Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rationing our Compassion

Around a week ago, a local news story popped up on my Facebook feed. A young woman had a car accident and died. Her baby, just 8 weeks old, survived with non-life-threatening injuries in the backseat. 

That’s the way the story read. I skimmed the details, brimming with tears, and filed it away as another tragic thing in a broken world. Then I got the text from one of the CDO directors at the church I serve – Did you see the story? Did you know that these are our people? The baby had just started in our program.

Oh no. My heart sunk further. I went back and read the story more carefully. Then I did the dumbest thing – I read the comments.

“I heard she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.” That may be true, but I can tell you this – I have done a million dumb things while driving. I’ve reached into the backseat to retrieve a pacifier and attempt to shove it back in the mouth that’s crying. I’ve fumbled for my phone as it rang in the depths of my bag. I’ve reached down to try to grab something on the floor. I’ve even unbuckled myself from the front passenger seat, shimmied between the gap, and wedged myself between my children to try to fix something back there. The difference is this – none of my choices have been fatal. Yet. 

As I digested all the ugly things that people are willing to say when they have the distance of a computer screen, it boiled down to this: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what happened, why it happened, or whose fault it is. The truth is this – there’s a family hurting and they need our compassion and love. They deserve a humane response to a human tragedy.

I know our boats are swamped with tragedy these days – from Michael Brown to Eric Garner to the Jordanian pilot burned alive to the three young Muslim people killed by a neighbor in North Carolina. And, quite honestly, I don’t care who is right or wrong after the incident. The truth is this – there’s a family hurting and they need our compassion and love. They deserve a humane response to a human tragedy.

What do we save ourselves when we ration our compassion? We try to justify not responding with love and grace by saying that something the person did or said or was earned them this horror. Rather than saving ourselves heartache, we diminish our humanity. We refuse to see the other person as our brother or sister, and we find ways to attach blame to the one who was hurt.

And here’s the catch for me because, as much as it hurts, I can let my heart break a million times for the victims or survivors of tragedy. It’s much harder to let my heart break for those who enact the violence and create the horror.

A colleague of mine is inviting members of his church to adopt a terrorist this Lent. They will pray for that person, not in some vague way, but specifically. They will read all they can about this particular individual, look at their picture, and pray to God on their behalf. Not combat prayers, which I've experienced myself – those prayers that people pray only so you’ll come over to their way of thinking. No, these prayers offered on behalf of those who have found no other way to live life in the world than by inflicting fear on others will be for God’s mercy, grace, and healing.

It’s an incredibly bold proposition. I don’t know if I’d be able to do it. Would you? And yet I know it’s precisely this life of unlimited compassion, of love freely poured out, that God calls us to live. As Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45). 

It’s not for us to decide who deserves compassion. After all, I know I can be pretty unlovable at times and make some bad choices. And yes, we also need to work on our wisdom and justice, but if we start with our love, flexing the strength of our compassion, the other things might fall into place. Perhaps when we practice giving our love away, we’ll find we have more of it. 

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