The Way of Compassion

Randall Tremba
June 3, 2012
Trinity Sunday
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

John 3:1-17
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

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Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s the only Sunday named after a church dogma and what a doozy of a dogma it is. When it comes to the Trinity, Jews and Muslims agree with each other and against Christians. God is One. Period.

It’s true we Christians are monotheists like Jews and Muslims but as they see it we Christians have gone off our rockers and around the bend. In their eyes we are wacky cousins. The triune God—“one in three” or is it three in one”— makes no mathematical or metaphysical sense to Jews or Muslims not to mention most everybody else including many if not most Christians.

I’ve been asked more than once to explain the trinity and once upon a time I did explain it or I should say: I offered an explanation. But now when I’m asked I just want to laugh or cry. Really, what else is there to do? It’s utterly baffling. When it comes to God—Triune or otherwise—what else should we expect but bafflement. No one gets it. So let’s get on to the things we do get.

It’s true: Jews, Christians and Muslims don’t agree on everything. But we do agree on at least three things. The first is this: God is one.

From the Hebrew scriptures: Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God! The Lord is One! (Exodus)

From the New Testament: "There is no God but one.” (1 Corinthians)

From the Koran: Your God is One God. There is no god but He, the All-merciful, the All-compassionate. (Suri 2:163)

God is one. On that we agree.

The second thing we agree on is this: God is merciful. And the third thing is this: we should be merciful, too. Children of God should be like God. And what is God like? Well, who’s to say?

Once upon a time, long ago, God was about to obliterate the city of Sodom because of the many wicked people therein. Wait just a minute, said Father Abraham. What if there are 100 righteous people in Sodom, would you destroy them, too? Good point, said God, if there are 100 good people I’ll spare the city. Well, what if there are only 90? OK, for the sake of the 90 I will spare the city. What about 50? At this point God, according to the story in Genesis, was getting a little miffed.

To me that’s a fascinating story. A mortal human being confronts and challenges the all-mighty, immortal God, or what was thought at the time to be “god.” It seems to me that this story reflects a break through, an evolutionary development in the human brain, heart and consciousness. Father Abraham calls God’s bluff. Shouldn’t the maker of heaven and earth do what is right? Come to think of it: if God is obligated to be compassionate, what about humans?

From the animal realm human beings inherited a reptilian brain designed for feeding, fighting and survival—and not much else. According to neuroscientists, that brain is slowly being trumped or we might say challenged by an emergent brain with a capacity for compassion. Like most things along the evolutionary path, it’s been arriving by fits and starts. Its success is not inevitable. It depends on consciousness and choices.

It began making its presence known in nearly every ethical tradition about 2600 years, 600 or so years before Christ. You can glimpse it in the variety of golden rules. This fledgling human capacity or promise is expressed differently in different languages and cultures but it is basically one idea: humans can and must practice compassion for all living things. Choices are required.

The old self must die and be reborn by and in this Spirit of compassion, as Jesus says to Nicodemus in the lesson from the gospel of John for today. You must be born anew. You must be born anew by the Spirit. You must be born anew. Transformed.

Or, as the Apostle put it: So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the fleshfor if you live according to the flesh (or he might have said if he could have) if you live under the power of the old brain, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the old body or the old ways, you will live. (Romans 8:12-17)

And that Spirit, as it turns out, is the spirit of peace and compassion.

This discovery or re-discovery has inspired a fresh and bold attempt to unify world religions and ethical tradition under a recently composed “Charter for Compassion.” The charter was drafted from suggestions gathered over several years from hundreds of voices on nearly every continent. The charter was endorsed by an international and inter-religious “Council of Conscience,” which includes representatives of many different traditions, including Bishop Tutu.

Later this month, I will ask our Session to consider becoming a partner of the charter. In September our Adult Education and Formation Committee will offer a Sunday morning seminar around Karen Armstrong’s book “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life.” And in October our Peacefest team plans to celebrate and promote the “Charter for Compassion” to the larger Shepherdstown community, including Shepherd University. Who knows, perhaps the mayor and town council and the university will become partners of the Charter.

We are not separate things, but parts of one living Being.
We are no more separate than the fingers on a hand.
There is one body, and we are all it.
We serve the poor because they are us.
We love the stranger because in them we know ourselves.
We side with the oppressed because they hold our wisdom.
We honor those who are different because they complete us.
We respect those who horrify us, for they are within us.
We bring the Other to our table: it is theirs, for we are theirs.
We include them in our compassion, for we include them.
This is the mystery of the Holy Trinity, that in all there is One.
There is One of us, and the oneness, the One, is Holy.

(Steve Garnaas-Holmes.)

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Charter for Compassion

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.