Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Compassion and its role in Spirituality and Justice.

On Monday evening I was invited to attend a meeting of a men’s group at a local Church. This Lent the parish is focusing on the theme of “Compassion.” A panel consisting of accomplished attorneys, financiers, a CEO, a university professor and, an MBA all explained the role that compassion had played in their professional and personal journeys.

After the presentation, the panel fielded questions from the audience. An elderly gentleman raised his hand and asked, “What is the role of compassion in the case of this Sergeant, now held in Fort Leavenworth, for the massacre of sixteen people in Afghanistan?” I sensed that the questioner was prompted not out of a spirit of contrariness; but rather, out of a genuine sense of both frustration and just anger. The moderator answered the man by quoting a passage from the Gospel of Matthew,

“If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive you.” [Matthew 6: 14-15]

Several thoughts flooded my mind. Compassion is a word that comes to us from the Latin language. Literally translated from the Latin, compassion means, “to stand with [someone].” In this sense, compassion is not about “being nice,” compassion is an intellectual and emotional process actively engaged in by a person. Compassion means putting myself intellectually and emotionally in the skin of a person who is suffering.

In the case posited by the questioner, this exercise would entail trying to intellectually comprehend what it means to have lost a loved family member to an evil act of violence. What it means to be a widow in Afghanistan today. I thought of the questions that a widow and mother would contemplate in this scenario. How will I feed and take care of my children? What will happen to our home? Where/with whom will we live? How do I help my children make sense of this, how can I comfort them? What will happen to me? How will I manage, where will I find the strength and means to move forward? Then there is the wife of the Sergeant in Leavenworth and the questions/difficulties she faces.

The importance of compassion is that it is both an intellectual and emotional process, whereby we move beyond ourselves and view reality through the eyes of another person. This has the practical effect of requiring me to consider things from a new perspective, from the perspective of another person.

The danger with the answer from the Gospel given to the questioner is that it can become a forced response. I MUST forgive everyone always. No, you do not. In fact, in the particular case cited, even the widows and orphans of the victims can only offer partial forgiveness, they can only forgive the offender for the hurt he has caused them personally. The deceased cannot voice their forgiveness, or voice their refusal to forgive in this life. The offender would always be left with that question, assuming that he posses/developed the sensitivity of conscience to ask that question.

The other danger with that answer is that it can easily lead to a “contract religion.” Incidentally this is the appeal of religious fundamentalism (literalism), I do “X” and God must therefore, do (give me) “Y.” This is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate God. If you happen to believe in a Supreme Being, such an attempt is simultaneously a delusion and a blasphemy.

The nobility of the sentiments expressed in Matthew, are that they represent a spiritual ideal. This ideal is also beautifully expressed by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, wherein the qualities of mercy are listed; as well as how mercy heals both the offended and the offender. However, mercy is not automatic and should never be presumed.

The following morning, I read an open letter to Cardinal Dolan by Carl Siciliano. Carl is the director of the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. What Carl has done in his letter to the Cardinal, is to invite Cardinal Dolan to engage in this exercise of practical compassion vis-à-vis LGBT youth. Carl is asking Dolan to place himself inside the skin of a young LGBT person and to view reality through his/her eyes. I invite you to read both the article and the comments that follow below.

Many readers commented that Carl's letter is an exercise in futility, that Cardinal Dolan is so entrenched in his polemics and his personal end game, that these youth would at best merely be seen as unfortunate, but necessary, collateral damage. Perhaps, but Cardinal Dolan’s strength and position do not come from his titles, wardrobe, or connections in the Vatican. Ultimately, they come from the type of people whose donations built Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Simple Catholics.

The brilliance and the power of Carl Siciliano’s open letter, is that it appeals to what authentic religion/spirituality is intended to be. Its real purpose and power is about honest compassion, putting oneself in another person’s shoes and seeing reality through their eyes. This leads to becoming a voice for the voiceless, seeking real justice, and extending practical charity.

Holding those in positions of high religious office/authority to the spiritual standards that they call others to will either move them to a higher level of compassion, or it will reveal the emptiness of their claims to spiritual authority.