When I was 6 years old my parents separated, my dad moving to Fort Worth, Texas, and my mother and I remaining in the county seat town of Decatur, Texas, where I was born. Those were halcyon days for Baptists, when church seemed at the center of family life, at least in Decatur, Texas. So every fall the Men’s “Brotherhood” would sponsor a “Father/Son Banquet” for the Royal Ambassadors (RAs) — Baptist Boy Scouts. And every fall from the time I was 6 until I was 10, when we moved to Fort Worth with my dad, I’d get a call from Johnny Ramey, a deacon at Decatur’s First Baptist Church, who, if memory serves, worked at the local Chevy dealership. “Billy,” he’d say, “I know your dad can’t make it, but I’ll take you to the Father/Son banquet. You’ll be my son for that night.” Over six decades later, the memory of that simple act remains my first cognitive lesson in Christian compassion, an entry point for spiritual formation.
These days, compassion seems elusive in American culture in general and American Christianity in particular. While Christian congregations and individuals offer compassionate witness and action every day, our theological squabbles, ecclesiastical divisions, and a tendency to write all sorts of people (right and left) out of the gospel often seem among our most distinguishing characteristics. For many observers we look downright mean, a public reputation more concerned with throwing people out than letting them in.
In a new book entitled, Mean Christianity: Finding our Way Back to Christ’s Likeness, Western Carolina University professor Billy Ogletree writes that such pietistic meanness “resonates with the experiences of countless individuals, yet it is absolutely antithetical to Christ and His teaching.” He asserts that, “A mean Christian claims Christ yet, at least some of the time, treats others in petty, offensive, or despicable ways. Selfishness may also motivate mean Christianity. Furthermore, a mean Christian may feel that their actions are justified, that their meanness is righteous.” Ogletree urges Christians to reconnect with Jesus as the primary guide toward forsaking the meanness that so easily besets us. Reading his impassioned study convinced me that we require a rebirth of compassion, and as quickly as possible.
Defining, let alone agreeing on, the nature of compassion is challenge enough. The Jewish Encyclopedia describes compassion in the Hebrew Bible as: “Sorrow and pity for one in distress, creating a desire to relieve, a feeling ascribed alike to man and God; in Biblical Hebrew, (“riḥam,” from “reḥem,” the mother, womb), “to pity” or “to show mercy” in view of the sufferer’s helplessness, hence also “to forgive” (Hab. iii. 2).”
In a 2017 Sojourners commentary entitled, “Can we Measure Christian Compassion in America,” Shively Smith writes: “In the Gospel of Matthew, the word for “compassion” (esplagchnisthē) occurs only five times, with Matthew 9:35-10:8 representing the first occurrence. Each time the language of compassion appears in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is the one feeling it after he has observed the state of those around him. He feels compassion for people afflicted physically and socially.” The Greek word literally means “from the bowels.” So from the womb or from the bowels; etymologically, biblical compassion begins in the depths of our being.
In Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner says that compassion “is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” In its most basic sense, compassion is “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.”
Writing in Meditations of the Heart, Howard Thurman distinguishes between pity as a “mixture of pride, arrogance, cunning,” and compassion, “the awareness that where my life begins is where our life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone — nor are my sorrows.” Compassion, he insists, is God “enlarging the boundaries of my heart.” This gospel-compassion is no mushy sentimentalism, but a liberating response to and for human beings, a radical kindness that sometimes outdistances our best efforts to control its boundaries.
Such gospel-compassion overtakes marginalized folks even when we try to withhold it from them. In slavery time, Southern white church-members qualified the gospel by insisting that baptism changed only the slaves’ eternal status, not their earthly condition. But try as they might, they could not keep the gospel’s liberating power from engaging and liberating the souls of the black folks. So in 1807, a Kentucky slave woman named Winney was disciplined by the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church where she was a member for saying that “she once thought it her duty to serve her mistress and master, but since the Lord had converted her she had never believed that any Christian kept Negroes or slaves.” And she got into more trouble for saying “she believed there was thousands of white people wallowing in hell for their treatment to Negroes — and she did not care if there was as many more.” Winney’s Baptist congregation “excluded” her from membership, but her witness remains, a conversion-based compassion that made chattel slavery a gospel impossibility. Whose conversion-compassion are we “excluding” right now?
That Baptist slave-woman-forebear teaches us this: A rebirth of compassion is inseparable from conversion, not as Jesus vaccination, but as a continuing religious experience with the resurrected Christ. We encounter a rebirth of our identity as followers of the Jesus Way, a compassion that compels us to revisit the meaning of the gospel at every human/humane turn.
So the Jesus of the Gospels becomes the radical hermeneutic for interpreting his and our message. Just when you think you know where he’s headed and where the kingdom of God is taking you, Jesus challenges yet another religious assumption, offers compassion to yet another theological and cultural “loser” — a “demoniac,” a Syro-Phoenician outsider female, a man the disciples thought blind because of his or his parents’ sin. In short, Jesus upends the accepted biblical/theological hermeneutic for the sake of compassion. Scary gospel; radical compassion; sinners reborn (again and again). Amen.