Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Call for Compassion

Our greatest threat is not the atomic bomb. Our greatest threat is the callousness to the suffering of man. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
We live in a dangerously polarized world, full of division and hatred, suffering and violence. Conflict rages in places as diverse and far off as Afghanistan and the Middle East, Chechnya and the Sudan. Although the chief causes of these conflicts are political and territorial, they are cloaked in religious terms. The world’s major religions – I speak here of the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have failed miserably at countervailing the forces of injustice. In many parts of the world, religious fundamentalists, including many self-proclaimed Christians in this country, have sowed the flames of prejudice and ignorance. Muslim extremists have used their faith to justify and commit atrocities that violate Islam’s most sacred values. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been allowed to fester for generations, turning a secular and political conflict into a “holy” war in which reasoned compromise and pragmatic solutions are victim to intransigence and intolerance.

Every day the news is filled with stories of tragedy and conflict; of school shootings, suicides, and murders; financial institutions in crisis; the growing and shameful gap between the richest and poorest among us. People have lost faith in the political process and have stopped talking and listening to each other. Many young people today are beset with feelings of alienation and helplessness, as the religious and secular institutions around them seem impotent, incapable of solving the world’s problems.

Even the quality of our political conversations has suffered. When I was in college and law school in the early 1980’s, I often argued with my Republican friends and other students about current events. We debated many of the same issues that today continue to divide liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans – the government’s proper role in alleviating poverty and putting people to work; the need for social welfare programs; the pros and cons of government regulation. But even in the most heartfelt and animated discussions, there existed mutual respect and goodwill between us. It was understood that, though we disagreed on the means, we sought common ends; it was an accepted truth that each of us desired a peaceful and prosperous world. We struggled in different ways with issues of fairness and equality, productivity and individual responsibility, but we understood that our arguments were made in good faith. Sadly, in today’s environment, such civil discourse seems less possible.

Something is missing in American political life today. It has been festering like a sore for the past two decades or so, when compromise became a dirty word and the conversation turned bitter and ugly. Political disagreements are no longer principled differences, but instead reflect one’s integrity and worth as a human being. The cultural divide also has carried over into mainstream religious institutions, in debates over gay ordination and marriage, and in disputes over religious orthodoxy and biblical inerrancy. Lost in the political and religious culture wars is the concept of compassion.

In some circles, to speak of compassion is suspect, an indication that one is soft. For persons of power and influence, presidents and senators, civic and business leaders, speaking of a compassionate society suggests weakness. For most of us, in our everyday lives, compassion takes a back seat to cold realism. We do what we must to get through each day, to satisfy the demands of our jobs and of life’s competitive pressures.

Albert Einstein foresaw that as our society grew more modern and technologically advanced, we would need the virtues of our traditions more, not less. He described such tradition-based figures as Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi, as “geniuses in the art of living – more necessary to the dignity, security and joy of humanity than the discoverers of objective knowledge.” In an age of atomic warfare, Einstein knew that the future of humanity demanded compassionate applications to the world’s problems, whether scientific, medical, economic, or political.

In November 2010, Krista Tippett, the host of NPR’s Speaking of Faith (now called On Being), lectured on compassion at a TED conference, rightly noting that compassion is a word of great meaning, one possessed of transformative powers. If properly understood, compassion has the power to change us, individually and collectively. Compassion is not, as is sometimes believed, sympathy or pity for the less fortunate. Rather, compassion consists of genuine expressions of kindness; of empathy for the sorrows and joys of others; of forgiveness and reconciliation, generosity and hospitality. Compassion is not a feeling or an emotion, but is physically manifested, and must be cultivated and practiced in everyday life. Compassion is curiosity without assumptions, a willingness to see beauty in others, including the child with Down’s syndrome, the mentally disabled man in a wheelchair, the toll collector, the police officer, the soldier; all of the strangers in our midst.

Compassion brings us into the territory of mystery and allows us to see the face of God in each other, in the members of our families, our friends, our co-workers; in the homeless women begging for change by the subway grate, and the drug addict huddled beneath the bridge. Compassion is tenderness.

One of the chief tests of our generation is whether we can build a global society that allows people of all religious and political persuasions to live together in peace and mutual respect. Where are the voices of compassion in the world today? The major faith traditions, which often are part of the problem, should be leading the way in helping to make a more just and compassionate world a reality. Historically and theologically, principles of compassion are embraced by all of the world’s religions. It is the essence of the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Judaism teaches tikkun olam, to repair the world; Jesus teaches to love thy neighbor as thyself; and Mohammed instructs, “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.” And yet, too often the voices of religious extremists drown out the voices of compassion.

Whether in the public pronouncements of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the bishops of Rome, or the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim in the West Bank, lately one hears few appeals to compassion; instead, the focus tends to be on matters of sexual conduct or ancient doctrinal disputes, implying that a “correct” view of these issues are the true criterion of faith. “Man has often made a god out of dogma,” admonished Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “a graven image which he worshipped. . . He would rather believe in the dogma than in God . . . [and] be ready to take other people’s lives, if they refuse to share his tenets.”

It is difficult to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so needed. Krista Tippett has said that she once believed “that all of the important and interesting problems in the world were political, and all of the solutions, too. But I changed my mind.” She has since realized there “are places in human experience that politics cannot analyze or address, and they are among our raw, essential, heartbreaking, and life-giving realities.” The really important things in life, as in death, “how to love, how we can be of service to each other . . . are the kinds of questions religion arose to address.” Have our religious institutions lived up this challenge?

How do we restore compassion to the center of our civic and political life? How can we make it the essence of religion, morality, and civic virtue? Theologian and historian Karen Armstrong, author of The History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Ballentine Books, 1993), and perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the history and traditions of the Abrahamic faiths, helped formulate the Charter for Compassion, an important and potentially transformative document drafted in November 2009 by the leading voices of six faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). The Charter, which affirms that compassion “lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” calls upon people of all faiths “to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate; to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures; [and] to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.”

Until we are able to see the humanity in each other, to set aside ego and transcend selfishness, to see the world through the eyes of the Other – the strangers among us, those with whom we disagree, our enemies and our friends; until we are able to feel empathy and seek genuine understanding, we are doomed to repeat the divisions and hatreds of the past. “There is no human being,” wrote Heschel, “who does not carry a treasure in his soul; a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence, a call to worship.” True compassion breaks down the boundaries of politics, dogma, ideology, and religion. The practice of everyday compassion helps us recognize our interdependence and our shared humanity. “We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion,” says Karen Armstrong, “or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings.” The choice belongs to each of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment