Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Compassion and Community

I took this photo of an 80-year-old Nicaraguan who had just voted in her first free and fair election. She is holding up her thumb that had been dipped in red ink to prevent voting more than once.

On our morning walks in the neighborhood before COVID-19, Wade and I would greet and be greeted by neighbors along our various routes (different for each day). But now that more people are out and about, walking, the new walkers seem less likely to look up from their cellphones or hear our greetings under their earbuds, though the runners still do, I guess because they have seen me run in the neighborhood and we have that connection.

I have supposed we have not yet formed with the new walkers the community needed to be acknowledged.

Last week’s post, “Recovering Compassion,” grew out of my current reading of a 1982 book by Henri Nouwen, Douglas Morrison, and Donald McNeill entitled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. What I have read since is that these three Catholic Christian authors believe compassion requires community: sensed, actual, and/or geographical.

What I first intended for this post was to suggest my difficulty feeling compassion for those with whom I politically disagree because they are not a part of “my” community. But instead let me describe this phenomenon positively. I feel compassion for Black Lives Matter protestors because the Civil Rights Movement “woke” me about equal justice and opportunity for all and inspired my own pursuit of that for LGBTQ people. And I admire the movement, We Are the 99 Percent, because my dad was a blue-collar Teamster truck driver and we lived on working class wages, despite my mom teaching at a Christian school for sacrificially low wages. And I better understand migrants escaping harsh conditions in Latin America because I have visited a post-Somoza Nicaragua and a post-Pinochet Chile.

And, in fact, I have tried to understand friends and family and fellow churchgoers with whom I share love and memories and values whose political bias opposes or diverges from mine. So true community does allow for diversity as well as compassion.

But I need—we need—to enlarge our sense of community.

The authors of Compassion write:

When we are no longer able to recognize suffering persons as fellow human beings, their pain evokes more disgust and anger than compassion.

Responding compassionately to what the media present to us is made even more difficult by its “neutrality.” … Whatever the news announces—war, murder, floods, the weather, and the football scores—is reported with the same ritualized tone of voice and facial expression.  … All of this is regularly interrupted by smiling people urging us to buy products of dubious necessity. The whole “service” is so distant and aloof that the most obvious response is to invest no more energy in it than in brushing your teeth before going to bed.

They contrast this with Jesus and God being moved by compassion, biblically described (multiple times) as feeling it in their guts (Jesus) and in their womb (Yahweh).

They offer as a role model the Trappist monk and social critic Thomas Merton whose “knowledge of the suffering of the world came not from the media but from letters written by friends for whom particular events had personal significance. To these friends a response was possible. When information about human suffering comes to us through a person who can be embraced, it is humanized.”

On occasion, Merton invited many of them to gather at Gethsemani Abbey to share and pray together and community was formed.

I have travelled widely and that has piqued my interest in developments in many states, countries, and locales. I am more attentive to their stories on the news or in the newspaper as a result. When a recent U.S. president was elected who had never traveled abroad, I wondered how he could possibly “get” or care about other regions or cultures.

Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community” is larger than we can fathom. The commonwealth of God that Jesus proclaimed is more extensive than our fellow believers. Instead of the Prosperity Gospel prayer to “enlarge my territory” for personal success and wealth, we need the Progressive Gospel prayer to “enlarge my community” and thus our compassion.

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Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

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