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An Interfaith Plea for Compassion
January 7, 2018
Isaiah Matthew

File this under “Why I go to Church”. A few years ago, the religion scholar Karen Armstrong suggested that our world needed a Charter for Compassion. She thought all of the world’s religions should come together around the shared value of compassion as a central spiritual expression. This is a great idea that is so obvious that the forest is hidden among the trees.
At a minimum, we should realize how much we have in common like that. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all born against a backdrop of violence and warfare and the tribalism of an earlier era. It was small groups of local loyalty that usually exhibited “aggressive territorialism, desire for status, reflexive loyalty to the leader and the group, suspicion of outsiders, and a ruthless” competition for resources… Rape, pillage, destruction, slavery were the norm where might makes right. After centuries of this regularly recurring cycle, they were attuned to the spiritual danger of hatred, vengeance, unexamined prejudice, exclusion, suspicion, and greed.
They are the way of strife and “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”, the moral of epic battle from the Iliad to “Game of Thrones” and “The Return of the Jedi”.
Judaism taught that the way of God, the polar opposite of cyclical violence is Shalom or “peace”. It isn’t just the cessation of overt conflict, it is the positive presence of justice and resonant harmony. And the spiritual opposite of hate filled objectification that is the precondition for violence is “compassion” or “Rahman” in Arabic. The root of that word is related to the womb. It is the symbiotic harmony and natural empathy that a mother feels for the baby that she is carrying where she would rather sacrifice her own life to save her baby than she would live.
Jesus once said that he came not simply to give us life but to teach us about “life abundant” and this is the way towards abundant living. It is through empathy and compassion, making a spiritual connection with others. It fills our lives with meaning and we humans are a meaning craving species.
One time a Roman approached Rabbi Hillel, the most famous Rabbi of his time, who lived about the same time as Jesus. He said he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could recite all the Torah (the first 5 books of the bible) on one leg.
The clever Rabbi said “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it.”
It is a clever saying. He not only gives a simple negative formulation of the Golden Rule, he says, “Go study it”. That means, use this maxim to interpret whatever story you are reading in the bible because this is the fundamental moral meaning.
Someone asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” But it wasn’t just what Jesus taught, he impressed the crowds by how he lived in relationship with other people. He went out of his way to transcend that egoistic” me and my tribe first” mentality spiritually defined by aggression and violence.
He lived compassion by healing those around him that were resigned to begging and suffering. He reached out to the “sinners”, prostitutes, lepers, epileptics (who were thought to be demon possessed in the ancient world), tax collectors (who were considered treasonous traitors by their people).
He encouraged his disciples to refrain from judgement, but to leave that to God, so to speak.
He taught us that we all will sit at the same banquet table with God, the powerful and the sick amongst us. He taught us that any time we do deeds of love and kindness, when we feed the hungry, when we visit people in prison or the hospital, you do it unto me. You do it unto God.
It is not about me, my people only, my paesans, it is about fulfilling others. Spiritually speaking, it helps if you can displace your own ego and so the most intimate followers of Jesus gave all of their possessions to the poor.
Jesus takes it a step further, to make the point in bold. He teaches us ”You have heard it said of old, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but I say to you offer no resistance even to the wicked. If someone hits you on the right cheek, offer him your left. It is renouncing even our legitimate ego rights…. Further than most of us would be willing to go.
Because he says, “You have heard it said of old, you must love your neighbor but hate your enemy. And I say to you this: pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you. For in this way you will become the sons and daughters of God in heaven. For God makes the sun to shine on the good people and the bad people and god makes the rain fall on the honest and dishonest alike. If you love only those who love you (if you take care of only those that take care of you), so what? Even the Mob, even the gangs in the hood, do that much. No strive for perfection like God in heaven.
Transcend your egoistic needs, your tribal prejudice.
So St. Paul writes about the ultimate importance of love in our life together. It is not about me getting my needs met. It is about being connected in relationship, in compassion, in love. Paul says, “If I have the eloquence of great oratory and angelic singing, but I don’t manifest love in everything I do, I’m just a noisy gong, a clanging symbol. If I know all things, but have not love, it profits me not at all. If I am a great ascetic and give away all I have, but do not have love, it is a waste of time.” Faith hope and love. But the greatest of these, the most important of these is love.
And in the book of Acts that tells the story of the earliest church, right after Jesus died and was resurrected, they remembered them as a community of love. It says “Now they were united in heart and soul”… What a great line. Think about the times in your life when you were deeply filled with meaning. It was those times you were united ‘heart and soul’ with a good friend, falling in love, enduring tragedy with real neighbors and people.
And they have this lovely idyllic line, “The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared the proceed each with one another according to people’s needs.”
I’m sure it didn’t last long. But the point is this, when you are spiritually living in tune with God, what does it look like? People share with each other because they are united in heart and soul.
What a great vision!
“The basic message of the Koran is that it is wrong to build up a private fortune but good to share your wealth fairly to create a just and decent society where poor, vulnerable people are treated with respect. ‘Not one of you can be a believer’ Mohammed said in an oft quoted hadith, ‘unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself.”
“The Koran calls us to replace ruthless competition with hilim (or Mercy). We are called to be forbearing, patient, and merciful; instead of venting wrath, merciful people remain calm in the midst of contention and they do not hit back when they suffer injury, leaving revenge to Allah. They look after the poor, the disadvantaged, the orphaned and the widow and share food, even when they do not have enough for themselves. They exude gentleness and respect towards other people. And in all circumstances, they reply “Salem salekum” Peace be with you.
Islam, the name of the religion, means “Surrender”. Because you are daily asked to surrender your ego to Allah, the compassionate, Allah, the merciful. And this is why Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer, a physical reminder that they are not the center of the universe.
And all Muslims are required to give away 2% of their income every year because all of us should act as graciously towards others as God has acted towards us.
The profundity of compassion in Islam is perhaps best embodied in the piety of the Haji that Muslims are to make to Mecca once in their life. It is, to my mind, the most profound pilgrimage in any spiritual tradition and you usually make it when you are in your late 50’s or early 60’s, when you are nearing retirement.
You have lived a career. You have collected, acquired, raised a family. And now you make a pilgrimage by yourself, surrounded by a million other people that have come from all over the world to do the same thing.
In the beginning, men bathe, shave their heads and their beards and they don a wrap, a simple white tunic that is the traditional shroud for your burial. And for the next several days, they fast during the day and make a series of spiritual treks, following a practice that millions of people have done every year for the past 1400 years.
And during the week, you have the sobering experience that you are simply one in millions and millions of people that have come before you and will live after you. It is that experience of context that gives you a deeper humility of your time and place on this earth, how fleeting our time is, and how important it is to fill it with spiritual substance.
Most people return from the haji changed people. They usually focus the rest of their lives on helping others in some way, in giving back. They become more aware and intentional about nurturing the spiritual dimension of their lives because they are aware that time is short and this is the most important part of our living.
I recognize that all of these three faiths also have exclusivist traditions that distinguish between the inner circle and the heretics that are out there, and I recognize that we don’t actually work in harmony with each other.
But it is interesting that as different as the dogma is between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all three of them are trying to produce quite similar character traits. All of them teach that because God is gracious and compassionate towards us, we reflect the divine spirit in the world when we are grateful, gracious and compassionate towards other people.
When I was a child, I was introduced to religion by people that taught me that religion was about the after-life. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to see the spiritual quest as trying to manifest compassion in this life, to connect with people that are right around us more deeply that we might actually live fuller lives of love because this is where the deeper meaning of our lives is to be found. It is intrinsically validating. You don’t have to wait for the afterlife.
Jesus said, I can not just that you might find life, but that you might find it abundantly. There is a deeper way of being that is right in front of us. We have to quiet the “self” that protects and feeds ego, so neurotically expressed by Donald Trump in his tweets of brag, vengeance towards anyone that has wronged him however slight, that constant neediness of affirmation.
But once we quiet the self, we discover a more fulfilling way of relating to others. We listen to others, allow them to influence us, become resonant and attuned with them. We love and are loved by others which produces gratitude and the deep peace that can transcend our nervous anxieties. It doesn’t make us perfect. It just makes us humane but as it turns out, that is enough. And that is all that God wants for us.
And that is why you get out of bed on Sunday and come here rather than just read the paper. You know and I know that we are a work in progress and we want to become humane before it is all said and done. We’d like to be loveable. We want to love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, may God the compassionate bless you and keep you. May you become humane.
Amen.