Mere charity is a band-aid that cannot bring liberation. Neither can ardent calls for justice from those who live separately from the oppressed. Both fall short of true compassion.
Paulo Freire wrote: “The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity…The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause of liberation yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, whom he or she continues to regard as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived.”¹
Both of these general approaches increase the distance between us and suffering. We become apathetic to the struggles and sufferings around us. Apathy comes from a Greek word apatheia, which is made up of two words: a meaning “without” and pathos meaning “suffering.” Apathy is a spiritual disease that renders us incapable of empathy.
Our entire society reinforces apathy by hiding every uncomfortable truth behind the facade of middle class acceptability. We get oil without seeing a glimpse of the deaths on foreign soil that purchased the oil. Our consumer goods come to us ready-formed without us understanding the ways those who made these goods were exploited. We are cut off from much suffering and, instead turn to comforts to numb what suffering is able to pierce our consciousness.
But Jesus rejects apathy. His is a way of compassion.
Compassion comes from the Latin word that means “to suffer with.” Compassion rejects apathy and alienation and bridges the distance between persons. Compassion is easily understood, in our society, as a sentiment. Perhaps this is because our society has so thoroughly inherited the separation of action from intention that we feel sentiment is all that is required to be a loving human being. But in Jesus there is no separation between intention and action. His action reflect his heart, just as his life reflects the very life of God.
Rather than a weak sentiment, or a condescending act of charity, compassion is prophetic. Those with compassion refuse to accept the world as it is and enter into injustice and brokenness. Compassion is the practice of mysticism because it collapses the distances between us. And, in bridging the distance, compassion exposes the principalities and powers and myths that breed alienation and separation.
In his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:
Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness…Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context…Jesus penetrates the numbness by his compassion and with his compassion takes the first step by making visible the odd abnormality that had become business as usual. Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt. Jesus enters into the hurt and finally comes to embody it.²
The way of Jesus is the way of compassion. It involves sharing life with those around us and suffering with them.
I want to be careful here; embracing the suffering of others doesn’t require that we treat suffering like a holy fetish. There is a danger in this, particularly for Christians. We worship the One who suffered on a cross. But, as Dorothee Sölle writes, the cross is not “a symbol of masochism which needs suffering in order to convince itself of love. It is above all a symbol of reality. Love does not ‘require’ the cross, but de facto it ends up on the cross…Love does not cause suffering or produce it, though it must necessarily seek confrontation, since its most important concern is not the avoidance of suffering but the liberation of people.”³
Jesus went to the cross as an act of solidarity with the oppressed. The cross is God confronting the world with compassion.
1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Continuum: New York, 1997) p. 42-43
2. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p. 88-89
3. Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, p. 164