The above was the subject line of an email I received last Saturday from a church member who has been engaging deeply in our Lenten series on “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.” Each week, we’ve been exploring the steps laid out in theologian and historian Karen Armstrong’s book by the same title. Karen, who has many brilliant books exploring the relationship between religion, culture, and history, was given a TED award which basically gave her the ability to make a wish that the TED organization could help come true. Her wish was to create a Charter of Compassion that would be shared globally and inspire people to live compassionate lives. This book is the result of the TED award and her own research into this vital need facing our world today; the need to become more compassionate as individuals and as a global community.
And it’s not easy. We have been so conditioned to be cynical, judgmental, and rigid that our default is to get our back up, to not trust, to assume negative meanings for other people’s lives, even if we know nothing about them. Armstrong says in her book that these steps are meant to be worked exactly like a 12 step recovery; you don’t move on to the next step until you’ve completed, to the best of your ability, the step you’re currently on. A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the trifecta of steps 7-9, which are How Little We Know, How Should We Speak to One Another, and Concern for Everybody. These are hard steps to take even on a local scale. We are so quick to condemn others who are different from us in our neighborhood. Heck, in my own life, less than a week after preaching about those three, I found myself completely violating step 8 by insisting that I knew the right response for a friend of mine to make in a matter that had absolutely nothing to do with me. Only in retrospect did I realize I had missed an opportunity to “lose” an argument rather than be right.
Still, there are those who go before us to model for us a way of inclusion and acceptance for those who are different from ourselves and who model ways to treat one another.
Take this example from when NFL Draft Michael Sam came out as gay. Commentator Dale Hansen says it beautifully when he says, "I don’t understand his world; but I do understand that he is a part of mine."
Or this one, handled equally well by the amazing Dale Hansen on the subject of racist actions in high school.
Or this beautiful and courageous act of coming out of this young trans boy, following the suicide of a 17 year old trans woman who wasn’t accepted by those close to her.
These model a way of compassion that completely aligns with Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion and definitely fills in the blanks of these difficult to maneuver steps.
But, my friend who emailed me, and takes this seriously, wanted to go ever deeper. Here’s what he wrote: I’ve been working hard on the 12 steps to compassion. I’m struggling with the whole violence/non violence/ “just war” thing. I’m looking at a group like ISIS. They seem to have an ideology that is in part quite violent. Part of me thinks, okay, if we are really trying to be compassionate than we should try to find out what is bothering them and why they are doing what they are doing. The other part of me sees that it might not matter. If ISIS is causing lots of suffering, shouldn’t someone try to stop them in some way and it might mean violently? On the other hand, doesn’t that just breed more violence? Should we let them self destruct even if that means that they will kill many more? It makes me wonder about Nazi Germany. Many people say World War 2 was the “last just war” Hitler certainly killed many people and creating immeasurable suffering. Should he have been stopped? It’s like with civil rights. We say, let’s take a stand. Is there a point when it becomes too late for non violent stand? Is some violence okay in short term if you are working on longer term non -violent solutions?
These are important questions, and questions we must address if we are to move beyond the “kumbayah” stage of pseudo-compassion and onto the hard and rocky path of real life/real compassion. Pseudo-compassion is a lazy, shallow way of looking at the world that simply says, “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re okay together!” When in reality we are not all always okay. There are actions that can’t be tolerated, there are violations of human worth and dignity that cannot be swept under the rug of indifference or vacuumed up into the black hole of pluralistic relativism. Sometimes people—who were born with inherent worth and dignity and have that as their core—do vile and unspeakable things to others that violate that same worth and dignity in their victims.
What Karen Armstrong says about this in step 8 is that “there are of course times when we are required to be assertive. Even when we have gone through this process and understood the context in which a terrorist conceived his idea, we cannot, if we take the Golden Rule as our criterion, condone the course of action he has chosen. We have, however, broadened our horizons by developing an informed understanding of the possible frustration, humiliation, and despair of his situation and can now empathize with the plight of many of his innocent compatriots and coreligionists, who may feel something similar but have not resorted to criminal vengeance.”
In other words, the Golden Rule calls us to seek to understand, not to condone, and certainly not to stand idly by while violence is wrought by one group on another. I remember well the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11/2001; the heroic crash of United Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania and the major sea change that brought to our sense of safety and security as Americans. The overwhelming response to that was a record number of flags, flag bumper stickers and other jingoistic emblems sold and an impulse to go to war. Very few people took the time to reflect on what might make young Middle Eastern men resort to such an atrocious act of terrorism. When ministers dared to preach on that topic, they were often castigated by their own congregations. Admittedly, many spoke too soon about our own culpability in those acts of terrorism without giving adequate time for the grief and the shock to wash over our collective consciousness and recede enough to allow time for reflection, but even to this day, many want to paint with broad brush strokes the colors of intolerance over a people and religion, to paint “them” the enemy rather than looking at how US foreign policy and involvement in other countries might have contributed to a sense of despair and helplessness for these young men, opening up the door for radical fundamentalists—who act less in the name of Allah than in the name of power—to corrupt their thinking so that we Americans were the enemy- Satan incarnate—and the way to strike back was in great violence. Do you see how we have painted them in the same colors they painted us?
The Golden Rule requires us to put away our paint by numbers and instead to begin to explore the contours of a people and culture and religion in real time, in real life, much like someone who is visually impaired might “see” another through gently exploring the face of the other with fingers; that up close and personal.
However, Armstrong goes on to remind us, “we must still dissociate ourselves from his atrocity. Nor should the ‘principle of charity' make us passive and supine in the face of injustice, cruelty, and discrimination. As we develop our compassionate mind, we should feel an increasing sense of responsibility for the suffering of others and resolve to do everything we can to free them from their pain.”
She goes on to say that when we speak out in defense of our values that we must make sure we understand the context fully and “do not dismiss the values of our opponents as barbaric simply because they seem alien to us. We may find that we have the same values but express them in a radically different way.”
So for me, this means homework because, I confess, the actions of ISIS in brutally killing people and destroying ancient artifacts just seems cray-cray to me. I am tempted to shudder in revulsion and disgust and paint them with those well worn colors we’ve been discussing. I will never condone their actions or invite them to join hands as we sing Kumbayah, but if I’m to seek to understand their actions I must admit that I don’t know anything about them. I must seek to learn more of their history, of the socio-economic, historical, cultural biases that led them to believe this type of behavior is right. I must put away my own paint by number set and seek to feel the contours of their faces, their lives, their struggle. I must admit I don't understand their world, but I do understand that they are a part of mine.
Then, and only then, will I be able to have an informed opinion as to how we deal with them. And even if we must meet violence with violence, at least that can be done knowing we are going to war with humans just like us, shaped by their culture and history, just as we have done, trying to find their voice in the only way they know how. When we can at least stretch so far as to be reminded of the fact that we are all equally monsters and angels, depending on the perspective, then perhaps we can take greater care in how we treat one another and work for a world in which all would feel seen and heard and in so doing, dare to see and hear the “other,” too. If we can do it, so can ISIS, so can people in our own nation from every political/ideological point of view. We have those, such as Dale Hansen and Tom Sosnik and Michael Sam to show us how to begin, with baby steps. And as we all can testify, once a baby starts to walk, it takes no time at all to learn how to run. Let's run.