The Politics of Compassion-Kinship

With 91 days until the November 2020 Presidential Election, U.S. Americans are about to enter one of the most contentious political seasons in recent memory.  How do we transcend the politics of contempt that dominates our country and turns friends into adversaries based solely on partisan loyalties?  Despite our differences, can we find enough common ground that we can work together for the common good?  

Last year I preached a sermon series on eight of the most controversial issues of our day, including racism, immigration, climate change, Islamic Extremism, to name a few.  I explored these issues through the lens of Scripture, reason, experience, and centuries of Christian tradition.  St. Andrew’s worship attendance during those eight weeks grew by an average of 18%.  The series will be published as a book by the same title next month. 

What I’ve come to believe is that, not only can talk about politics in church, we must talk about politics in church—because when we’re in church we should be at our most political.  By “political” I don’t mean “partisan.”  The word “politics” comes from the Greek, “polis,” meaning “affairs of the cities.”  Some might argue that “politics” comes from the two words, “poly,” meaning “many,” and “ticks,” as in “bloodsucking parasites.”  But to do politics is to be concerned about the affairs of the communities in which we live.  And to do politics in church is to ask, “What does the gospel of Jesus Christ say about how I should live and act in my community, and what my responsibility should be to my neighbors who live there?”   

This is the politics of Jesus, and it’s vastly different from what typically passes for politics in America today.  It transcends partisan politics and asks us: what kind of community do we want to live in, and what kind of neighbors will be?  We can’t answer those questions by simply pulling the lever in the polling booth because, when it’s all said and done, Jesus will not ask us how or for whom we voted.  Jesus will ask us, “When I was hungry, thirsty, sick and in prison, did you care?  When I was your neighbor in disguise, your fellow citizen, a stranger, did you love me?”  This is the only kind of politics that matters to Jesus.

And it’s this kind of politics that I call “a politics of compassion.”  It’s not exclusive to Jesus.  You’ll find it in all three Abrahamic traditions.  But Jesus embodied it most fully—not only in his life, but also in his death and resurrection.  Jesus’ compassion for others—especially the outcast and the powerless—was so radical that he upset the government and was deemed a political threat to the Empire.  His compassion for all of humanity, even his enemies, was so unquenchable, so unstoppable, that he gave his own life to redeem it.  His compassion for all that God had created was so unconquerable that he rose to life again to reconcile all of creation to God.

Compassion—in the Greek, the word is “splagchnizomai” (Σπλαγχνίζομαι).  The root word is “splanxna,” meaning bowels, or gut.  In the ancient world, it was the gut, not the mind or the heart, that was perceived as the center of human emotion.  To have compassion is to feel something so deep in your gut that you’re moved to action.  Even today, we speak of “feeling something in our gut,” or having “butterflies in our stomach,” or our “stomachs turning” when we experience something uncomfortable.  

Have you ever felt something in your stomach whenever you’ve been moved with feelings like grief, sorrow, affection or empathy?  A deep compassion for a person in their plight comes not from the intellect, but from somewhere deep inside the body that holds the wounded memory of what it feels like to be that person in that moment.

Compassion was the answer to everything for Jesus.  It was his politic—his way of living and acting in his community.  For Jesus, compassion wasn’t a “warm feeling” or an emotion that blinded him to the truth.  Compassion was an ideal that inspired him to work for the common good: to heal the sick, to feed the hungry masses, to liberate the oppressed.

What do we mean when we speak of the common good?  For Jesus, the common good was the context and the conditions which make possible the flourishing of all human life—not just the few, not just the wealthy or the spiritually worthy, the powerful or the privileged, but all human life, beginning with the widow, the orphan, the poor and the oppressed.  At the center of the common good were all those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”  Jesus had compassion for them.  But the common good included others, too.

His disciples asked him: what about the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, Jesus?  Compassion.  Okay, but what about this Roman soldier who is pleading for you to heal his sick child?  Compassion.  But what about our persecutors and enemies?  Compassion.  Then where exactly do you draw the line, Jesus?  King Herod, Pontius Pilate, Emperor Tiberius—what about them?  Compassion.  Why?  So that all of human life may flourish as daughters and sons of God.

It was a politics of compassion for the sake of the common good.  How do we practice this kind of politics?

I believe that there are three core commitments intrinsic to a politics of compassion, the first of which is radical kinship.  A politics of compassion requires an uncompromising devotion to radical kinship with those who seem so unlike us.

The New Testament Letter to the Ephesians describes what this radical kinship looks like.  The letter was written to the early church in Ephesus that was struggling with the question, “Who do we include in our community?”  In that community, the Jewish converts to Christianity believed that they were the true and exclusive heirs to God’s grace.  As Jews, they had the heritage, the bloodlines, the lineage as God’s Chosen Ones.  They saw themselves as the insiders.  But then, thanks to Paul’s preaching, along comes all these pagan gentile converts—these uninvited outsiders who heard the message of Jesus and believed that they were included in God’s family, too.  

Jews and Gentiles, historical archenemies, all together in one place.  It didn’t go well.

As it happens even today, a fight broke out in the church over who should be in and who should be out.  That’s when this letter to the Ephesians arrives, describing God’s vision for a whole different kind of family—a radical kinship that transcends every earthly distinction and division.

Christ is our peace, it says, 

“He has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…  His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two… and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross…. He came and preached peace to you (Gentiles) who were far away and peace to you (Jews) who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…. (Ephesians 2:14-22).

It’s a word of unity and peace for a world of division and contempt—including our own world.  God may have destroyed the dividing wall of hostility, but doesn’t it seem like we humans have been trying ever since to rebuild it all over again? Our nation has never been more divided than now, and we are months away from another presidential campaign that will be more contentious and divisive than ever.  

For people of faith, what’s the antidote?  It begins with radical kinship—the devotion to a family that expands beyond your familiar tribe.

Jesus created a new kind of family that transcended bloodlines, tribes, social ranking, purity codes and orthodoxy in favor of boundless compassion and a deep sense of belonging.  How did he do that?  Read the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, and you’ll see how absolutely simple it was: he just sat down at dinner tables with people and ate with them.  It was as simple as that.  The table became a metaphor for radical kinship.

Jesus did what nobody else was doing at the time: he sat down at a table and fellowshipped with sinners, tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, the ritually unclean, the poor.  But before they all could get up from the table, Jesus invited Pharisees, Roman officers, the powerful, and the wealthy to sit down at the table with them.  Then he looked at all of them with compassion and said, “All of you, every one of you, are now my family.”  

Someone came to him one day and said, “Hey, Jesus, your brothers are outside looking for you.”  And Jesus said, “They’re not my family anymore.  These people here at this table are my family.”   

You can often ask someone why they’re prejudiced against a certain kind of people, or why they vote for one party over the other, or why they’re so rigid in their opinions or beliefs, and you’ll often hear the same reply:  “Well, my father believed this way, my grandfather believed this way, everyone in my family has always believed this way, so I guess I just believe this way.” 

But here’s the lesson of Jesus:  

The length of our table determines the depth of our compassion.  As our table lengthens, our heart expands. 

How long is your table?  Does it welcome and include those who think or believe differently than you, or whose life experiences are far from your own?  When we sit at the table of Jesus and look around, we realize that we’re all the same, and that we’re all different, and yet we’re all welcome.

I was fifteen years old when I took a job doing light chores for an eighty-three-year-old widow.  She lived alone in a single-wide mobile home, and every Saturday morning she would give me a list of things to do—sweep the patio, pull the weeds, trim the hedges, wash the windows.  

At around 10:30, she’d call me inside for a break, whereupon we’d sit at her table and talk over cookies and milk.  

At noon, she’d call me in again: potato chips, a ham and cheese sandwich, pecan Sandies and a soda.  At the table, we ate and talked.  

At 2:30, more cookies and milk.  

I didn’t understand at the time the exact nature of my work: seven hours of chores, and an hour and a half of conversation, once a week, for three straight years.  I was often pulling weeds that were no longer there, washing windows that still sparkled from the week before, vacuuming her already spotless floor.  

But at her table, she shared with me her life story: about her late husband’s inventions, her trip out west in the days of the Dust Bowl, about the day she learned how to drive and the day she was told that she could no longer drive.  She learned about my life story too: about my family, my girlfriends, my plans for the future.  Her name was Rose Pringle, and she taught me that the length of our table determines the depth of our compassion.  As our table lengthens, our heart expands.  

Compassion is about making space for others who are unlike you, but just like you.  It’s about bringing the other in toward yourself, erasing the margins.  

There’s another truth about radical kinship: 

The forest is only as healthy as the individual trees found within it.  None of us flourishes if some of us are suffering.

I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees.”  Wohlleben writes about stumbling across a patch of strange-looking mossy stones in a preserve of old beech trees that grows in the forest near his home.  He’d passed these stones many times before without paying them any attention.  But that day, he stopped and bent down to take a look.  

They were an unusual shape: gently curved with hollowed-out areas.  Carefully, he lifted the moss on one of the stones.  What he found underneath was tree bark.  These were not stones, after all, but old wood. 

He was surprised at the hardness of the wood, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood to decompose in wet conditions.  But what surprised him was that he couldn’t lift the wood.  It was attached to the ground in some way.  He took out his pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until he got down to a greenish layer.  Green? 

This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees.  That could mean only one thing: this old piece of wood was still alive!  He then noticed that the remaining “stones” were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. 

What Wohlleben had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump.  All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge.  The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago—an indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.  How could the remains have clung onto life for so long?

It was clear that this stump was getting assistance from neighboring trees, specifically from their roots.  The surrounding beech trees were pumping sugar to the stump to keep it alive.

It turns out that trees are social beings.  They share food with their own species, sometimes even with their competitors.  The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. 

On its own, a tree is at the mercy of wind and weather.  But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores and shares water, and generates much-needed humidity.  In the protected environment of a grove, trees can live to be very old.  Healthy trees send nutrients to sick or injured trees.  Every tree is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.  The forest is only as strong and healthy as the weakest and most vulnerable trees within it—and so, together, every tree is committed to working for the common good.

Trees possess a grace and wisdom that’s often lacking among humans.  If only we could grasp this simple wisdom that our only hope depends on our capacity to work together for the common good, knowing that we’re only as strong as the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Woodrow Wilson once said that “A man’s rootage is more important than his leafage.”  The same is true of our society.  A politics of compassion, rooted in kinship, makes the whole forest flourish.  

One last truth about radical kinship: Jesus never calls us to take the right stand on the issues of our day, but rather to stand in the right places—with the outcasts and those relegated to the margins

Radical kinship always turns nobodies into somebodies

Father Gregory Boyle puts it this way: “You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship.  You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”

Sister Mary Rose McGready was the Director of Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teens in New York City.  McGready told a story about a girl named Kathy who came to the shelter one Tuesday morning, ragged and dirty clothes on her back, and holding a little aluminum paint can in her arms.

From the second she stepped inside, she made it clear that she and the paint can were a “package deal.”  Whatever she did, wherever she went, the paint could never leave her hands.

She took the can with her to the cafeteria, to bed, into the shower.

“Do you want to tell me what’s in it?” asked McGready.  For a long time, Kathy didn’t answer.  She rocked back and forth, her black hair swaying across her shoulders.  Then, one day, she said, “It’s my mother…. It’s my mother’s ashes.  I got them from the funeral home.”

A label on the side of the can chronicled all that remained of her mother: date of birth, date of death, name.  That was it.

Kathy explained that she never knew her mother, who abandoned her as an infant.  She ended up living in foster homes.  But when she decided to try to find her mother, she learned that her mother was in the hospital, dying of AIDS.

She explained that she finally met her mother the day before she died, and that her mother told her she loved her.  

McGready said that when she reached out and hugged Kathy, she cried in her arms for a long time.  McGready said, “It was tough getting my arms around her because she just wouldn’t put the paint can down.”

We’re all carrying around that can.  Every single one of us.  It contains the ashes of some old wound, or something lost. We’re all searching for someone who understands.

Radical kinship is made possible not when we take the right stands, but when we stand in the right places with the right people, turning nobodies into somebodies.

This is a politics of compassion: a commitment to the common good, grounded in radical kinship.  It’s how we answer the question: what kind of community do we want to live in, and what kind of neighbors will be?

As we prepare ourselves for the November 3 “cage fight”—otherwise known as the 2020 national election—let’s remember these three truths:

The length of our table determines the depth of our compassion.

The forest is only as healthy as the individual trees within it.

Jesus calls us to stand in the right places, with the right people.