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 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.