Compassion has become the singular quality through which I understand God to be at work in the world.
I remember learning from a young age the response my mom would give me if I beat up my little brother. “How would you feel if someone bigger than you came along and did that to you,” she would ask. Many times I would just give the answer I knew she was looking for. Specifically, that I wouldn’t like it at all. I didn’t empathize with my brother every time. But every once in a while I would hurt him badly enough or do something awful enough that I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to be in his shoes.
My mom was showing me what it meant to have empathy. To understand and feel with the person I had hurt. This capacity to empathize helped foster a sense of compassion not only toward my brother, but toward anyone who I saw as suffering. This sense of compassion seemed to come relatively naturally. By that I mean, I didn’t understand that I was being conditioned or taught to feel something. But I did understand that empathy and compassion were something to be developed in myself and respected in others. Compassion has become the singular quality through which I understand God to be at work in the world.
Some of the most grounding stories in the Bible for me are those when God shows compassion on God’s people. When Jesus is said to have looked on someone in pain and is moved by compassion. Or when God heard the cry of God’s people in Egypt, God had compassion on them and did not forget them. And God’s call to Israel was always that they be a living testimony to the Mercy of God. In Exodus 22:21-22 God calls Israel to reminds them to act mercifully toward resident aliens because they “were aliens in the land of Egypt” (www.bible.oremus.org). Various communities and people in my life, none more so than the marginalized communities I have the honor to work with, have demonstrated this call to compassion for me.
I recently met a man who is a legal resident of the U.S. at the Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA. (I’ll call him Thomas.) He was there to visit a man whom he had met some time ago. His friend (I’ll call John) had been arrested the day before because an ex-wife in Texas had made a statement saying John abused her. Charges were not brought but law demanded he appear in court in order to avoid those charges and finalize his divorce. Having signed the papers, he had believed everything was in order. He had missed his court date in Texas because he had moved to Tacoma and didn’t know about the court date. John now faced deportation since his wife and he are no longer together.
Despite only a casual friendship with John, Thomas was there to help John find a lawyer and be his communication with the outside. This was a significant act of compassion on the part of Thomas since it had only been a matter of months since he had been detained in this very center. I would have understood if he never wanted to be anywhere near this place of fear and isolation. But Thomas was filled with passion and empathy for his friend. He told us John’s story and asked us for help finding resources. He told us of his intention to visit John everyday and advocate for him for the entirety of his incarceration. Compassion allowed Thomas to transcend his own feelings of fear and discomfort and walk voluntarily into the prison that once threatened his own freedom in order that another human being would not feel alone and hopeless.
This story is illustrative to me of the Mercy of God in three ways. First, Thomas’ compassion for John showed a specific care for the lived experience of John. There was nothing abstract about the mercy that Thomas offered John. He didn’t offer prayer alone or a concern with John’s eternal soul. Rather, Thomas worked hard to make John as physically and mentally comfortable as he could be. This is an echo of God’s demonstrated concern for the physical bondage of the Hebrew people in Egypt. God is in fact concerned with the here and now (Lohfink, 1987). The goodness of creation that is proclaimed in Genesis is affirmed by God’s continued concern for the quality of life that the Hebrew people experienced.
So too, Thomas’ concern and compassion for John affirmed John’s humanity as “good” and worthy of care. Not only this, but Thomas’ concern for John was not evident simply of a lifelong friendship with John or because he was family or in some other way a special case. Thomas’ compassion for John came from empathy for anyone who found himself or herself alone in a strange land, in bondage and without an advocate. In a broader sense, God’s compassion for the Hebrew people was not directed at an individual, but to a “people” whose cry God had heard. God’s compassion is inclusive and communal and affirms a shared experience among the poor and marginalized (Lohfink, 1987). This is exactly what Thomas was demonstrating.
Thomas’ story illustrates the Mercy of God in a second way: God’s mercy is communal. When Thomas encountered John, everything in the US American culture would have told him to distance himself. His concern should have been with the maintenance of his personal freedom. Experience suggested that the best thing for Thomas would be to avoid contact with ICE at all costs. He had heard the stories of detainees being beaten, tortured and even killed at similar facilities. Because Thomas saw something of himself in John that told him that his own freedom was caught up in the treatment and destiny of John. Russell Daye (2004) documents Desmond Tutu’s description of this Ubuntu theology. Tutu said that the image of God is in all of us and therefore our humanity and our full being cannot be separated from that of any other person. For Tutu, this was evidence against South African apartheid (Daye, 2004).
For Thomas, this same image of God was apparent in his own experience and the life of John. He couldn’t walk away from John without walking a way from a part of himself. So too, God calls the Hebrew people to care for those who are “strangers” in their land. In Deuteronomy 10:17-19 and on many other occasions, God directs the Hebrew people to not see the world in terms of closed relationships (www.bible.oremus.org). This is the heart of Tutu’s Ubuntu and the demonstrated value of Thomas. God tells the Hebrew people that the way in which they treat “strangers” and others being oppressed by poverty will determine the fate that they will meet. Their concern should not be self-directed, but directed toward a larger, more inclusive community.
Finally, there is a third lesson on the Mercy of God within Thomas’ story. God takes sides in violent and unjust systems. I have shared Thomas’ story with people who cannot get past the question of what Thomas and John deserve under the law. They will render any lesson learned from Thomas as moot because of his status as “undocumented” or worse. The singular question for many US Americans today on the immigration debate as well as most areas of morality is a simple one: Is it legal? When it comes to the law, US Americans and Hebrews share a common practice. We mistake legalism for right-relationship. The shortsightedness of Americans to see the image of God in one another parallels the failure of the Hebrew people to understand the concern of God. While we strive to be righteous under the law, God “leads people out of the system” (Lohfink, 2004, p35).
Thomas’ experience was one of marginalization and isolation by an unjust legal system. When he found his freedom, he did not turn and condemn those who found themselves bound, but sought their comfort and freedom. God calls for liberation and transformation from unjust economic and legal systems (Daye, 2004). To the Hebrew people God warned against forgetting how easy it is move from oppressed to oppressor. In Isaiah and throughout the prophets God’s side is made clear: care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger (www.bible.oremus.org).
These lessons from Thomas echo the lessons I was taught by my family. Compassion for those of us who are marginalized, oppressed and made vulnerable by those who are strong means a change in behavior and a working empathy. The Mercy of God is made manifest in our communities and relationships when we move toward right-relationship among all people.
Bible (NRSV). Retrieved from http://bible.oremus.org/.
Daye, R. (2004). Political forgiveness: Lessons from South Africa. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Lohfink, N. (1987). Option for the poor. N. Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press.(CC)