Renewing compassion

Compassion is a test of discipleship that requires not only feeling but action.

By Molly T. Marshall

As governing structures lurch from one fiscal crisis to another, it is not easy to move beyond self-protective responses.

Whether made “redundant” by a job lay-off, deemed “expendable” by a curtailed health-care provision, plunged “underwater” because of debt-to-value ratio in the mortgage or “left behind” because of cuts in educational budgets, many persons in our communities are suffering. Many of us have little to say about these realities until they strike very close to home.

A ministry colleague here in the Kansas City area is on her way to a developing country in about a week, as am I. She is heading to the Dominican Republic, and I will be in Myanmar.

As we reflected on our anticipated immersion experiences, she remarked: “I need to be in a poor country on a regular basis, because it is a necessary corrective in my mindset and outlook, as I remember how most of the people in the world actually live.”

I agree with her, yet I also want to remember how many here in the U.S. have to live now.

We know that wealth disparity continues to grow. The top 1 percent of Americans possess 40 percent of the $54 trillion wealth, according to recent reports. The poor hardly register on the economic scales, given their shrinking resources.

As the debate about the Fair Minimum Wage Act begins, do we really think that $10.10 per hour will do much to decrease inequality for low-wage workers? I am for it, of course, but the chasm between top and lower level employees only widens.

As his company sells, the retiring CEO of Heinz will receive a golden parachute of $212.6 million. That is a lot of ketchup!

Many watch the stock market with interest; especially those who hope to retire within the next decade or so. As the Dow Jones industrial average reaches new highs, perhaps we should remember that it is the top 1 percent who own 50 percent of that market. Among these persons of wealth are compassionate benefactors who make possible much of the work of nonprofits, but I will not estimate the percentage of them who do so.

Assessing how far the nation has come in reducing health care disparities, the Institute of Medicine in 2012 suggests that things are not much better than when W. E. Dubois in 1899 noted in The Philadelphia Negro: “The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well being of the race. There have been few other cases in the history of civilized people where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”

For lack of a better term, “compassion fatigue” has entered the modern lexicon as a descriptor of those who seek to redress social ills in our day. Coined in 1992 to describe the level of burnout professional care givers experience, today the term means a general feeling of being overwhelmed by the many requests for support and empathy. Massive exposure to pathos and misery can foster numbness; sometimes it can foster a flailing anger that places blame.

Others speak of a “compassion index” and wonder whether people today are becoming more callous, more indifferent to the needs of others. Benedict Carey, a science reporter for The New York Times, suggests that compassion is a limited resource, which cannot continue without replenishment. How can it be renewed?

My ministry colleague was right. Being with those who live on the margin can renew our compassion. Being present with the poor does offer a necessary corrective; our hearts are converted to feel with them, and empathy is no longer a fleeting sentiment.   

Yet, compassion is more than feeling; it is action. The authors of the book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life describe it as a “downward pull.” Compassion means “going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.”

In these days, this is the test of our discipleship, in my judgment, and the supply of the Spirit beckons our faithful action.

Frequently the Gospels recount that Jesus was “moved with compassion” as he encountered those being ground up by a system of domination. This is the one we are attempting to follow. 

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.