Can I remind us of something?
The rhetoric here and elsewhere on the bloggernacle, the Internet, and evidently in the personal lives of some of us, seems all too often to be based on the idea that there is a worthiness test for compassion.
The problem I see with a lot of the feelings expressed towards others is that they convey the idea that somehow the target of compassion must deserve the compassion somehow. We see floods of compassion for the victims of natural disasters, for those who become ill with diseases that strike at random, and we willingly dig into our pockets to help, believing that they deserve help.
But in cases where the person suffering brought the problem on themselves, or shares some responsibility for what happened to them, too often the response is far from compassionate, and many people even launch vicious criticisms because of the perceived sins of those that suffer.
It seems like in order to feel compassion for someone, we somehow must believe them to be blameless.
I’m not exactly sure where this comes from. Certainly, we can find in it some of the “us vs. them” mentality that has dogged humanity since our kind started fighting one another over resources.
We can perhaps also find in this lack of compassion in our society’s emphasis on justice and fairness. We’re always fighting for some freedom, helping some cinderella, suffering from injustice at the hands of a stepmother or sister, someone who deserves to be rewarded for the wrongs suffered. This is not to say that justice isn’t needed. Wrongs do need to be righted. But we often go beyond justice and speak ill of those who have done wrong. This is more than just righting a wrong or warning others of a danger that they too may be wronged. Speaking ill of those who have done wrong is usually more about expressing anger or even being mean. And expressions of anger are a poison.
It is also true that we need to promote personal responsibility, even if the only wrong is what was done to the person who committed the wrong. Justice demands that everyone suffer the consequences of their actions. And there are consequences, even for sins in which “no one is hurt.” But surely our society can find better policies that expect personal responsibility without a failure to show compassion.
I do think that this lack of compassion is largely unconscious. We argue against assisting one group or another or for condemning the latest villain in the news by explaining how they are unworthy–we base our arguments not on what they will do or how our assistance might affect what they will do, but on what they have done in the past–and how that is evil. Thus withholding our compression is our revenge, not our love.
But, unconscious or not, we have internalized this view of compassion to the point that even our pleas for help are based on “its not my fault” instead of “I made a mistake.” So, the lack of compassion for the unworthy often leads them to lie about the reasons for their need.
Please don’t see this as a “holier than thou” criticism. I’m sure it is quite easy to find places where my own writing isn’t as charitable or compassionate as it should be. For example, I know that my own feelings recently about the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents haven’t been terribly compassionate. But I’ve come to realize that this lack of compassion is not only wrong, but destructive of dialog, which is why it is of such concern here on Times and Seasons and elsewhere in the bloggernacle and in society.
Political dialog is especially fraught with subjects that are lightning rods for uncharitable and uncompassionate speech. Welfare, immigration, homosexuality, the environment, drug abuse, NAFTA, and any number of other subjects all attract this kind of speech. What is particularly troubling about this speech in political dialog is that the failure to show compassion polarizes the debate. It does often animate supporters, but at the cost of any ability to communicate with or convince others.
In our society today, the lack of compassion is almost embedded in the language of political dialog. Terms like “welfare mother,” and “illegal immigrant” are laden with cultural assumptions about the subject’s worthiness for compassion. Even if whole classes of people are, in fact, unworthy (an idea that strains credibility, because these are diverse groups–its hard to imagine that not even one member of the group is at least as worthy as we ourselves are), we still have an obligation to show compassion.
Also in political dialog, there is a tendency to demonize individuals, but not always because of their actions. I dislike the partisan dialog that suggests evil or incompetence simply because of political position or party affiliation. But the demonization we see expressed is especially bad when a political figure has done something wrong or unpopular. Jay Bybee’s current situation is a good example. Yes his signature on the memo shows that he brought this on himself. But unworthiness does not excuse us from compassion.
The most disturbing thing about a lack of compassion is where it can lead us. The lack of compassion for even those who are worthy can be seen in the worst of society’s ills. A lack of compassion is a starting requirement for racism, for torture, and for genocide, among many other ills. If nothing else, exercising compassion will keep us from participating in these heinous acts.
My understanding of the gospel leads me to believe that the assumption that worthiness is required for compassion is wrong. Compassion doesn’t require worthiness. Christ’s teachings and example demonstrate that we must assist the sinner not only to repent of the sin, but to recover from the consequences of sin. His parables include the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32), where a father has compassion even though his son is clearly not worthy of it. Christ himself showed compassion on the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:3-11), refusing even to enforce the law. We most often cite the passage in that story about who should cast the first stone, usually as an injunction against self-righteousness, but we often fail to see the lesson of compassion in the story or note that there was someone there who was without sin, and he failed to cast a stone and chose compassion over justice.
The scriptures go beyond parable and example, giving all those who take on Christ’s name an injunction to show compassion, to “mourn with those that mourn,” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (see Mosiah 18:9). Note that there is no exception for the unworthy. Those that mourn or are in need of comfort apparently don’t even need to have taken on this obligation themselves. Those we mourn with and comfort don’t need to be Christian and they don’t need to be free from evil.
Our Father surely shows compassion for his children, but from an eternal viewpoint. While recognizing the need for the struggles we face, he surely sheds a tear when we mourn and sends His Spirit when we are in need of comfort, even when we don’t deserve it. He recognizes that all sin, that all are in the midst of working out their salvation, and that all need His compassion, especially when we don’t deserve it.
Should we show any less compassion?