Lesson 8: Compassion as Guiding Light in Change

I have been considering how compassion might be a guiding light for overcoming the deep divisions in our church and society. Underlying this quest is the conviction that we are in one of the major periods of change in human history, one that rivals the first-century birth of Christianity, the fourth-century adoption as the religion of Western Civilization, and the 16th-century Reformation breakup into denominations.

The present crisis centers on the effects of modern technology that, among many other things, makes Christianity one of many options in our small world. Neighbors in the same block might be practicing any of the world religions, completely different versions of Christianity, or nothing at all. The resultant multicultural society threatens so many of our traditional values that our politicians have capitalized on our fears by promising to restore the good old days.

Very often those promises are unsettling because they suggest violence might be needed. We know such changes in the previous periods I mentioned were accompanied by terrible persecutions, executions, and wars. We are aware our technology places deadly guns in the hands of individuals and nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nations. Hopefully, compassion might provide a nonviolent resolution to our present conflicts.

Obviously, as some of you have observed, compassion in itself is usually an empty term. We think you can be compassionate about things that are good or bad for you and society. Both sides of our current debate would be compassionate if you equate it simply with emotion.

Nonetheless, I was surprised and impressed that compassion is most often used in the Bible to support making change. For instance, Jesus is unexpectedly moved to compassion by the suffering of Gentiles which leads him to heal those considered beyond God’s love. The act of healing is sometimes simply Jesus reaching out in friendship by eating with sinners and tax collectors.

You see the same in Acts when Phillip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch at his request when Peter enters the home of a Roman soldier after a dream proclaiming all God creates is pure, and when Paul extends the faith to Europeans when the Holy Spirit calls for it. Compassion even incites God to change his mind throughout the scriptures when he finds he cannot destroy his people even though they deserve it according to former teachings.

Much of our current division involves whether we should reach out to other cultures that seem to challenge our traditional values. The biblical understanding of compassionate change does not completely do away with past values but rather brings new understandings that grasp the heart of the matter. Jesus maintained his understanding of love did not remove even the dot over an “I” in the old law but rather captured its essence.

A good example from my personal experience was my opposition to same-sex marriage. I felt the institution was designed for males and females to come together to produce and raise children. The homosexual community could come up with some other legal form. When they insisted on redefining marriage, I gradually came to see it as a promise of faithfulness in any adult human relationship.

The present divisions in our church and society are very complex and stressful. As Jesus remarked to the women on the Via Delarosa, we don’t seem to know what makes for peace. Perhaps compassion can be a guiding light as we make our way through them. Next week, I want to examine how this assumes there will be some suffering for us all as we do that.

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