Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Politics of Compassion

As noted in my sidebar, I believe in God. My way of understanding God is the Christian way, although I believe that people can find and understand God in the light of other faiths as well. Recently, as part of an attempt to make Lent more meaningful, I read "Jesus: A New Vision" by Marcus J. Borg, a well-known Christian scholar. One of Borg's conclusions really struck me - the idea that Jesus attempted to transform culture through the "politics of compassion".

Borg points out that "Jesus repeatedly emphasized the compassion of God". He did this in stories like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan, and he did it by healing people for whom he felt compassion. Compassion is that feeling of being "moved by" or "feeling with" someone who is experiencing a bad situation. Authentic compassion results in actions such as welcoming the downhearted son, assisting the traveler beaten by robbers, or assisting a sick person. As God's agents in this world we are expected to feel compassion and act on it both individually and collectively.

As I thought about this I realized that one of the least noticeable characteristics of our current government is "compassion", the act of recognizing and acting on the needs of the least fortunate. This, in spite of the fact that this government has associated itself with the idea of Christianity more than any other in my memory. But its focus has been on helping the "have's" rather than the "have-not's", and on threatening or fighting others rather than making honest attempts at conciliation. Across our land we see little evidence that those who need the most support are given the most attention. Borg would say that our leaders do not often practice the "politics of compassion", even though they profess Christianity. The one obvious exception is the effort to address AIDS in Africa, which I applaud.

I believe our country is at a critial juncture in our history. We have a growing gulf between the "have's" and "have-not's", particularly in the area of opportunity. A significant percentage of Americans are born in circumstances which do not bode well for their living happy and productive lives, yet we do not continually express compassion for them or attempt to address their needs in effective ways. This failure threatens our future as a nation, as it already is clearly threatening the life of cities such as Rochester, where I live.

The politics of compassion is not a soft-hearted sentimental reaction to suffering and despair. It is a practical, positive approach to maximizing the potential of individuals and our culture as a whole. It does not call for one-way gifts requiring no response on the part of the recipients, but rather hands held out in support that must be taken and held by the other. Its application provides hope, without which progress cannot be sustained. And yes, it is not without cost, but in my own life I most remember those who put themselves out to give me a hand when I was desperate for one.

As this presidential campaign winds down to November, I'll be listening for words of hope and compassion for those who are at the bottom of society's ladder. I want to hear talk of better options for health care, education,encouragement of children, and housing. I'd like candidates to speak of new ways to deal with the fixations on sex, drugs and violence that poison our culture. I'm hoping that the tone of our international relations changes toward proposing strategies that maximize the good for all people rather than focusing on enemies who need to be punished. Do we need to be able to protect ourselves? Of course. But it's much more satisfying to make a friend than defeat an enemy. The politics of compassion should make us much less a target of hate than we are at present. Even General Petraeus understands this simple truth.

All the major religions have a focus on compassion and generosity to strangers, but they also admit that we tend to be hard-hearted and selfish. We need to be reminded of our blindness and encouraged to see the immense benefits of a culture where all are included and helped to achieve their potential. The best of our presidential candidates will be the one who can help show the way.

1 comment:

Woozie said...

Perhaps you'd be interested in this Wikipedia article ;)