Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Time for Compassion - Both Charity and Justice-Making

What do Nepal, Baltimore, and the Vatican all have to do with each other? They are all in the headlines. But more than that they represent different faces of poverty, compelling us to consider the nature of compassion.

You may be saying “What, the Vatican has a relationship with poverty?” A tremendous amount these days. The current pope, Pope Francis, has a clear commitment to stand with and minister to the poor. He goes so far to say that the central function of the church is to respond to the needs of the poor. Everything else is secondary. Everything the church does, he has expressed, should first be considered through the lens of the worth and dignity of every person--and the poor are so easily forgotten. I agree with him that followers of Jesus are called to similarly embody compassion.

Pope Francis is the most powerful religious leader in the world, and it is very significant that he fully accepts the conclusions of science. He accepts reality that the climate changing and that human beings are responsible for how quickly it is changing--and we human beings have a moral imperative to address this change. Meeting with scientists, religious leaders, and political leaders this week, Pope Francis is pushing for a United Nations climate change accord that focuses on the needs of the poor. 

I eagerly await the Pope’s upcoming “encyclical,” the formal church teaching expected to be released in June that addresses the environment and the needs of the most vulnerable among us. This will be deemed politically charged. But guess what, compassion for Jesus is and was often a political act. 

Too often our culture thinks of compassion as merely charity. But compassion has two manifestations: charity and justice-making. Both are essential for people of compassion to embody. And today, this week they are both so important.

First, charity.

The horrible earthquake in Nepal has been heavy on my heart. This is an under-developed country where the vast majority of people are very poor. The widespread destruction puts so many people at risk and calls for an international response. 

But it’s also personal. I know some people who live there. I met them when I visited over twenty years ago. I don’t know how Krishna and Ingo are, but the news reports leaves me in tears, particularly a photo of a wounded boy lying in bed next to his dead friend. 

This image particularly broke my heart. And it broke through all the abstractions of suffering described by merely numbers and stories of masses of people sleeping out in the rain and losing access to clean drinking water. 

When the human dimension comes through, then our compassion is so much more likely to be ignited. And we as human beings are moved to action on behalf of people we don’t even know. And we give of ourselves through charitable contributions or charitable actions.

My wife is from Mexico City. She lived through the horrible earthquake of 1985. She was in middle school. It was chaotic. So much destruction and so many people without shelter or food. She remembers gathering at school to make sandwiches for hours at a time over several days. Catastrophe brings people together unlike anything else. But our hearts must be opened up if we are to participate and become part of the helpers who ultimately make life meaningful. This is the heart of charity.

Compassion also includes justice-making.

Baltimore is taking on suffering on behalf of the rest of the country. Although the vast majority of the thousands of protesters have been peaceful, a small fragment of them have commanded most of the attention by waging violence towards police and property destruction. 

In recent years, so much institutional racism has recently been uncovered in our criminal justice system. And over the last several months, several poor black people have died at the hands of white police. Now Freddie Grey has been killed while in prison with no explanation, only a broken back to attest to maltreatment. 

Collective frustration and outrage has brought so many people together to demand change. And in Baltimore, rage is spilling over, and violence has erupted, thus giving the keepers of law and order a trump card to focus on the violence and distract our nation from the deeper issues that so need attention. And now Baltimore is taking on suffering for the rest of the country. Unless we as a society learn from this, the rage will spread.

While racism is clearly alive and well, what often goes overlooked is how poverty plays into the Black Lives Matter conversation. In this country, African American people typically have much less resources and opportunity, and the cycle of poverty rolls over the vast majority of those who suffer it generation after generation. 

While charity is important, charity alone is not sufficient. What is needed is social change. What is needed is justice-making. All human beings need to be seen as possessing worth and dignity. But the way our society acts, the poor are so often ignored. Right now we are in need of compassion, the kind of compassion that affirms the worth and dignity of every person.

It is my prayer that more hearts will change and we can collectively resist the impulse to view people as things instead of the sacred beings that we all are. 

No comments:

Post a Comment