By Kate Dugan
Compassion: It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people; it doesn’t mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other.
That’s Karen Armstrong’s definition and, as I roll it around & try it on for size, I find myself falling in love with this way of thinking about compassion.
On Friday, Armstrong discussed compassion on Bill Moyers’ Journal. Ever the broad-ranging scholar, she is advocating compassion as a way to build common ground between religious traditions and people. In her conversation with Moyers, she asserts that its more than another forum for interfaith dialogue, but a way to move forward as a world of many religions.
I am so excited by this idea, so encouraged by this movement. I am drafting my own story of compassion for the website of the Charter for Compassion (and you can too!).
Yet, as I reflect on the Sunday readings for this Third Sunday in Lent, they seem to be what Armstrong called “difficult passages,” divisive pieces of the Bible that make it difficult to see ways for religions to live in harmony together.
This week, we get the Ten Commandments in the first reading from Exodus, foolish Gentiles and stumbling Jews in the second reading from First Corinthians, and an upset Jesus rather violently reacting to merchants selling in the temple area in the Gospel from John. These are, for me, difficult texts, indeed: Where is the compassion in these texts? Where is the encouragement to put ourselves in the position of the other? How are these passages about learning about others?
Armstrong reminds me that, “Human beings created the idea of God. But the transcendence reality to which the idea of God nudges us, is embedded in part of the human experience.” We are forever seeking out ways to understand God, to think about God, to express God to our loved ones. Perhaps the compassion in these texts is in my attempt to appreciate the authors’ perspectives.
I can’t help but wonder if the authors of Exodus, Corinthians, and John are simply doing what humans have been doing forever when it comes to God–stumbling around for ways to talk about a transcendent reality that escapes words, but of which we are compelled to speak.
Compassion encourages us to keep stumbling, as our biblical predecessors did. We attempt to talk about God, knowing our words fall short, but hopeful that our actions–lived in compassion with the other–might move us into relationship with one another and that transcendent reality.
Kate Dugan is one of the co-editors of From the Pews in the Back. She is recommitted to reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God for Lent this year.