Wineskins Archive

January 9, 2014

Radical Compassion: Meeting the Lepers Among Us (Sept – Oct 1996)

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by Darryl Tippens
September – October, 1996

24Every believer, I suppose, eventually faces a personal crisis which transforms his or her faith. Elie Weisel, at 15, was cast into the absolute darkness of Auschwitz. Later, in his book called Night, he described his terrible, transforming epiphany:

Never shall I forget the first night in camp, which turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath the silent sky.1

Everything important in Weisel’s life changed forever. Afterwards, he wrote: “There are certain experiences that make you change whether you want to or not, when you must re-evaluate your relationship with the surrounding society, with man and with God and with yourself.” While most of us, thankfully, will never encounter the horrors of a concentration camp, many of us will experience a crisis that will transform our understanding of self, community, and faith.

My transforming moment happened last year. A young man—let us call him “Mark”—was in great distress.2 He was troubled by issues of “sexual orientation.” His family had discovered that he was gay, and the revelation did not go well, to put it mildly. A Christian university graduate raised in a Christian home, Mark was lonely and desperate. A mutual friend had brought us together, hoping that I, somehow, as a representative of the church, could offer assistance, solace, and hope. I did what I knew to do, but what I offered proved too little, too late. Very soon after our meeting, Mark committed suicide.

“There are certain experiences that make you change whether you want to or not….” Weisel’s words have proved inescapably true for me. I had to face my own sense of failure. (What more could I, should I, have done?) But I also had to face the fact that church, family, and community had failed Mark. Through his community’s scornful words, cruel attitudes, and icy indifference, Mark found it literally impossible to go on. He internalized the community’s hatred, and, I think, finally acted on the community’s implicit message to him, “It would be better if you did not exist.” And so he cooperated. As I rehearsed this young man’s story, I was stunned by the unshakable conviction (which I find very hard to put into words) that Christians actually contributed to Mark’s death.

I can hear the protests rising: “Don’t blame us. We were just standing up for our principles. We are a loving, compassionate community, concerned for the poor, the orphans, and the widows.” And of course, they are right. Or half right.

We must try to understand a terrible paradox that inhabits our communities and perhaps our own hearts. It is possible both to love and to hate—to feed the starving in Africa and to bear a contempt that kills. As Shakespeare reveals in The Merchant of Venice, we can be like good old Antonio, generous to a fault, while bitterly loathing Jews. One can love foreign missions and be a racist. One can love the lost and be a sexist, a homophobe, or a bigot. This is the scandal of our religion: one can love and hate at the same time—easily. It is possible to be a cruel almsgiver, both generous and hurtful.

“There are certain experiences that make you change whether you want to or not….” The death of Mark has caused me to go back to the gospel, to reexamine the compassion of Jesus, and to reconsider why I am here on this earth. This side of Mark’s grave, the gospel sounds different to me, more urgent and more real.

So far as I can tell, I have one simple purpose on earth—to be like Jesus Christ in all things. To imitate his gentleness, his mercy, and his compassion. “A disciple is not above his teacher,” Jesus says. “Everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher” (Luke 6:40). The core quality in the heart of Jesus is compassion, Paul explains: “If there is any compassion and sympathy… let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1, 5). “How I long for you all with the compassion of Christ!” I am here to love as Jesus loved. I am here to notice people, to assist them, to enter into their lives. I am here to grow up into the perfect, radical compassion of Jesus Christ.

Sentimental Compassion

Of course, all Christians believe in compassion (in theory), and we practice a fair amount of it. We can point with pride to our famine relief in Ethiopia or our efforts to help the victims of hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and floods. We do care for the orphan and the widow—at least modestly. Yet a great deal of our compassion is “sentimental.” By sentimental, I mean that it is prompted by occasional, raw emotion—often activated by the high drama of a particular crisis.

I do not criticize such sentimental compassion. It is useful and good. It feeds the hungry and alleviates a lot of misery. But sentimental compassion has certain limitations. Since it is stirred by feelings of kinship and brotherhood, it is most often practiced toward people “like me” or toward subjects I deem to be small and helpless (for example, hungry and helpless children). We bestow this kind of compassion most naturally on people with whom we can “identify.” But, unfortunately, this compassion can wear thin when the person in need doesn’t look like me (the Bosnian, the black inner city youth, the “welfare queen,” the street person, the AIDS victim).

Thus, if a white Church of Christ burns, we rush to rebuild it with our next Sunday’s contribution—for we feel a rush of pity since these people are “ours.” But if a black Baptist church burns to the ground, well, which of our white Churches of Christ would dream of helping out? The list of needy people who do not claim our sympathy is, sadly, a long one.

Sentimental compassion, good as it is, falls short of the gospel. We must go deeper to uncover true, gospel compassion.

Radical Compassion

Radical compassion marches into the dark places where sentimental compassion dares not travel. Rooted in agape, it is nourished by resources much deeper than feelings of brotherhood and kinship. Yes, it feels, but it is also driven by a tough will to practice Christlike charity, whatever the cost. This kind of compassion is rare because it requires a violent uprooting of one’s own self, and it challenges our primitive desire for personal security. An example from the life of Francis of Assisi illustrates what I mean.

One day Francis came upon a leper. Something inside urged the young man to spur his horse and gallop away from the disgusting, deformed beggar. But something else inside urged him to stop, to notice, and to love this outcast. Francis dismounted. He gave the leper some money, and then he kissed the leper’s hand.

Francis turned on his own nature, as it were. He fought his pride and his squeamishness in order to show mercy. He knew that he must “press the man’s rotten flesh against his lips.”3 That experience proved to be the turning point in Francis’ life.

Why should Francis kiss the deformed hands of diseased beggars? Why should Jesus love the prostitutes and the tax collectors? Why should an Albanian nun from Calcutta build an AIDS hospice in New York City? Such love is risky, incomprehensible, literally beyond logic. But it is the gospel, and we must learn how to practice it.

Disciplines of Compassion

Radical compassion is not acquired naturally, through human effort. It is received as a divine gift. It is a grace, the reward of living a certain way in the world. Rather than bemoan our failure to practice radical compassion, it would be better if we entered into the spiritual disciplines that make it possible for God to teach us how to show mercy.

Through a life of prayer, fasting, the practice of silence. The spiritual reading of Scripture, and meditation, God leads us to become radically compassionate people. When you make the Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy” your hourly prayer, you will be surprised how easy it will be for you to extend mercy to those different from you.

When you live in the Gospels and watch your Lord at work among the lepers of his day, in time it will seem utterly natural for you to enter the lives of the lepers of your day. When you meditate at length on your own frailty and sin, you will find it easy to forgive others in the name of Jesus. Tragically, a Christianity divorced from the compassion of Jesus becomes distorted, rigid, and harsh.

In fact, if we do not move towards Jesus’ radical compassion, we are likely to act violently towards those “beneath” us. We see this problem in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35). A servant owed his master 10,000 talents. One talent represented 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. If this servant were to give his entire annual salary to his master, it would take him 150,000 years to get out of debt! Marvelously, though, the master forgives the debt totally.

And what does this liberated man do? He turns violently to another man beneath him but in his debt. His fellow servant owes him a paltry sum (less than one year’s wages): “But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred dinarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’” The master in the story asks the wicked servant, and by extension, each of us, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” In church and society today we see a lot of verbal “seizings by the throat.” Tempers are hot. The anger runs deep on all sides. I wonder: would this be possible, if each remembered how great a debt he has been forgiven?

Surely, if the cruel servant had contemplated his own experience of grace, he would not have dealt violently with his brother. Spiritual violence flows from a lack of awareness of one’s own miraculous liberation. Today, many of the so-called “religious right” are known for their hatred of people who are not like them. Could this phenomenon be the inevitable consequence of not living a life of self-reflection? Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” When this petition becomes our daily petition, the spiritual terrain upon which we meet our neighbors becomes level.

Costly Compassion

Radical compassion becomes possible when we move close to the heart of Jesus. Jesus is the template of biblical compassion. His compassion becomes our own. We observe him closely, then we do what he does. Such radical compassion is not soft, easy, or romantic. On the contrary, it is costly, even deadly.

When Francis of Assisi went into a period of prayer, it occurred to him that if he really obeyed the call of God to love this world’s lepers, he could well lose his good looks, his health, even his life! He was haunted by a memory of an old, hunchbacked woman in Assisi. The message came to him that, unless he turned back, the devil would place the woman’s ugly hump on his own back. Francis then saw that, truly, if he was to follow God he must be prepared to take the ugliness of the world on himself. It is not enough to throw a coin at a beggar. “He must go down into the suffering and poverty of the world and take the hump upon his own back.”4

Here we encounter the real offense in radical compassion. It is costly! Quite literally, in biblical terms, it takes “guts” (“splankna”).5 One must open wide one’s very self to another person, without restriction—a radically risky thing to do (2 Corinthians 6:11-12). True compassion is a sacrifice of one’s very inner being for another person. It is a gesture that leads easily to humiliation and injury.

Furthermore, radical compassion is certain to be misunderstood by the religious establishment which is dedicated to preserving the integrity and reputation of the community. When Jesus loved the outcasts, his critics seized upon this fact with relish. They refused to see this basic truth: that to enter into the life of a physically or morally diseased person is not to approve of the disease any more than Francis approved of leprosy when he pressed his lips to the hand of the leper. Such fine distinctions are lost to the Pharisees who look on with horror and dismay. Seeing only contamination and compromise, they righteously rise up in anger against radical compassion.

In the face of opposition, how do we practice the mercy of Christ? Such amazing love only grows in the deep soil of a life of devotion to our model, Jesus Christ. Through the daily disciplines of prayer, solitude, fasting, meditation, and acts of service, compassion is made possible. It may take a whole life to get there. Or, it may be thrust upon you quickly, in a transforming moment. “There are certain experiences that make you change whether you want to or not….”

And so, Mark’s untimely death is changing me. Today I am less concerned about “getting it right,” more concerned about loving right. Now I see that compassion is not “soft” or “optional,” but muscular and risky, the crowning Christian virtue. The words of John of the Cross follow me daily. “In the twilight of our lives, we will be judged on how we have loved. In the twilight of the twentieth century, I seriously doubt that Churches of Christ will be judged according to the myriad controversies that have enamored us. But I suspect we will be judged on how we have treated the rejected, the powerless, and the silent among us.

1 Elie Weisel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), p. 43.
2 Details about “Mark” have been changed to protect the privacy of his family.
3 John R. H. Moorman. Saint Frances of Assisi (London: SPCK, 1976), p. 9.
4 Moorman, p. 10. (my emphasis)
5 Splanchnon is the Greek term for compassion. It denotes the inward parts of the body, the lower organs, which were thought to be the seat of emotions and the self.
Wineskins Magazine

Darryl Tippens

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