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.
Jesus was a radical. And nowhere else is this more evident than in his call for radical charity and generosity. His words are a significant challenge.
Give to everyone who begs from you. (Luke 6:30)
Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42)
Lend, expecting nothing in return .(Luke 6:35)
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.(Luke 12:32)
Jesus challenged his followers to give up everything to follow him. He invited them to step out in a journey of faith with no material security as a safety net. As far as we know, Jesus was homeless and possessionless himself, depending on the charity of others for food and lodging. We are told that he sent his followers out to the villages of Galilee with no money or food, telling them to depend on the kindness of the strangers they met along the way to provide sustenance and shelter.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe a rich young man who came to Jesus to discover what more he could do with his life. He was trying hard to love God and his neighbor. Mark’s gospel says that “Jesus looked at him and loved him” for his sincerity and effort. When the young man asked Jesus if there was anything more he could do, Jesus responded:
Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will be spiritually rich; then come, follow me. (Mark 10:21)
We are told the young man “walked away sad, because he had great wealth.” Jesus was trying to get those who sought to follow him to understand that there are two ways to achieve security in life. The first is to take care of ourselves by accumulating personal wealth. This is what the rich young man had done. The second is to create a community in which we care for each other by sharing our wealth. This is what loving one’s neighbor means. And this is what the rich young man could not do. Maintaining his personal wealth was too important. Giving it away was too great a risk. To live this way requires an enormous act of faith.
Following Jesus can be costly, but we are not required to emulate Jesus by abandoning all our possessions and financial security. Instead, the idea that we should pool our resources to help one another is central to the communities that gathered around him. This was how the Jerusalem community of his disciples structured themselves after the death of Jesus. They maintained their own homes while generously contributing to a common fund in order to care for others as needs arose. There are still models of this radical approach in small monastic communities and house churches today. But more importantly, the way of Jesus involves using our pooled resources on local, national, and global scales to care for those afflicted by disease, poverty, war, and natural disasters.
The kind of radical personal charity that Jesus recommended is rare. Regardless of our generosity, most of us are cautious in how we use our funds. We know we can do more, yet we hold back, not wanting to be taken advantage of by undeserving people. But Dorothy Day (1897–1980) suggested that “the gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
Yet, no matter how generous we are, in the end, charity is only a Band-Aid. It fills the gaps left by an unjust society. Charity is important, but it is not enough.
Serving the needs of others is the path of transformation from ego-centrism to humility. Our captivity to our egos in the context of the present domination system causes us to value success, importance, and praise. But Jesus calls us to deny ourselves—our self-importance, our self-centeredness, our innate selfishness—and by humbling ourselves, serve others in need.
Matthew’s gospel recounts the story of two of Jesus’ disciples—brothers James and John and their mother—who desired greatness, power, and acclaim.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
When the other disciples heard this, they became angry with the two brothers.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:20–28)
Luke’s gospel has a parallel account:
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24–27)
We all have an inborn desire to be noticed, to be affirmed, and to feel significant. But a servant is one who quietly and humbly serves the needs of others regardless of personal recognition. So, if we’re striving to be like Jesus, no task should be beneath us, no person below us, and no appropriate sacrifice too great.
There are many ways to serve, but we should be aware of some pitfalls. Professor Rachel Remen (b. 1938) suggests that sometimes our natural inclination to help others and to fix their brokenness can be impediments to real service.
Service is not the same as helping. Helping is based on inequality; it’s not a relationship between equals. When you help, you use your own strength to help someone with less strength. It’s a one up, one down relationship, and people feel this inequality. When we help, we may inadvertently take away more than we give, diminishing the person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. . . Helping incurs debt: when you help someone, they owe you. But service is mutual. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction, but when I serve I have a feeling of gratitude. Serving is also different to fixing. We fix broken pipes, we don’t fix people. When I set about fixing another person, it’s because I see them as broken. Fixing is a form of judgement that separates us from one another; it creates a distance. We may help or fix many things in our lives, but when we serve, we are always in the service of wholeness.
Canadian Catholic theologian and humanitarian Jean Vanier (1928–2019) is the founder of L’Arche, a group of communities in 35 countries for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. He describes true service as being present with and accompanying another. The word accompany, like the word companion, comes from the Latin words cum pane (cum PAHN-ay), which means “with bread.” Accompaniment implies nourishing each other by eating, sharing, and walking together.
Accompaniment is necessary at every stage of our lives, but particularly in moments of crisis when we feel lost, engulfed in grief or in feelings of inadequacy. The accompanier is there to give support, to reassure, to confirm, and to open new doors. The accompanier is not there to judge us or to tell us what to do, but to reveal what is most beautiful and valuable in us.
Anyone can serve another in this way. A true servant is one who has answered an inner call to show up and be present to what is right before them, and who asks the question, “What can I contribute?” The following quote has often been attributed to Mother Teresa (1910–1997) . Regardless of who said it, it is an important thought.
If you can’t do great things, do little things with great love. If you can’t do them with great love, do them with a little love. If you can’t do them with a little love, do them anyway.
Loving one’s neighbor calls us to much more than charity and service; it means working for a just and equitable society. Justice is ultimately the most important factor in loving our neighbors. Philosopher and activist Cornell West (b. 1953) once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public. You can’t talk about loving folk and not fighting for justice” So justice is not only the social form of compassion, it is the social form of love. One definition of love is “a choice to do what is best for another person.” Consequently, love in a family involves feeding, clothing, sheltering, educating those whom we love. By extension, love in the human family means insuring that everyone gets a fair, equitable access to the means of life.
The word justice means different things to different people. For many people, it brings to mind retributive justice, which seeks to punish lawbreakers. Some of us think of procedural justice, which makes sure that everyone gets fair treatment under the law. However, the biblical meaning of justice is distributive justice, which promises a fair share of the necessities of life. The Bible teaches that justice is economic sharing. Those who have more, help those who have less. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan (b. 1934) reacted to the suggestion by some conservatives that the equitable sharing of our resources is nothing more than liberalism, socialism, or communism by suggesting that if we need to give biblical justice an “ism,” the best label would be “enoughism.”
The pursuit of justice leads us directly into politics. We cannot avoid it. Therefore the command to love our neighbor is always a political command. To follow Jesus and to proclaim the God of justice leads us to a distinctly political stance of looking out for the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged. To avoid proclaiming God’s call to distributive justice is to support the status quo of the domination system—which is also a political stance.
Charity, service, and justice are needed in a suffering world. The question is why Christians nearly always favor the personal forms of charity and service over justice. In an unjust world, only the first and more limited responses—charity and service—are acceptable to those in power. The work of faith-based charities is often lauded by government until they try to influence government policies to change the status quo. Television journalist Bill Moyers (b. 1934) has said:
Charity is commendable; everyone should be charitable. But justice aims to create a social order in which, if individuals choose not to be charitable, people still don’t go hungry, unschooled, or sick without care. Charity depends on the vicissitudes of whim and personal wealth; justice depends on commitment instead of circumstance. Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table; faith-based justice offers a place at the table.
Dom Helder Camara (1909–1999), a Roman Catholic bishop from the poor Brazilian region of Recife said in the 1960s, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” And John Dominic Crossan once said, “Charity gets you canonized; justice gets you crucified.” In the church, it is easier to talk about charity than justice. That is because justice gets us squarely into politics where we come face-to-face with the institutional selfishness of the domination system that we have created. More importantly, it gets us into questions of how to achieve justice.
In the current political realm, conservatives tend to favor charity, while liberals look to justice to deal with issues of suffering. We face a political divide on how to help the poor most effectively. One position holds that it is the role of individuals to voluntarily help the poor to whatever extent an individual feels called to provide from their resources. The other position maintains that as a society we have an obligation to deal with hunger, homelessness, and poverty together through governmental programs wherever possible. The first approach would use free-will offerings, while the other believes that our national treasure allows us to better accomplish societal needs as a people. Ask any major charity in the United States and they will tell you that without government help, charitable contributions fall significantly short of the pressing needs.
In response to suffering, the weak and powerless God of love moves us to action, urging us to transform the human conditions that cause suffering. God’s active love expressed in our lives is evident when we pursue justice—creating those conditions that promote life and put an end to suffering. From Deuteronomy to Micah to Matthew, the call is clear:
Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:20)
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice? (Micah 6:8)
Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s justice. (Matthew 6:33)
In spite of the seeming immensity of the task, there is hope that a just society is possible. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The long arc of the universe bends toward justice.” But as Barack Obama (b. 1961) added, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it does not bend on its own.” We are the shapers of the moral universe. As followers of Jesus, we are called to pursue justice on behalf of the vast majority of people all around the world who suffer under the present domination system. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú (b. 1959) wrote:
We feel it is the duty of Christians to create the kingdom of God on Earth among our brothers. This kingdom will exist only when we all have enough to eat, when our children, brothers, parents don’t have to die from hunger and malnutrition. That will be the “Glory,” a Kingdom for we who have never known it.
The reign of God is about doing for the entire human family what we do within our individual families. Loving the whole human family means insuring that everyone gets a fair and equitable access to the necessary means of life: food, clean water, clothing, shelter, education, health care, meaningful employment, safety, and protection from violence. As followers of Jesus, it is up to us to figure out how to live together as a human community, how to love one another, and how to care for the earth and all its creatures. Acts of compassion, generosity, service, and justice not only help others, they also transform us into better people. Although Gandhi (1869–1948) most likely did not say this, the quote often attributed to him is significant: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In becoming better people, we have a chance to create a better world. If we live our lives as co-conspirators with Jesus, if we engage in his conspiracy of love in our time and place, his vision of the inbreaking reign of love will be fulfilled within us and around us one small sacred act at a time. And all we need is love.
Note: This post is an excerpt from A Conspiracy of Love: Following Jesus in a Postmodern World (2016) by Kurt Struckmeyer (See Chapter 11: “Contemplation and Action”)