Apparently, my loved ones think I need to do more reading. At Christmas, I received a slew of wonderful looking books that now stack up on my bedside table like planes over Laguardia Airport in fog, circling for a landing. The stack is in itself impressive.
I’ve dived into a couple of them, including The Book of Joy, which describes conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The book is an exploration of joy, notable since both these men have faced extraordinary hardship and hatred. Each man, in his own way, seems to rise above it all with joyful spirit. How does that happen?
I was struck with a story told by the Dalai Lama about a monk he knew before the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. The monk was imprisoned and subjected to torture by his captors. “There was a Soviet-style torture and Japanese-style torture and Chinese-style torture, and at this camp they combined them all into an immensely cruel kind of torture.” When the monk left the camp, only about 20 of 130 prisoners survived. The monk told the Dalai Lama that during those 18 years he had faced real dangers. The Dalai Lama thought the monk meant dangers to his physical well-being. The monk meant something different. He said that he was often in danger of losing his compassion for his Chinese guards.
This week culminates in celebration of the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, who took cues from Mahatma Gandhi in battling hateful forces of injustice that confronted, constrained and ultimately killed. Dr. King chose to confront those forces with soul-force, a refusal to strike back in kind, in large part based on a commitment to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (which also guided Mahatma Gandhi). This week couldn’t come at a better time.
We find ourselves in a distinctive season in our common life. It’s no partisan statement to observe that hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise, vitriol from all sides, regard for the other as despicable, dispensable, deplorable, deportable, irredeemable. I have participated in that dim regard for those who see things differently. I sense that the danger to our common life is real. I sense that the danger to my spirit is scary. Is it possible to hold on to compassion?
I’m not just talking about extraordinary circumstances, like a monk having compassion for torturers, or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela confronting lethal opponents with forgiveness. For most of us the dangers of a compassion deficit surface in smaller ways: How can we hold compassion for those we meet all the time, say, in traffic, or in lines at the airport; those who serve us in restaurants; those we meet at the dinner table or the water cooler; those we meet at church who drive us nuts; those who act out in meetings; those whose theology doesn’t square with ours, those whose votes confound and upset us, those who make their appearance in our interior life, in our memories, in heart and mind where we cherish resentments, placing those resentments on the shelves like trophies.
We have teachers available to us, like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, spiritual leaders who held on to compassion but never stopped fighting injustice. Compassion was not passive. They changed the world. I sense in days ahead we will need more teachers like them.
For Jesus-followers, that message of compassion comes not with an embrace of the scripture that says “an eye for an eye”, but with his interpretation that says: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who curse you.” It comes with words of forgiveness.
I recognize the danger. I don’t always have an easy time embracing compassion. I’m grateful for witnesses who show the way. This Monday morning, I’ll do my best to carry with me the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (another joyful spirit), who said; “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
Perhaps that will help me write a book of joy.
I refuse to accept the view that [mankind] is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.
-The Dalai Lama
We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths.
– Desmond Tutu
May God give you grace never to sell yourself short. Grace to risk something big for something good. Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
-William Sloane Coffin
Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it’s the sine-qua-non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, what’s the point of having religion if you can’t disapprove of other people?
Do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
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