During the holidays, there is ubiquitous paradox that we can see in every Christmas-celebrating consumer. On the one hand, more than at any other time of the year, we are out worshiping the god of materialism, frantically engaged in the busy race to get our Christmas shopping done—elbows out, running shoes on, cutting off the other guy with the accelerator to the floor. It is almost entertaining to observe the bizarre behavior of Christmas shopper (especially in oneself).
On the other hand, it is a time of year that many in our society chose to celebrate the life of Christ—a figure whose life and teaching are a massive contradiction to the bonanza of our shopaholic culture. Yet, in the craziness of it all, we can also see people who are genuinely kind: People who offer to let the other guy go first in line; who let that person merge in front of the on the freeway; who give generously to others in the form of donations or service; and who spend time celebrating the relationships in their lives.
I am tempted to call one group “conservatives” and the other group (the genuine Christians) “liberals.” But that is an unfair, simplistic characterization. In reality, there are gay Republicans and anti-war conservatives, pro-business liberals and anti-immigrant Democrats. The real issue in politics should be this: Are we trying to improve the lives of others or are we supporting policies that make life more difficult for the vulnerable in our society. Instead, we tend to spend our time demonizing the side that we think disagrees with our positions. In a recent interview with Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show made a great point about this us vs. them mentality:
“We’ve all bought in to the [idea that the] conflict in this country is left and right, liberal/conservative, red/blue…It amplifies a division that I don’t think is the right fight…I think the fight in the country is corruption vs. not corruption; extremist vs. regular…My problem is it’s become tribal. [It is a result of the] twenty-four hour networks, whose job is to highlight the conflict between two sides—and I don’t think that’s the main conflict in our society. [I want to] deflate that idea that it is a real conflict in our society, red/blue, democrat/republican. But I feel like there’s a bigger difference between people who have kids and people who don’t have kids than red state/blue state.” (source)
Perhaps the holiday season is a good time to remind ourselves that these divisions are unhealthy, and extending our hand to others is the more productive approach. Whether we celebrate Christmas or not, there is a powerful message in the figure who is praised at Christmas time. And it seems that very few—Christians and or non-Christians—are practicing the kind of compassion advocated by Christ. But it is the practice of compassion that is most needed in our politics and personal lives. So, in the spirit of Christmas, I am going to review the message of Christ. I think there is a very important message in his teachings that we often forget about during the busy holiday season.
Here are some of his teaching:
- Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matt. 25:35-40)
- Humble yourself as a little child (Matt. 18:4)
- “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.(Matt 26:52)
- A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:16)
- Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44)
- Turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39)
- Overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21)
- Forgive men their trespasses (Matt. 6:14)
- Love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:25-37)
- Judge not…condemn not…forgive, and ye shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37)
- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. (Matt. 5:7)
As I review these teachings, I find a common theme that can be captured in one word: compassion. And I submit that if we lose sight of this central idea, then nothing else we do really matters. When we look at the life of Christ, it is the message of compassion that he is pointed toward when he says, “Come, follow me.”
It is very easy to lose sight of our desire to practice compassion in everyday life. But we have a choice, at every moment, to practice or not: (1) when someone cuts us off on the freeway, we can practice compassion; (2) when a co-worker let’s us down, we can practice compassion; (3) when someone you love says something insensitive, we can practice compassion; (4) when our child disobeys or makes a mess or wrecks the car, we can practice compassion. We have dozens of opportunities every single day to literally re-wire our brains with habits of compassion.
But, some will ask, is compassion practical in our fast-paced, result-driven world? Is it really practical, or even effective, to respond to hate and bitterness with love and kindness? Here are two powerful examples of how responding to hate with compassion is the best option.
EXAMPLE 1 – “Take a Knee”[On April 3rd, 2005] a small unit of American soldiers were walking through the streets in Iraq. They were en route to a meeting with a religious leader. All of the sudden hundreds of Iraqis poured out of the buildings from all sides. With their fists waving, they pressed in on the American soldiers, who glanced at one another in terror.
The Iraqis were shrieking, frantic with rage…It appeared that, at any moment, a shot would soon come from somewhere, and the Americans [would] open fire, and the world will witness the My Lai massacre of the Iraq war. But that did not happen.
At that moment, an American officer stepped through the crowd holding his rifle high over his head with the barrel pointed to the ground. Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture. “Take a knee,” the officer said. The soldiers looked at him as if he were crazy. Then, one after another, swaying in their bulky body armor, they knelt before the boiling crowd and pointed their guns at the ground. The Iraqis fell silent, and their anger subsided. The officer ordered his men to withdraw. (Source: Counterinsurgency Manual, by David Petraeus)
EXAMPLE 2 – 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows
In an effort to humanize the suffering of innocent Afghan civilians, The September 11th victims’ family members wanted to establish personal connections with Afghan citizens who had lost loved ones in the U.S. bombing campaign. The delegates spent ten days meeting with Afghans impacted by the U.S. attack. The delegation helped connect these families with existing aid organizations. Volunteers secured a sewing machine for a seamstress who had lost her family, so that she could start to generate income. Volunteers also organized a series of workshops for victims’ families to help parents cope with the trauma their children were experiencing.
The 9/11 families were extremely affected by the devastation the bombing had inflicted on a people who had already experienced 23 years of war.
Parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters and friends suffer and grieve whether they live in New York or Afghanistan. When we experience the death of a loved one, sorrow makes no distinction of nationality, language, race or ethnicity.
The September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows showed great compassion when they extended a hand to the surviving families of civilian causalities in Afghanistan. After this event, this group of Americans wrote: “This will diffuse resentment of the U.S. and bolster our security. The foundations of a more secure world will be built through compassion.” This group was definitely on to something.
This concept of showing compassion for one’s enemies, for one’s oppressors, is sometimes called non-violent resistance. It has been used to liberate entire nations. When Mahatma Gandhi read the New Testament, he said the Sermon on the Mount “went straight to [his] heart.” He especially liked the teaching: “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek , turn to him the left also.” By practicing the teachings of Christ, Gandhi effectively liberated the massive nation of India, from British colonial rule, and without war.
Thirty years later, Martin Luther King jr. effectively used the same methods in his fight for civil rights. Both Gandhi and Dr. King used Christ’s teachings to change hearts and minds with compassion.
It is amazing to me how effectively this “turn-the-other-cheek” approach works.
There is a shaming effect that occurs in one’s conscience when your opponent refuses to fight back. When we see other people resisting the urge to fight back, we can’t help but feel something in our hearts. And how can people who are engaged in oppressive acts change unless they are made uncomfortable with their actions?
One biblical scholar pointed out that: During the times of Jesus, the law required people to help Roman soldiers carry their heavy packs a mile; but it was against the law, with harsh penalties, to compel them to go further. So when an oppressed person says, “No, I’ll keep carrying,” after the first mile, they put the soldier in a position of begging them to stop for fear that he might be arrested. In going the extra mile, the oppressed person can end their own suffering, while compassionately changing the heart of their oppressor.
If there is one New Year’s resolution that could make a big difference it is cultivating compassion into all aspects of our lives.
Merry Christmas, and thanks for reading!