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Let’s carefully consider depth of our compassion

By Paul Graves The Spokesman-Review

Thousands of words and hundreds of pictures have overwhelmed us since the tsunamis devastated South Asia the day after Christmas. But I suspect most of us will never fully breathe into our beings the incredible loss of life and property about which we continue to see, hear and read.

Every person I have spoken with feels sad at many levels. I see a sense of helplessness on people’s faces. I can imagine an inner shrug of the shoulders when they try to think of what might be done.

The compassion needed on this scale is almost too overwhelming to think about.

There has been a pretty amazing outpouring of compassion in the past two weeks – amazing amounts of money worldwide, hundreds of relief organizations, countless volunteers, food, water and supplies.

I applaud the astounding efforts being made by governments, church and community organizations, and courageous individuals around the world. The catastrophe is certainly worthy of the world’s best efforts of compassion.

But something nags at me.

My faithful skepticism prompts me to look at the broader picture beyond the 11 countries devastated by the earthquake-induced tsunamis. The inequities of compassion temper my gratitude for the world’s response.

In the throes of the world’s response to the devastation, I am reminded that our compassion is so easily purchased by the latest and greatest catastrophe, be it global or local. I see world government officials seeming to play at one-upsmanship in the “compassion sweepstakes”.

I look again at a haunting political cartoon that shows a “tsunami relief” plane flying over outstretched hands labeled “Haiti,” “Sudan,” “Congo,” etc. Then one person in the cockpit says, “Don’t look down.”

I review one page of the Jan. 1 sports section that has five articles about big-time sports money. Two of the articles speak of the multimillions the Yankees are spending to buy their next World Series, and another tells of one player whose free-agent bid will start at $119 million.

One short article tells about different teams and sporting events that will collect money for tsunami victims.

A fifth article is about the son of the late major league legend Roberto Clemente. The son diverted a “mercy flight” of relief supplies from Nicaragua to the people of South Asia.

I know people will do what they are going to do. I also know some people have much more generous hearts than do other people.

So this truly is not meant to denigrate any person’s or group’s efforts on behalf of tsunami victims.

I do want us to keep our compassion in perspective, however. The human family, worldwide, has moments of wondrous compassion.

We also have moments of incredible self-deception. Those moments often come in the midst of great acts of compassion.

We may easily dismiss the Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric decrying Western acts of compassion, but it’s true that human compassion is too often fickle.

Believe it or not, this column had its beginning on Thanksgiving Day – not its specific context, of course, but its emphasis on the inequities of compassion. In a letter to the editor in this paper, the writer made a categorical declaration that “Christ’s compassion depends on repentance from sin. …”

I invite that person to look at the eight passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke that speak of compassion. (Interestingly, John’s Gospel doesn’t mention compassion as such.)

These passages make no mention of any conscious action of contrition required before compassion was offered.

Two other passages do connect mercy (so close to compassion) to forgiveness of sin. In Luke 18:13, Jesus points to a tax collector who cries to God for forgiveness because he is a sinner.

There is no direct word from God on whether that confession was a precondition for forgiveness, though Jesus did exalt the man for his humility.

In Hebrews 8:12, the ministry of Jesus is identified as the fulfillment of the “new covenant” spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31-34, in which God decides to “be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

Again, I do not see Christ’s compassion or mercy dependent on people’s repentance.

God’s hospitable welcome is far more radical. It is offered not because we are compassionate, or because our compassion is consistently high-grade compassion every time or equally offered to anyone who needs it.

God’s compassion is offered us because 1) God is God and will do whatever God chooses to do, and 2) we are always in need of unconditional compassion ourselves so we might be willing to pass that compassion on to someone else.

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