Jesus went with his disciples to the village of Nain, and a large crowd followed him. A funeral procession was coming out as he approached the village gate. The young man who had died was a widow’s only son, and a large crowd from the village was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said. Then he walked over to the coffin and touched it, and the bearers stopped. “Young man,” he said, “I tell you, get up.” Then the dead boy sat up and began to talk! And Jesus gave him back to his mother. Great fear swept the crowd, and they praised God, saying, “A mighty prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people today.” And the news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding countryside. -- Luke 7:11-17Many years ago, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old manager of a bar in Queens, New York, returned to her quiet residential neighborhood, parked her car in a lot adjacent to her apartment building, and began to walk the 30 yards through the lot to her door. Noticing a man at the far end of the lot, she paused. When he started toward her, she turned the other way and tried to reach a police call box half a block away. The man caught and stabbed her. She started screaming that she'd been stabbed, and screaming for help. Lights went on in the apartment building across the street. Windows opened. One man called out, “Let that girl alone!”
The assailant shrugged and walked away. Windows closed and lights went out. The assailant returned and attacked Ms. Genovese again. This time she screamed “I'm dying! I'm dying.” This time lots more windows opened and lots more lights went on. The attacker walked to his car and drove away, leaving Genovese to crawl along the street to her apartment building. Somehow, she managed to drag herself inside. The man returned a third time, found Genovese on the floor at the foot of her stairs, and finally succeeded in killing her. During those three separate attacks over the course of 35 minutes, not one of Genovese's neighbors tried to intervene. Worse than that, of the more than 30 people who saw at least one of the attacks and heard Genovese's screams and pleas for help, not one of them called the police.
We hear stories like this once in a while. They make us wonder about what makes us human. They call us to a deeper level of reflection and responsibility. Today, I want is to think about how the church responds to the screams for help around us. What do we do when we see people in pain?
One response religions often take is to ignore problems. Sometimes, we withdraw from the crucial issues of the world. Our religious values and practices can disconnect from human suffering. The problem is, compassion is inconvenient. Think back to the story about Kitty Genovese. One of the witnesses to the crime said he was too tired to call the police, so he went back to bed! He found a way to justify his actions. We've probably all done it, when we are presented with an opportunity to show compassion. For instance, I've excused myself pulling over when I witnessed a minor fender bender at midnight because I didn't want to stick around for an hour to fill out a police report. Without any good reason, I've excused myself from several opportunities to show compassion.
Another strategy is anger with the sponsors of crisis. I experienced this yesterday. I was out for a bike ride on the trails. As I was crossing Rte. 111, I heard something clap the pavement. A driver threw a full garbage bag into the middle of the road and sped away. Was I ever angry! How dare he pollute, especially in this day and age! How dare he assume someone else will pick up his filth! The more I thought, the angrier I got. The laziness!! The arrogance!! The lack of concern!! Guess what I did NOT do. I did not go back and pick up the garbage from the road. Turns out, the laziness, hubris, and lack of concern were part of my soul, too. Religions do this all the time. We get angry at the sources of pain, but we do nothing to alleviate the suffering. In fact, that which we condemn, we often find lurking in our own religious worlds.
Another strategy religions use to deal with pain is to talk about it. We need to think, explore, read, reflect, pray, understand, mull, listen, form a committee, go to a workshop, call in experts, find all the opinions, debate, vote, and then come up with a proposition to deal with the problem. This may be helpful in moral and ethical development, but it seems to have limited success in engaging the pain of the world around us. Here is the problem: We can convince ourselves that we are correct in our own conclusions when we talk too much. We begin to think we are wise. When we talk too much, we open ourselves to arrogance and superiority.
Here is another response: sometimes religions engage in social action. Finally, we meet need with deed. Many churches are great at social action, such as charity to the poor, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and so on. We need to be careful here, though. Charity is not compassion. Charity can be good. It alleviates pain temporarily. But it is not the same as compassion.
I remember when I began to learn about the difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. I think I've told you about my experience with a woman named Jen. It was right before my 28th birthday. I worked in a small rural church – I’d been there for about a year. One day I met Jennifer, and 18-year old mom with a daughter who was just a few months younger than Zoe. When Jen was 17, she was romanced by a 30-year-old man who got her pregnant. They lived together, unmarried, trying to raise their new daughter. Rumors had it that the boyfriend was abusive, so Chris invited Jen to a mother’s group to get her out of the house and meet some people in the community. That afternoon, when I came home from work, Jen was sitting at our kitchen table with Chris and Zoe. Jen decided to leave her boyfriend who, according to her, was verbally and emotionally brutal. She was like a prisoner in her own house and she wanted out. Since she was still 17 and a minor, her decision posed some unique challenges. Jen quickly learned the “system”: social services, WIC, welfare, and family court. We gave her grocery money to help her get by. Chris watched her baby for free. The deacons bought Christmas gifts for Jen and her baby. Family Court eventually awarded her full custody. When she wasn’t living with a family member, she and her baby stayed at a sleazy hotel room, funded by Social Services. After a few months, Jen moved back in with her boyfriend. I guessed she would rather live with the abuse than live with the alternative. She also got used to our charity, still expecting us to give gifts, watch the baby, and fund her reckless decisions. When we heard she moved back, I felt so naive. It felt like all of our compassion was for nothing. My compassion moved me to give charity, but was she ever empowered to be a better person, a better mother, a healthier member of our community? Did we do the right thing? Did we help her like Jesus would have helped her? This band-aid approach may salve guilty consciences and give temporary symptomatic aid to victims but does not attend to structural and institutional causes of the crises.
Today, I suggest another response. Courageous Compassion. This is what I see Jesus doing, and it's where I see us going. We need a new religious vision that addresses the global problems around us. The twentieth first century, so far, leaves millions of people hungry and homeless and hopeless. Nightly news depicts the pathetic pictures of bloated stomachs, bodies distorted by disease and wars, and the agonies of death by starvation. These dark images of misery stand in contrast to equally deplorable images of overfed, overweight, and overindulged consumers who live in overdeveloped countries. The poor have always had a special place in the thoughts and practice of major religions. Yet, as deprivation grows, traditional religions limit themselves to making statements and providing temporary handouts. They seldom tackle the systemic changes required to make the world a better place.
In today's gospel reading, Jesus does something amazing. When the Lord sees the grieving widow, he has compassion. He comes forward and touches the coffin. What Jesus does is inconceivable. Few things are as unclean in ancient Jewish culture as a corpse, or anything connected with a corpse. It is against the law of Torah to touch a coffin. One who does so becomes unclean. Rabbis don't touch the unclean. Jesus touched the coffin. Jesus is willing to get his hands dirty to touch something unclean and controversial for the sake of the weak and vulnerable. Jesus polluted himself. The people talked. They murmured. They gossiped. They accused. But no one else was willing to take the pain upon himself like Jesus did. This is about more than raising a dead man. With Courageous Compassion, Jesus confronts a system where rules have become more important than people. He puts love before law, the integrity compassion before the purity of dogma.
There is another healing that day, too. Consider the mother. She is in trouble. She is a widow and her only son has died. With no more family connections, her life expectancy is short. In Jesus’ day, women did not speak on their own behalf. They did not own property. They had no status. This mother's last remaining means of survival was gone. What would happen to her? Jesus sees her, and moved with compassion, he touches her dead son. He lives, and now the mother is given her life back, too. Jesus raises the mother from social death, just as he raises the son from physical death. Both are now empowered to live new, productive lives.
Courageous Compassion means loving everyone. Period. It means we don't listen to shoulds, coulds, and oughts when it comes to touching the pain of others. It means we don't even consider another person's skin color, or social class, or religion, or sexual orientation, or wealth, or anything. Every human is created in the image of God and they need to be loved.
Courageous Compassion begins with us, today, right here, right now. God is leading you to confront some pain and suffering in the world. You might ignore it, but it's there. You might get angry at it, but that only makes YOU worse off. You might talk about it, but the problem persists. You might give charity, but while you feel better, it is only a temporary fix. So now what? How about Courageous Compassion? How about becoming unclean for the sake of restoring some sanity to the world? How about touching the pain, without first mapping out consequences? How about embodying love in action to those who offend us, to those who have hurt us, to those who don't deserve a second chance (or a third or fourth)? How about turning the status quo upside down? How about confronting unjust family systems, and religious systems and economic or political systems that offer great gifts to insiders while pushing others to the side?
In Christ's sight, there are no insiders. No outsiders. We are all one nature. One flesh. One grief. One hope. If we fail to love, we fail in everything else, too. So, train your heart to look at people at the grocery store, at the gas station, at restaurants, at the office, in the neighborhood, and the people you see as you drive. Give yourself permission to be inconvenienced by their pains. Let yourself be moved by compassion that is free from any strings. Be open, and God will use you. And who knows? You might just change part of the world!