Compassion and Refugees

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.

HopeTo 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.

compassion-definitionPoliticians 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.

rechemThe 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.

WelcomeThe 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.

family 2As 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.

 

 

Compassion and the General Election

camerons_1625564iOn the morning of Friday 8 May 2015, after his party’s triumph at the general election, David Cameron gave his victory speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. His final words, replayed endlessly on TV and radio, referred to the United Kingdom as a country with “such great compassion” and with the potential to build a proud future. “Together, we can make Great Britain greater”, he concluded.

compassion-definitionThat the Prime Minister chose to use the word “compassion” at this point is not surprising, as he has used the word on numerous occasions over the past five years in referring to the policies that he is espousing. Yet the word should not be treated lightly. The root of the English word is from the Latin compassio, meaning “to suffer with”. In other words, when someone suffers, we suffer with them and somehow feel their pain. It is, in a nutshell, love-in-action. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as being “moved to his guts with compassion” (splanchnizomai) for those suffering. While in the Old Testament, the word for compassion, rachamim, is related to the Hebrew term for womb (rechem). The Arabic language has the same link between compassion (rahmah) and womb (rahem). In other words, compassion means we treat others as if we shared the same womb with them, as if they were our brothers and sisters.

Compassion is not just a buzzword to be used when it is convenient for politicians and political commentators to try to show how much they care. Instead, compassion is a challenge to each and every one of us to treat others, whoever they are, as if they are related to us – as if they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. For Christians, it is at the heart of how we should be treating each other and how we should be act towards the world around us. And yet, while entrepreneurial skills are taught in schools to children as young as six and seven, compassion is rarely seen as an important aspect of educational policy. And while successive governments talk about compassion in the NHS, nurses and doctors feel that they are forced to sideline a truly compassionate attitude in favour of finance and targets. And while our hearts go out to the migrants who lose their lives in the bid to reach our country, compassion is certainly lacking in some of the anti-immigration rhetoric we have heard recently.

The reality is that true compassion (compassio, rachamim, splanchnitzomai) is not championed in Westminster, just as it is not championed in Fleet Street, or the City, or the Old Bailey, or Eton or Oxford or Cambridge. Unfortunately, the establishment – the people that run our country, the institutions that hold sway in our land – are far more interested in finance, profit, and power than in reaching out to the marginalised and disadvantaged. As a society, we have been peddled a lie that our priorities should be individualistic, materialistic, and self-serving. Worse still, we have been made to believe that it is weak and naïve to champion love, kindness, and compassion over material prosperity, egotism, and competition.

hopeYet, as a Christian, I believe we need not be disheartened. Much has been made of the recent general election being an election of negativity and fear – we are told that many voted out of fear of what the future might hold. Christians, though, are not people of fear – we’re people of hope. And that hope doesn’t start in the Houses of Parliament, it doesn’t start in the media or the press, it doesn’t even start in church buildings. Hope starts in our hearts. It starts in our hearts because that’s where compassion begins to flower. And once the buds of compassion break through, then communities start to be reinvigorated, and those communities, in turn, can transform society.

“The kingdom of God is within you”, Jesus declared (Luke 17:21). Once we realise that God’s Kingdom starts inside and then grows outwards, then we’ll start to recognise signs of that kingdom. It’s like throwing a pebble into water. God’s kingdom is the kingdom of ever-increasing circles – compassion starts in our heart, and then grows outwards, impacting on more and more people, bringing hope and transforming futures.

RussellAfter all, Jesus didn’t start his revolution by toppling governments and worldly kingdoms. Many of his followers wanted exactly that. The zealots were opposed to Roman rule, and scholars believe many of them followed Jesus expecting him to instigate such a revolution. His revolution, though, was a very different uprising. The comedian Russell Brand wears a T-shirt with the word “revolution” on it, but with the second, third, fourth, and fifth letters in a different colour – “r-E-V-O-L-u-t-i-o-n”. If we read those four letters backwards, it spells the word “L-O-V-E”. And that’s how Jesus started his revolution – simply by telling his followers to love one another.

Revolution starts with love; it starts with love-in-action. It starts with compassio – suffering with other people. It starts with splanchnitzomai – being so moved to our guts with compassion that we simply have to act. It starts with rachemim – treating everyone as if they had shared the same womb as us… the immigrant, the carer, the school teacher, the nurse, the food bank user, the disabled person on benefits, the homeless person, the prisoner, the unemployed person, the substance abuser, the sick in hospital, the terrified pregnant teenager, the young man struggling on minimum wage, the elderly person in a care home with no visitors for many months. Compassion asks – do we really think of them, and treat them, as if they were our own brothers and sisters?

compassion-is-the-real-money-thumbCompassion should be the only currency that really matters, not the pound or the dollar. Some may think that’s naïve and unrealistic. Sometimes I think that even Christians think that Jesus himself was just a little bit naïve, impractical, or utopian. If Jesus were around now, we might quietly speculate that he’d conclude that things are actually far more complex that he first realised. Things are, in fact, far less complex than we ourselves realise. Jesus knew exactly what human nature was about. On the very night that he was tortured and murdered, he simply said: “my command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

change-just-ahead-370x229As a Christian, as a person of hope, I am quiet certain that change will come, that transformation will take place. But this change will not start in Westminster, or in the City, or on Fleet Street. Change starts in our hearts, and then grow outwards. If we live out compassion in our daily lives, the kingdom of God cannot fail to break through into our communities and, as a consequence, that will transform our society – bringing light to places of darkness, bringing love to those who suffer prejudice or disadvantage, bringing hope to those who think they have no future. “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

Divide and fall: Reflecting on UKIP, Politics, and Faith

ukipThe success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the recent local elections may well be a protest vote of frustration against the three principal political parties, but it is a protest vote which should be a challenge to each one of us. After all, many politicians have already attempted to win back disenchanted voters by reassuring them that they themselves are now taking seriously the issues which have led to the increase of support for this right-wing populist party. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, immediately vowed to win back Conservative voters by concentrating on those matters on which UKIP had centred their campaign, in particular immigration and the welfare system.

While I have no doubt that politicians need to take seriously such a protest vote against them, Christians need to recognise that this reflects the increasingly divisive nature of politics, which stands in direct conflict with the teaching of a faith which asserts that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus”.

Media interviews with UKIP candidates and with those who voted for the party seem to be reliant on using terminology that presents an “us” and “them” society. Thus, such politics (which can actually be found across the political spectrum) is reliant on scapegoats – the “immigrants”, the “European Union”, “multicultural society”, “foreign aid”, the “welfare scroungers”, the “tree-huggers”, the “criminals” and so on.

scapegoatAs a teenager, I would try (largely unsuccessfully!) to impress potential girlfriends by taking them on dates to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, near Birkenhead.  My favourite picture in the gallery was Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat. This famous pre-Raphaelite painting shows a goat symbolically bearing the sins of the Jewish people, having been thrown into the wilderness and awaiting certain death (Leviticus 16:22).

The concept of the scapegoat is certainly just as relevant and significant to us today as it was to Hunt when he painted his masterpiece. The French thinker Rene Girard suggests that communities and societies have always been engaged in the practice of finding victims to pay the price of their shortcomings. We have certainly seen this in recent years, as a plethora of evils have been blamed for our nation’s ills and thus become targets of our venom.  Among our contemporary scapegoats are asylum seekers, our educational system, Islam, parents of wayward children, the NHS, the media, the Church, and so on.

blameWhile we should, of course, continue to foster critical minds and champion free speech, we should never ignore the dangers inherent in supporting such a divisive society of blame. Apportioning blame was, after all, the first consequence of the fall of Adam. The man blamed the woman and the woman blamed the serpent. Only in the willing self-sacrifice of the ultimate scapegoat, Jesus Christ, could this cycle of blame be ended (Isaiah 53:4). Those of us who consider ourselves Christ’s followers need, therefore, to stand against such a divisive and hateful scapegoat culture. Sometimes this will mean swimming against the tide of public opinion, sometimes it will mean being ridiculed, and sometimes it will mean being despised ourselves. But Christian love never was about being popular.

“Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain. Because grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Grace finds goodness in everything” (U2 ‘Grace’)