Category: Charity

Compassion in action: charity, service, and justice

Compassion is a feeling of empathy with the suffering of others, the capacity to feel how others feel. The Latin root of the word compassion is a compound of com (with) and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning to suffer with. Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the sufferer.

True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that we are moved to the point of action. Jesus was moved by compassion for the poor. We are told that, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who shows compassion on the one who suffers, even if that person is culturally defined as the enemy.

Marcus Borg (1942–2015) has said that, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” The Pharisees represented a theology of holiness, according to Borg, which was based on holiness as a defining characteristic of God: “Be holy for I, Yahweh, am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Jesus proclaimed a theology of compassion based on an alternative characterization of God’s essence: “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) These differing theologies led them to different ways of living.

compassionate action

Compassionate action usually takes three forms: charity, service, and justice. Although some would include service under the first category, charity more specifically involves gifts of money, clothing, food, or other material goods, but does not necessarily involve an investment of our time and talents. Charity is important, but writing a check to a worthy does not really change us in a fundamental way. Although charitable giving demonstrates a generous nature, we often remain distant from those we seek to help. Service, however, involves us face-to-face with those in need. It can be an immensely transformative experience that can change us from our natural state of self-centeredness into increasingly selfless people. Perhaps it is the only thing that will. Although generosity sometimes leads to self-satisfaction, service often becomes a very humbling experience.

Charity and service are both personal forms of compassionate action. Their objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering in the world. Justice, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) said:

We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.

Justice is focused on transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassionate action. It is the political means of caring for the least of these. The difference between charity and service on the one hand and justice on the other is this: charity and service seek to heal wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place. William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006) has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.” Still, all three of these are necessary components of what German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) described as righteous action in the world. Together, righteous action and contemplative prayer would form the essence of a  “religionless Christianity” in our day.

Our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among [humanity]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

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the rich fool and the bigger barn economy

And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:15–21, NRSV)

In the Cotton Patch translation of verse 15, Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) brings out its original earthiness: “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.”

Jordan develops this parable in an interesting way in The Substance of Faith, a collection of his sermons. He elevates the parable to a broad social and political level.

“Jesus said, ‘There was a certain rich farmer.’ Now, he didn’t say what the man’s name was. Jesus left him rather impersonal. To make it a little bit more personal, let’s give the man a name. We’ll call him Sam. ‘Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’ Now, we might even want to call him uncle. That would be all right, too. ‘Uncle Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’” (Cotton Patch Sermons, pp 81–82)

And what did Uncle Sam do with his rich yield? He kept it all to himself and ignored the hungry of the world. So, although the parable may have been intended to be understood on a purely individual basis, we could legitimately expand the reading to include the entire nation and thereby entertain a new lesson. In either reading, the problem is greediness and self-interest, an unwillingness to share with those in need.

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some thoughts on loving-kindness

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– The prophet Micah (NRSV)

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Can kindness save the world? That is the question I posed as I reflected on the theme of ‘transforming the world through loving kindness.’ Are we really talking about changing the world through small acts of kindness, perhaps from one stranger to another? If so, are we discussing a movement like London’s ‘Kindness Offensive,’ known for orchestrating large-scale ‘random acts of kindness?’ Although kindness is an important virtue, and the world is all the better for it, can friendly, gentle, caring, considerate, and helpful people change the entrenched systems of domination, poverty, and violence that we face in our neighborhoods, nation, and the global community? Kindness may give pleasure to others and make us feel better in return, but I suspect that transforming the world will require more than simple acts of kindness that lift someone’s spirits.

Perhaps the answer to my question can be found by exploring the meaning of the phrase ‘loving kindness.’ That intriguing expression offers new insights. There are two ways of looking at this phrase and it turns out they are interconnected. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is in reference to the poetry of Micah 6:8 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation—“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this context, it is important to grasp what it means to ‘love kindness,’ (a verb with an objective noun), particularly in partnership with such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘humility.’ A second way of looking at the phrase is by examining the peculiar hyphenated word ‘loving-kindness’ (a compound noun), invented by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) when he created the first English translation of the Bible in 1535. If this is the case, one wonders why ‘kindness’ needs a modifier. Is there any other kind of kindness than the loving kind? Continue reading

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