Location matters. Time and space make a difference.
I am, among other things, a white, middle-class American male who is the last of the Baby boomer generation. These facts alone are incredibly defining and have unquestionably afforded me much privilege.
With this cultural heritage has come strong convictions about human potential, agency, and personal responsibility (i.e., “response-ability”).
This setting has also been fertile ground for belief in “rugged individualism”—the conviction that a person can pull himself up by his own bootstraps if he tries hard enough.
Such a mind-set has some strengths, but it also comes with some major weaknesses.
Compassion comes hard to those who hold to the tenant of the “self-made” man. If someone is “down on his luck,” the natural conclusion is that it was his doing. Poor decision-making.
A man reaps what he sows. Right?
The panhandler at the intersection is lazy and needs to get a job. The drug addict who can’t keep a job is irresponsible. The business-man-husband who can’t keep up with the mortgage payment and other household bills is self-centered and impulsive. All the toys, monthly subscriptions, and fine dining add up. He will have to learn his lesson the hard way. The woman struggling with obesity and resulting health problems needs to buckle down and exercise self-control. Cut consumption and go to the gym. Simple.
Do I sound judgmental?
Oh that life were that simple.
I remember a young lady who was in our program several years ago. She had a penchant for picking out abusive men. On one occasion, she ended up returning to a man who had raped her years before and had now been released from prison for his crime. I remember thinking, “How can someone be so stupid?!”
Then I got to know her. I learned that she had been molested as a little girl. She had no relationship with her father. She had no family. She was all alone in a very cruel, male-centered, male-dominating world.
That explains some things.
My and her personal experiences of a human autonomy and power of choice were very different.
C.S. Lewis writes, “Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. . . Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it.”
Accountability differs with each person. Culpability is a mystery only God can determine.
Any judgments we make are not only terribly inadequate but spoil our capacities for compassion—feeling pity and heart-felt concern for another.
Of course, compassion is more than a feeling, but it is not anything less.
I can give all my money to the poor and my body to the flames but still not love. In that case, as the Apostle Paul declares, it means nothing.
Nothing without love.
So how do we grow in compassion?
Location. Self-awareness and proximity.
I mentioned my historical-social context at the beginning not at all suggesting that the makeup of my life (or yours) is determinative, but only as something (among many other things) which may compromise my (and your) ability to have compassion on others. This requires self-awareness.
Past location matters. So does future.
Distance makes it easy to throw stones, but getting close to someone can wreak havoc on one’s neatly formulated paradigms and self-righteousness.
The law of cause and effect is more complicated than we first imagined.
Once we get past appearances, the cover of a person, we find that we are not all that different. Same hurts, same fears, same longings.
We are all beautiful and broken.
But this knowledge doesn’t come at a distance; it requires closeness.
Location truly matters.
My historical-social-cultural context is no excuse. It is just a barrier (albeit, a big one) that I must overcome if I take seriously my call as a Christ-follower to be a conduit of compassion.
I must find ways to bring in check my deeply rooted biases, and the shortest path to that is most often by getting close to the other. Listening. Touching. Getting to know their name.
Isn’t that what the incarnation teaches us? Christ took on flesh and became like us, tempted in every way, yet was without sin. This makes him able to sympathize (have compassion) with our weaknesses (see Hebrews 4:15).
Who knows, as we open up our lives, we might even meet Jesus in disguise.
“Accountability differs with each person. Culpability is a mystery only God can determine.”
“Distance makes is easy to throw stones, but getting close to someone can wreak havoc on one’s neatly formulated paradigms and self-righteousness.”
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
(Jesus, Matthew 12:7)