Unsentimental compassion...

There was a time when I lived as an activist for social justice: I saw life through the lens of struggle, I looked for contradiction and injustice in the news and culture, and I considered myself one of the company of the committed. Today I think that my earnest stridency was mostly just the other side of the coin of oppression - a self-righteous obsession that rarely made any difference in the real world - and often deepened the polarization and pain without any authentic measure of compassion.

My understanding of justice work, you see, was defined by the status quo - the marketplace - where there must always be winners and losers, profits and loss, ups and downs. I remember sitting at a Farm Workers boycott meeting in Lawrence, Kansas one hot afternoon in the early 70s with a few Roman Catholic supporters talking about our next action. Towards the end of our discussion, I said something like: "Those bastards - those damn bosses and growers - they don't know anything about the agony of the workers." There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. So being a young hot head I didn't quit: "We should give them a taste of their own ugly medicine and see how they like it being treated like dirt. Fuck them!" 

No one replied to my rant. No one embraced my anger. And no one seemed interested in kicking ass. In time an old priest said, "Son, be careful, you don't want to become what you hate." I left the meeting thinking this was pious bullshit, but those words have haunted me for nearly 40 years. Today I know that the old priest was right. It is so easy to become what we hate. It is so simple to delude our heads and hearts with self-righteous fury that we are unable to move in the ways of love and hope. And it is so often the case that our opposition to injustice blinds us to our own participation in that which is hateful, cruel and destructive. To paraphrase Mark Twain: "Do I believe in human sin?  Man, I've SEEN it." Like St. Paul noted about himself: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  

Frederick Buechner has a phrase that I have come to embrace - compassion without sentimentality - that he describes like this."It is a lucid, cool and grave compassion. If it had a color, it would be pale, northern blue." He wrote this about his colleagues at the East Harlem Protestant Parrish - an experiment in ministry born from those returning to the US after WWII who wanted their lives to matter - and could not tolerate being a part of the stagnant status quo of the 1950s. 
They never seemed to romanticize the junkies and winos and dead beats and losers they worked among, and they never seemed to let pity or empathy distort the clarity with which they saw them for no more if no less than what they were. Insofar as they were able to approach loving them, I got the impression that they did so not just in spite of everything about them that was neither lovely nor lovable but right in the thick of it. There was a sad gaiety about the way they went about their work. The sadness stemmed, I suppose, from the hopelessness of their task - the problems were so vast, their resources for dealing with them so meager - and the gaiety from a hope beyond hope that, in the long run if not the short, all would in some holy and unimaginable way be well.

In time, it was this compassion without sentimentality that changed my life. It applied to me - in spades - to those I loved who were broken, for sure - and to the injustices that invaded my limited understanding of how the world was supposed to work. Leonard Cohen eventually gave me the right metaphor to comprehend how this all hung together when he sang, "There is a crack, a crack in everything... that's how the light gets in." Compassion without sentimentality, yes? Again, Buechner got it right when he observed that in contemporary culture the brokenness and despair is easy to see - but what about the grace?

My frustration... was in discovering that although many writers have
succeeded in exploring the depths of human darkness and despair and alienation in a world where God seems largely absent, there are relatively few who have tried to tackle the reality of whatever salvation means, the experience of Tillich's "new being" whereby, even in the depths, we are touched here and there by a power beyond power to heal and make whole. Sin is easier to write about than grace, I suppose, because the territory is so familiar and because, too, it is of the nature of grace, when we receive it, to turn our eyes not inward, where most often writers' eyes turn, but outward where there is a whole world of needs to serve far greater than the need simply for another book.

In my world - in my heart, my family, my church and community - the wounds are too great for me to be an activist (at least in my old understanding of that word.) Rather I have been lured towards living into an unsentimental devotion to compassion - with a lucid but cool awareness of Buechner's sad gaiety - that honors the cracks in everything. The old way was exhausting - and shrill and eventually boring and exhausting - but unsentimental compassion not only brings hope and clarity to each day, it keeps me grounded in a love far greater than myself. The more I trust this love, the more I am able to be fully present with people. And the more present I am, the more I can share and join in with their suffering. From time to time we even find ways to address some of the pain.  The rest, as the wise one said, we leave to the care of the Lord.


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