A (Com)Passionate Response

Categories Christianity, Islam0 Comments

In the weeks preceding and following the election, I was challenged by the visceral responses from left, right, and center of this artificial political system constructed it seems to disenfranchise the oppressed and benefit the oppressors. I was and still am never sure of being on the right (or left) side of history (or eternity); compared to so many, I am privileged and thus called to responsibility, though compared to the rulers I am a mere pawn in the ruthless game of neoliberal capitalism.

But one thing I did learn was how quick we are to be selective of the persons and groups on whom we desire to have compassion.

My compassion encompasses everything.

Qur’an 7:156

A 29-year-old security guard massacres nearly 50 in a gay nightclub in Orlando. This incident brings deep sadness and confusion to so many. Many are moved to anger, righteous or otherwise, some even to hate. Many are also quick to seek to understand the mental, physical, and social context in which an Omar Mateen could emerge. Was he isolated? Was he suffering in other parts of his life? What factors led him to perform such an act of hate? Surely he did not choose to perform this atrocity in a vacuum! This interpretative act of understanding is a form of compassion; it is the assertion that the person who killed so many was not the person Omar was called to be, not the person God willed him to be, perhaps because he did not have the human love required to fulfill his divine destiny. We are then moved to love more, to perceive compassionately, and to make sure lovingkindness and mercy fill the emptiness of evil, so that hate never manifests in act.

And then the election.

Those so ready and willing to have compassion on an Omar were not as ready to have compassion on those who did not vote for their candidate. Suddenly, we are reducing the character of millions to the act of clicking a button or filling in a circle. The mystery of the human person is no longer a mystery, but a vote. Xenophobe. Warmonger. Racist. Opportunist. Bigot. Corrupt. Where did the compassion go?

There will be unmerciful judgment (krisis!) for the one who has no mercy; for mercy is exulted over judgement.

James 2:13


[God’s] mercy and compassion prevail over [God’s] wrath.

ḥadīth qudsī, or Divine Saying of the Prophet

Compassion is not partisan; it is universal.

What is the social and economic environment in which this election occurred? How did this context facilitate the victory of someone who is considered by more than half the country to be an authoritarian, self-interested, greedy fascist? How do we interpret the individual act of voting? How do we know the reasons for any given vote? If I can endeavor to comprehend the complexity of an Omar, I should be able to perform the same act of compassionate perception and understanding on voters.

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Romans 9:14-15

I recently returned from a conference in Glasgow at which I met a Slovenian who could not fathom why so many Americans supported Clinton, the Clinton who wreaked havoc in Libya, in Ukraine, the Clinton who is part of the establishment fueling the wars in Syria and Yemen, the Clinton who is part of the establishment of Western hegemony subjugating the rest of the world in subversive neocolonial ways (he also admitted that Trump may not make a difference in these matters). The world is bigger than America, and I of course already recognized this. But the indefatigable and very personal way this Slovenian confronted me brought these issues to the forefront once again. What does it matter, then?

Compassion is personal, and it is as yet unclear to me whether it can be politicized. While I recognize that there are problems the solutions to which are unachievable without global cooperation, such as the environmental crisis, nuclear proliferation, world hunger and poverty, etc., these global affairs may still be addressed through local acts of mercy and love. Societal changes require changes of hearts and minds.

The compassion of God is near to those who do the good-and-beautiful.

Qur’an 7:56

Yes, the compassion of God is working in and through those who do good and perform the beautiful. This is what we are all called to do. How can we create a society in which such rancor, bipartisanship, and antipathy are not permitted to materialize? Through a (com)passionate response in which we venture outside our secure zones and into the locales of the marginalized, suffering, and disenfranchised. My parish priest was absolutely right when he urged the mostly undergraduate-aged persons attending the mass to choose their careers and professional vocations in light of the mercy and compassion demanded of us, and not in the darkness of economic materialism (I paraphrase). We are all responsible.

I [Jesus] want to pour my fullness into empty vessels … What should your piety mean to me, the affectation of your ‘Spiritual life’? Compassion is what I want, and not holocausts. You strive for perfection, and this is a good thing. But do not be perfect other than as your Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise over both the just and the unjust, who makes it rain upon the good and the bad, who gives the servants of the eleventh hour the same denarius he gives those who have toiled from the first hour. You strive for perfection. This is a good thing; but I ask you: to what end? … For, if you should have acquired all perfection and filled your heavenly granaries up to the very roof with merits, and had not love, it would all be of no use to you.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World, pp. 184-185

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) What a challenge! Yes, empathy, pity, compassion, love, and mercy are all required for victims of hate crimes, victims of the many phobias wreaking havoc in communities here and there, validated by rhetoric, victims of ideologies blinding so many. But, then again, this sort of response is almost instinctual; of course we are deeply moved by the physical suffering of victims! But the challenge is to be supernatural and gratuitous in our compassion, as God is. For societal transformation will occur only in showing unrestrained mercy to those being pulled into the abyss of the nothingness of evil. How hard this is, especially today! How hard this is, for I, too, am being pulled in many ways.

In our own ways, let us all be the compassion of God, the Enfleshed Word, for others, and let us create a society in which persons are more readily able to discern false rhetoric and empty promises. Let us create a society in which suffering and marginalization do not lead many to make choices they otherwise would not have made. We are free only insofar as social structures and external racial, economic, class-based, sexist, and, yes, personal, factors permit us to be free. Let us strive to free those we encounter through the liberating mercy of God; let us never cease questioning how free we are (lest we be presumptuous!). This is the (com)passionate response demanded of me.

Axel is a doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School writing his dissertation in the field of comparative theology. His areas of focus are classical and post-classical Islamic thought, with an emphasis in mystical theology and poetics, Christian theology and spirituality, and contemporary Roman Catholic thought. He is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Interreligious Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *