In this week’s blog, Vernon writes that in order to show true compassion, we must be willing to share in some of the experience of the “other”. The Bible passages discussed at Faith in Real Life illustrate concisely that struggle. The Jewish people fell into slavery in Egypt before God showed them compassion and rescued them in the Exodus. The Passover observance reminded them of this regularly. But when the Jews are faced with violating religious law by interacting with gentiles, a people who were themselves ‘strangers’ among the nation of Israel, Paul teaches that the faithful are to show compassion, because compassion had been shown to them.
“Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain.”
“[God] enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. 19 That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.”
34 “Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ….”
These passages work well together to trace and identify what God expects of us in our relationships with those who are ‘other’—the disenfranchised, the widow, the orphan and the immigrant. The bottom line is—God offers compassion and God expects compassion.
For the Jewish people, these expectations are founded in their own history as refugees. As middle class Americans, it is hard to imagine the exodus experience, but that memory is a linchpin of the Jewish faith. God chose a marginal, disenfranchised people as his people. Though the story is thousands of years old, its power reaches into the present. It is the story of mistreated and enslaved people who are given a new identity and a new life by Yahweh. By recalling their own historical suffering and redemption, the faithful are called to stand for other disenfranchised peoples — the widow, the orphan and the immigrant— with the same compassion that was shown to them in the Exodus. God ‘heard their cry’ and he showed compassion. He expects the same from us.
Offering compassion, however, requires ‘feeling with’, or more literally, ‘suffering with’. Compassion is always expensive. You can’t ‘feel with’ another person unless you are willing to share some piece of their experience. There is a big difference between being an observer of pain (pity—feeling sorry for) and experiencing the pain of another.
The emotional memory is maintained each Passover by remembering that they had been immigrants and then slaves in Egypt. But in Jesus’ day, and ours, maintaining that connection is difficult. Even though every non-native American is the child of an immigrant, that is a piece of history we can rarely actually connect to. We talk about it and we acknowledge it but, unfortunately, most of us are quite out of touch with what it means to be an immigrant. It is hard to experientially recall either our secular or religious history. We are no longer immigrants. We have become the dominant culture and are far removed from the pain and second class lives of immigrants in a new country.
But, when we lose that connection—when we forget, we are far more likely to become entitled rather than grateful. When that happens, it is nearly impossible to show compassion. When we ‘hear their cry,’ we are more likely to be tone deaf.
Complaints from the disenfranchised don’t resonate with the dominant culture. ‘Our people climbed from nothing, yours can too.’ ‘You’re over reacting. It’s not really that bad.’ ‘No pain, No gain.’ ‘Protest is ok, as long as you do it politely.’ Hearing, and harder still, experiencing the pain of another is difficult and disruptive. In our FIRL group, a man with a military history told of his being barred from a restaurant, while in uniform, because he was with a black man (who was also in uniform). It was his first real taste of a prejudice that he had only heard about. Without being aware, he was the recipient of privilege at the expense of others. The shared experience changed him.
The current Facebook phenomena of ‘Me Too’ is another example. There are very few women who have not had some kind of unwanted sexual attention. At dinner with a friend, she commented that such behavior seemed ‘normal’ as she encountered it in her professional career. Fobbed off as, ‘just joking’ or ‘don’t be so sensitive’ or worse yet, ‘what do you expect, look how you’re dressed’, or ‘boys will be boys’. It became a woman’s job to manage male behavior. It was as if men had no accountability or responsibility to manage their impulses. As more and more woman write,’me too’, it is harder and harder to ignore the pervasiveness—and the harm of such norms. These are the norms that lead to ‘blaming the victim’ and these are the norms that lead to abuse. But, as a male, I discover defensiveness creeping into my reactions. I want to say, “yes, but…” I want to define terms—what counts as harassment? I don’t want to be seen as part of the problem. Instead of listening, I react. Frank discussions about sexuality and gender roles are extremely difficult. It is nearly impossible to not respond personally and defensively. But we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is listening to the pain that is being expressed. We must ‘hear their cry’. It will be interesting to see if ‘me too’ leads to engagement of these issues—or if we will default to polarization, self righteousness and rationalizations. If we are to show compassion, it will difficult for all concerned.
When we turn to the Act’s passage, the dominant faith (Jews) were struggling with what it meant to include outsiders (Gentles). Ironically, and all too humanly, the very people who had emerged from slavery and second class citizenship viewed everyone else as unclean and second class. They might be good people but you did not share a table with them. There were limits to inclusion. In the name of righteousness, in the name of obedience to the law and purity, discrimination and separateness had become the ‘proper’ way to live.
But Jesus said “No!– God wants compassion.” That supersedes all other rules. “ Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.” The greek is wonderful here. It translates to ‘God is no respecter of faces.” God does not care about what people look like, what they eat, how they dress or any other human criteria. He cares about compassion. That was and is a wonderful and a frightening Gospel. The willingness to engage the ‘other’ is always beyond our capabilities. Everyday there is more suffering than any of us can tolerate. In that regard, we are called to the impossible. But, paradoxically, the experience of being overwhelmed becomes the basis of connection. If it does not only immobilize us, it gives the awareness of what it is like live on the margins. It gives us a way to be compassionate. We would not wish that despair on anyone.
Our faith is that every act of love and compassion counts. It is resurrection faith. Though we die, though we be overwhelmed by the suffering of the world, yet we shall live. God will join you and God will hold you. We believe God joined us in our lives with the gift of Emmanuel. There is no place that God cannot find us. That promise makes it possible to show compassion in a world that is drowning in suffering.
Compassion requires finding a common experience and sharing a common bond. It is redemptive. Such faith made it possible for Jews and Gentiles to share a table. It may make it possible for Christian and Muslim to find common ground. It may even make it possible for men and women to listen to one another.
“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” God is no respecter of faces. He acts for us no matter what we do or what we look like. Live in that love.
The Holy Spirit will not be contained by our certainties, our categories or our fears. Trust God. Show Compassion. Let it be so.