to be a consensus that compassion is essential when treating those fleeing from war, conflict, and turmoil. Yet “compassion” is not simply a buzzword to be used when convenient and it is essential that we do not miss the profound depth of the challenge of “compassion”. The English word derives from the Latin words cum and pati, meaning ‘to suffer with’. In other words, when we feel compassion towards others, we suffer with them. We don’t make judgements on their backgrounds or motives, but we put ourselves in their shoes and truly feel their suffering.
The Hebrew word for compassion is even more revealing. In the Old Testament, the most frequent word that can be translated “compassion” is the word rachamim. ‘The Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion [rachamim] to one another”’ (Zechariah 7.9). The word is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem, indicating that our compassion for those around us should reflect family bonds. The same link with the word womb (rahem) can be made with Arabic word for compassion/mercy (rahmah), which is found frequently in the Qur’an. In other words, compassion is about treating others as if they were in the same family as us, as if they were our own flesh and blood, as if they had shared the same womb as we did.
The French Cistercian monk Charles de Foucauld referred to this concept as the “universal brotherhood” – that we treat everyone as our brothers and sisters. If we are to interpret compassion in this way, as the great monotheistic religions do, this is a huge challenge to our lives and our politics. How many politicians treat so-called “immigrants” as if they were related to them? The most wonderful thing about the widely-reported response to the present crisis in Germany is that many are actually welcoming refugees into their own homes. Through an “Air B’n’B” website, many hundreds of Germans, including students, single-mothers, and retired couples, offered their homes to refugees from countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Burkina Faso. That is compassion. That is truly treating others as family.
After all, when we see others as our kin, all their labels will peel away. The Jesuit contemplative Anthony de Mello used an analogy of a menu in a restaurant. However much we might salivate while considering the list of food, not one of us will decide to eat the actual menu. It is the food that we want to eat, not the words about the food! As far as possible we must attempt to experience people themselves, rather than experience the labels that we or other people put on them. As soon as we slap a label like “immigrant” and “refugee” on a person, our understanding of that individual becomes distorted. We start to see the label rather than the person, and every label, of course, has undertones of approval or disapproval. My wife is German. When I look at her lovingly over a romantic meal, I do not stare into her eyes and say, “darling, you are such a beautiful immigrant”. Likewise, in our church community we have individuals from across the globe who are active in the congregation. None of us see them as “immigrants”. Once we know a person, they cease to be a label and they simply become family.
As I sat in that doctor’s surgery, it made perfect sense to be called “uncle” by that little boy. If God is our father, as we pray in the prayer Jesus himself taught, then we are compelled to treat each other as if we are brothers and sisters. As Christians, there is no opt-out clause in Christ’s invitation to view others as “family”. Instead, it’s at the very heart of our faith and is fundamental to our radical call to live out the compassionate kingdom. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: “I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family! If we could get to believe this we would realise that care about ‘the other’ is not really altruistic, but it is the best form of self-interest”.
For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.
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