Cultivating Compassion

Ethel Hornbeck
July 22, 2012
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church
Mark 6:30-34

The Gospel lesson for today, comes to us from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 6:

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:30-34)

Several weeks ago President Barak Obama announced his support for full marriage equality for all Americans. He cited his Christian faith and, specifically the golden rule—treat others as you wish to be treated--as foundational.  Judging from the backlash that occurred one might imagine that this ancient ethical teaching is as controversial as the political position itself. One unfortunate headline blared: “Spiritual Advisor Rebukes President For Golden Rule.

It turns out, the golden rule has been part of this nation's public discourse for a very long time. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy invoked the golden rule in denouncing racial inequalities in American life and law, and he added a little twist. "Every American," he said, "ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case." So: how would we wish our children to be treated? And what kind of world do we want to pass on to them anyway?

Frederick Douglas, the influential 19th century abolitionist invoked this ethical teaching so often in his speeches and written work that scholars have called the golden rule his “central and supreme thematic foundation”.   Of course, this teaching has been around a lot longer than this country and its struggles to be inclusive.  It was apparently first articulated in the 6th century BCE by the Chinese philosopher Confucius in response to a world that had plunged itself into an endless cycle of self destructive violence. From that point forward, some version of the golden rule shows up at the core of every faith tradition and philosophical system, according to religious historian Karen Armstrong in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

So with that long, rich, diverse history we should all be experts by now, right? Fully realized compassionate beings. Well, as far I can see, not only do we have trouble loving our enemies, as Jesus invited us to do; we can barely open up our hearts and lives enough to love our neighbors, coworkers, spouses, parents, or children as we love ourselves.  Actually—many of us are not all that great at loving ourselves either.

Still, its true, the golden rule and the capacity for compassion that makes it possible is at the center of the world’s great wisdom traditions, is in fact, the beating heart of Judaism and Jesus and the Christian wisdom that grew up from those roots. It is also difficult,  and, as Armstrong points out, fundamentally alien to a modern way of life, steeped in individualism and fueled by competition.  For all its universality, compassion is not all that well understood much less lived out. And, in fact, as attacks on Mother Teresa have revealed, there is in some circles what Armstrong calls “a visceral distaste for the compassionate ethos and a principled determination to expose any manifestation of it as ‘lying, pretense and deceit.’”

Yet, according to the “Charter for Compassion” with which Armstrong’s book begins: “we urgently need to make compassion a clear and luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.” Armstrong issues this challenge: “it has become imperative,” she writes, “to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge they will fail the test of our time”

Here at SPC, we are taking up this challenge as we embark on an exploration of compassion, of Armstrong’s book and the Charter for Compassion that is connected with it. So, we are encouraging everyone to get the book (copies available in the Fellowship Hall), to read it, engage it, share it with friends and family,  and join us in exploring it together. The Adult Education and Formation committee will be facilitating a series of discussions on Sundays between services beginning in September; we welcome everyone to join us.

Learning about compassion—its meaning, its history, its varied expressions- is where it all begins.  This is Armstrong’s step 1.  And it turns out that the simple task of definition is surprisingly challenging, in part because compassion is so often conflated with related but distinct concepts like pity and even love.   Compassion means literally “to feel or to suffer with;”  it is not feeling sorry for someone.   It is the intention, capacity and act of entering, open heartedly, in to the experience of the other. This does not mean that we must agree with another, only that we are willing to see a perspective different from our own. Compassion is, writes Armstrong, “to endure with another person, to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.  That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”

Armstrong’s 12-step program invites us to learn, engage, experience, and cultivate.  As we work this “first step” we are invited to explore in depth what compassion might really look like and feel like and how it might function in our own experience.  There are infinite resources to explore; let me suggest just one that has really caught my attention recently, the movie Temple Grandin.  This story of a brilliant, driven autistic woman is also a fascinating study of compassion on numerous levels.  Temple’s brain wiring prevents her from “normal” or “neurotypical” human interaction and perception; that she learns to function at all in world so alien to her is at least in part because she was surrounded by people determined to connect with her on her own terms. Her primary way of perception is entirely visual;  her brain acts something like video camera, and the movie brilliantly depicts this visually, drawing us inside of a very different reality. Her visual capacities are so acute and unusual that, among many other things, they give Temple this amazing connection with animals—an ability to enter into their perceptions, reactions, comforts and fears, as though she is seeing the world through their eyes. She becomes an animal behavior expert and her insights (as well as determination) ultimately revolutionize how livestock are treated in stockyards across this country.  We also glimpse her work as an advocate for other autistic people, with her unusual ability to understand and articulate for others just what is happening in the inner experience of these outwardly baffling people. So in this tremendous irony of grace, a woman who claims that she is literally incapable of engaging in human emotional relationship has lived a life of compassion embodied.

In the Hebrew scriptures of our tradition, the word most often used for compassion is directly related to the word “womb” and is almost always associated with Yahweh.  So, for the ancient Hebrews, God, that old dude in the sky, was described as womb-like—which means, at least, life giving, creative and passionately other-centered.  Except the word is not an adjective, nor is it a noun: it’s a verb--in both Hebrew and Greek.  There’s really no adequate way that I have found for English to capture the full biblical meaning.  But clearly, compassion is not some thing one has, it is a way that one is, such that what one does flows naturally from it. 

In the gospels, compassion is nearly always shown as embodied in the person of Jesus, the human one who reveals to us the nature of the divine precisely in and through the very human way of compassion.  In today’s story, Jesus and the disciples are their way to a hard earned retreat. They’ve been on the road and they are tired. They are hungry.  But crowds of people follow them, hungry for justice, for mercy, for meaning in a mean world. Jesus “compassionates” (best I can do) and teaches them many things.  Which sounds odd, until we reflect just a bit on what those “teachings” might have been like for those receiving them.  For just a minute, lets pause and be with the people in that crowd. Remember, we are tired, poor, discouraged.  Hungry for meaning in a mean world. Listen now with new ears, as the Beloved says: you are blessed.  All you who are struggling, sad, hungry, hurting. All you who long for healing and peace, you are blessed, because God is already in and with you showing you the way, the way of compassion. You, my friends, are the light of the world. So: let us take up our lives, bless them, break them open and share them with all that we meet.  Lets get up and lets get going.

Compassion is not some thing, some quality apart from us, that we can gain by our religious observance, or acts mercy. It is an innate human capacity, which Armstrong calls “essential to the structure of our humanity.” When we allow it to flourish, we become more fully human, and  we invite the lives we touch to do the same. Like any human capacity, compassion can be cultivated, practiced, exercised like a muscle, or left to atrophy, out of fear or self-centeredness. But, cultivating compassion is no luxury, according to the Dalai Lama;  it is rather “the source of both inner and external peace…fundamental to the continual survival of our species.” Compassion IS the way. So: lets get up and lets get going.