Late October is the time for a comforting little annual ritual in my home, the lighting of the first fire of the wood stove season.
I love it.
It’s such a relief from the cold version of hot air offered by my heat pump. It warms me right through, and even if it may be too hot to handle at times, and regularly needing attention, one thing it will never be is a vaguely cold background noise.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6), amount to the introductory and foundational teaching of Jesus. It is here that we have the imperative: be compassionate (merciful), as your heavenly Father is compassionate (merciful). It led G.K. Chesterton to his famous quip that if this was Christianity, then it has not so much been tried and found wanting, rather it has been found difficult, and therefore not tried at all.
As an immediate sidebar, let me add that the word merciful may have seemed a good translation of the Greek word oiktirmones (compassionate – Luke 6.36) in 1611, but it gives the tragically false impression today of an upstairs-downstairs relationship that could be seen to perpetuate distinctions rather than enhance commonality. And after all, compassion is about the oneness and connection between parties in a relationship, not about the level of difference between them.
The difficult thing about compassion is that it requires us to stand outside of ourselves, to transcend ourselves, and to see others from another perspective. It is a me-to-we move, in current youth and educational language.
Or, if you like, it is a wood stove that is variously warm, hot, needing regular attention, but never cold.
Scholars Marcus Borg and NT Wright agree and summarize thus: Jesus got provoked into a face-off between the politics of purity and the politics of compassion. The purists wanted to see that rules were observed in order to preserve the status quo or advance the interests of one particular group. Compassionistos, if I may so term it, wanted to break down the barriers between the groups for the greater good of the whole.
It is easy to see the warm side of compassion in Jesus care for the outsiders, healing of the sick, and blessing of children. The red hot side of compassion is the critique that inherently goes along with this. To be inclusive is automatically to take on exclusivism as it is revealed in vested interests, insider dealing, protectionism, and self-serving power.
Jesus is not only a mother hen gathering its chicks (Matt 23.37), he is a mother bear defending her cubs (Matt 23.23-26).
The Dalai Lama, champion of the Charter for Compassion, who says that there is no circumstance in which compassion is not a possible response, is the same Dalai Lama who is an unending critic of Chinese foreign policy and is willing to take the risks that go with that.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate and also champion of the Charter for Compassion, and who addressed a youth-based crowd of 20,000 in Vancouver October 18 on the compassion agenda of moving from Me to We, is the same Archbishop Tutu who in September called for the international trial of George Bush and Tony Blair for governmental bullying by fabricating the existence of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify an act of war.
Compassion is neither soft nor cold. It is always both warm and embracing, and red hot and igniting. Vote for compassion. Educate for compassion. Catch the fire.
The Rev. Andrew Twiddy is the Rector (pastor) of the Anglican parish of St. Anne & St. Edmund, Parksville. Questions or comments? email@example.com, or 250-594-1549.