I’ve continued and now completed reading Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, and Henri Nouwen. Like my post about the medieval Christian classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, I find myself wanting to simply list some of the outstanding insights of these three Catholic authors who collaborated on this 1982 book.
One insight that startled me in my “well-deserved” retirement is this: “Are we really servants when we can become masters again once we think we have done our part or made our contribution?”
There’s a part of me that wants to conclude “I’ve done my part.” Nearly 40 pages later I am brought up short by this truth: “As the years go by, familiar images and ideas are often pushed out of place. Ways of thinking, which for many years helped us to understand our world, come under criticism and are called old-fashioned and conservative.”
Between these two observations the authors discuss the role of “voluntary displacement” in living a compassionate life, as Jesus did: “He did not think equality with God as a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…” (See Philippians 2:6-7).
Now, we can theologically dither over this early understanding of Jesus’ nature, but let’s take it as a metaphor of God letting go of everything God-like to enter our world and become God-with-us. In an earlier post I explained the authors’ belief that compassion first requires community—sensed, actual, and/or geographical. In this early Christian confession of faith, the apostle Paul is illustrating how Christians are to be in community, “in humility regard[ing] others as better than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3)
I thought of entitling this post, “Compassion and ‘Voluntary Displacement,’” but doubted that would attract readers. Our late Congressman John Lewis’s understanding of “good trouble,” that is, protesting injustice, has a far richer ring to it.
We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are oppressed when we are unwilling to confront the oppressor. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly into fruitless sentimental commiseration (p124).
Saying “no” to evil and destruction in the awareness that they dwell in our own heart is a humble “no.” When we say “no” with humility, this “no” is also a call for our own conversion (p125).
From first grade to ninth grade, I attended a Christian school where my mother taught first grade for thirty years. Each classroom was assigned a missionary for correspondence and contributions, a kind of “voluntary displacement” that took us out of our privileged and largely white American world. When the missionaries came back to the United States on furloughs, they would regale us with tales of their travels and work. As much as I enjoyed those stories, I prayed to God that I would not be called to the foreign mission field—I didn’t want to eat beetles or have a dirt floor. That was a voluntary displacement I did not want!
But I was given a different kind of mission field—an involuntary displacement, so to speak: being gay! I guess you could say my “voluntary displacement” was being open about it and becoming an activist and author.
Right now you and I have been given another involuntary displacement, coping with a worldwide pandemic. And those of us who are white have heard a call to voluntary displacement as we recognize our white privilege (yes, again!) and welcome Black Lives Matter.
Around the world, those who colonized or enslaved, infected or exploited other peoples face involuntary displacement as we come to appreciate their lives, their customs, their suffering, our sins and our privilege. We may form the communities the authors of Compassion affirm are the prerequisite for compassion, Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.”
Loving our neighbors as ourselves requires first recognizing them as neighbors, members of our communities, residents of our countries, and fellow citizens of God’s Commonwealth.
A beloved LGBTQI activist giant died last week. Co-authored with Letha Scanzoni, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s signature book, one of the earliest of our movement, raised the question, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?” Thanks be to God that so many people throughout the world are finally answering “yes”!
The question “who is my neighbor?” asked of Jesus came from someone possibly hoping to limit the possibilities, and so Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, a member of a hated “foreign” “mixed” race of a different faith who proved redemptive for a victim of violence.
Jesus thereby teaches the universality of our neighborhood.
Thanks to a reader who informed me the above image is of the sign board outside the United Methodist Church’s general board of church and society building in Washington DC, across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court building. As I recall, other denominations also have offices in that building.
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