If you’re anything like me, you want so badly to believe that you’re standing on the right side of an issue, and on the right side of history, and on the right side of God—and most of the time you’re pretty sure you are—that you can quickly turn penultimate things into ultimate things and personal conversations into moral crusades, until suddenly you discover that you’ve turned a stranger or even a friend into an enemy.
One of our problems is that we think in terms of binary categories: right/wrong, left/right, conservative/progressive, Coke/Pepsi, Ford/Chevy. But we don’t actually live our lives in a binary world. In the U.S., partisan loyalty among the American voting populace is almost evenly divided—not in two camps, but in three. An April 2020 Gallup poll found that 31% of Americans identified as Democrats, 30% identified as Republicans, and 36% as Independents—and even the Independents do not reliably lean one way or the other.
This means that, on an average day—whether you’re at the office, the gym, the local pub, the supermarket, or at church—unless you’re at a decidedly political event like a rally or a march—there’s a pretty good chance that only about 1 in 3 people gathered around you in that moment think even remotely like you about any particular issue or policy; there’s at least a reasonable chance that at least two-thirds of them might actually disagree with you. But there’s a very good chance that you share enough common ground with those same people that you could find some agreement upon what is best the common good.
We are not nearly as divided as we are led to believe by certain politicians and media outlets. Our life experiences and political perspectives may be vastly different from each other; we may land in different places and advocate for opposing ideas. But uniformity has never been the objective of democracy; nor is it the ultimate pursuit of Christianity. We do not have to think alike.
But as the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, once said, we do have to love alike. And a politics of compassion can help us do that.
But that means that we have to agree to certain core commitments embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
I’ve written about two of these commitments: the first is kinship. Jesus created a new kind of family—a family based not on pedigree, geography, borders, social status, ethnicity or religious affiliation, but on radical acceptance that makes space for difference. Jesus taught us that the length and width of our table determines the breadth and depth of our compassion, so he built a bigger table of welcome and inclusion, and anyone who sat at that table was considered family—regardless of who they were, what they had done, or what they believed.
How long is your table? How deep is your compassion?
The second commitment is kenosis—a Greek word meaning, “self-emptying.” Jesus shared a radical solidarity with people that freely and willingly surrendered the self for the sake of the common good. By taking the form of a servant, or “doula,” Jesus, like a midwife, helped to birth a new kind of world—one grounded in justice and mercy.
In a world that grasps for power and privilege, are you emptying yourself of power for others, birthing something new, hopeful and life-giving?
In this post, we’re exploring the third of our three commitments of a politics of compassion. I call it delight: a way of living and being in this world that sees the Imago Dei—the image of God—in all living things, and therefore finds deep joy in simply being with others in ways that defy the transactional, reciprocal modes of connection that often determine our relationships.
Delight. We all know what it feels like to delight in something or someone. In Hebrew, one of the most evocative words for delight is “châphêts.” It means, “to bend towards, to be inclined towards an object or person.” To delight in someone or something is to move toward it, to bend toward it with curious pleasure.
Matthew, our youngest, turned 17 this week. On his birthday I recalled a certain afternoon when, as a toddler in diapers, he sat on my lap and, for the first time in his young life, bit into a ripe red apple. I was the first to take a bite of that apple. He observed carefully, judiciously, and when he gave me that knowing glance, I held the apple to his mouth. He leaned toward it, sunk his four front teeth into it, and all at once, something washed over him in that moment that I can only describe as pure joy, pleasure, rapture. He re-focused on the apple, leaned in a second time, took another bite, and again, I witnessed that physical expression of simple pleasure that happens whenever human curiosity meets glad consummation. Even now, it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. I cannot explain why exactly. I could only tell myself in that moment to remember it, to never forget that this is what it means to be truly human, to be fully alive and present: to bend in curiosity toward the strange and unknown world and to discover unimagined joy in the encounter.
To delight is to bend toward the essence of a person or a thing and to find joy, pleasure, and wonder in it. But delighting is so foreign to our modern way of life. We tend not to delight in others, but to use others for our own selfish ends, or to exploit the resources of the natural world for our own profit. In our competitive, transactional pursuits we leave little time and space in our lives for delight.
But Jesus knew delight. He bent with a merciful curiosity toward others, regardless of who they were or what they had done. In doing so, he turned a world of objects into a communion of subjects—and took delight in them.
The gospel tells us that one day Jesus happened upon a tax collector named Matthew.
As a tax collector, Matthew conspired with the occupying forces of Rome—which, as a Jew, made him a traitor among his own people. He would stop people on the street and assess duties on nearly everything in their possession. A cart could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, for the merchandise that it carried. If he spotted you on the streets, you’d have to pay up. He gave you no other choice.
Because tax collectors weren’t employed by the Roman government, they had to make their living by skimming off the top. At the end of the month, they’d send in a portion of their collections to the Roman governor; anything over that amount they were free to keep—which meant that the more they taxed their own people, the more their people would suffer, and the wealthier the tax collector would become.
Matthew worked for the enemy at the expense of his own countrymen, and for that he was hated and cursed. We don’t know much else about his story, but we do know that he must have been a miserable man—if for no other reason than that he made everyone around him miserable.
Until, one day, along comes Jesus, who bends toward him in gracious curiosity and says, “Follow me.” And just like that, the one who is despised becomes a disciple, the betrayer becomes the beloved. Before the night is over, Jesus is hanging out with Matthew and his network of other tax collectors, sitting at a table, throwing a party.
Outside Matthew’s condo, the Pharisees outside are losing their minds: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus says, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
Doctor Jesus, whose only medicine is companionship and delight which heals the broken and, in doing so, takes one more tax collector off the market and restores the common good.
To heal the broken and restore the common good, Jesus has to cross the “difference divide”—a line in the sand drawn so deeply, so long ago, that it was never meant to be crossed. But Jesus steps across it anyway, and turns historic enemies into friends.
How did Jesus cross that line?
By taking delight in the despised, seeing in Matthew not the enemy to be condemned but the very image of God longing to be restored. It’s a politics of compassion that bends in delight toward the unknown, the feared, the stranger—for the sake of the common good.
How can we delight in others—even in those with whom we disagree? I want to offer you three rules for delighting in difference.
The first rule: If we do not bend toward difference we will succumb to indifference.
Years ago, I was standing on the littered corner of Sixth St. and San Pedro in Downtown Los Angeles with a group from my former congregation. Sixth and San Pedro is Skid row’s “Ground Zero,” the tent capital of America’s homeless. More than 4,300 people call it home.
We’d just finished building a small classroom in at makeshift afterschool program for homeless teens. As we made the mile-long walk to our car, a stranger on the corner stepped abruptly into our path: “Where you from,” he asked?
I tell him that we’ve come from San Diego to work at the Center. He sizes me up, then reaches out his hand for mine and says, “We’re real people here, you know? But you people come through here every day and never really see us. You look the other way and keep walking. You can’t even look at me.”
“I’m looking at you,” I say. “I see you.”
Over the next ten minutes we get to know this man who calls himself “Supreme.” He’s in his late twenties, a native of New Orleans who washed up on the shores of Skid Row six years earlier, after Katrina. Everything he owns is contained in two large trash bags, which he holds in each hand. He once sang in his father’s gospel choir with his brother and sisters, which is how he got the name “Supreme.” He’s been on the streets for so long that nobody knows where he is. “I have made my mistakes,” he confesses. “But I’m trying real hard to make it right.”
To take delight is to bend toward difference, and that day, a man named Supreme bent toward those who were completely different from him and taught us that delight is the antidote to indifference.
The opposite of compassion is not hatred or hostility. If compassion is to feel something so deeply in your gut that you are moved to action, then the opposite of compassion is to feel nothing at all and so to not be moved at all. The Greek philosophers had a word for this: “apatheia,” the isolated, unfeeling, uncaring response to human need. Apathy.
Think about a time when someone has bent toward you with curious delight and attention—the kind of attention that made you feel in that moment like the most important person in the room—simply because they asked a question in a way that made you the only person who could answer it: “Why did you become a doctor?” “Where are you from?” I like the question that Krista Tippet asks every one of her guests at the beginning of her public radio show, “On Being.” “Tell me about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood.”
If you want to cultivate delight in your life and see in the face of another the very face of God, then bring an unusual and inexhaustible curiosity toward the other. As the philosopher, Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
If we do not bend in delight toward difference, we will succumb to indifference. Jesus says to Matthew, “Follow me.” And then, quite unexpectedly, it’s Jesus who follows Matthew home for a party—bending toward difference.
The second rule for cultivating delight is this: outlast your discomfort with difference by staying at the table.
There are moments in our conversations with others who are different—and I just had one this past week with a neighbor—when you realize you don’t believe the same things, or don’t see the issues the same way, and you want to hit the eject button immediately. They’re talking a different language, they’re highly confident in their perspective, it’s the de-ja-moo moment when you’ve heard this bull before, and you just want to get back to your own tribe. Ask yourself: “Can I stay a little longer? Can I outlast my discomfort with difference?”
Some of my closest relationships are with those from whom I wanted at first to distance myself—either out of misunderstanding or a judgmentalism that turned out to be misguided. What I’ve discovered is that true delight comes when you can bend toward people as they are, not as you wish they were; and when you can live your life as you are, not as you hope other people think you are.
Compassion takes time and patience to cultivate. So have grace with the pace of it. There’s an old farming proverb that says, “God Doesn’t Settle All Accounts in October.” Sometimes you plant seeds, but nothing seems to come up. But remember: God doesn’t settle all accounts in October.
The Chinese Bamboo tree is a good reminder of this truth. When you plant the seed of the Chinese Bamboo tree, the seed lies dormant for four to five years—sometimes longer. Nothing. But at some point, usually during that fifth year, quite unexpectedly, a shoot breaks the surface. In just two weeks it reaches a height of 14 feet. In six weeks, it reaches a height of 90 feet.
Outlast you discomfort by staying in the room with difference. Things just might change. You just might be changed because of it.
The third rule is for cultivating delight is this: don’t compare the best in yourself to the worst in others.
The satirical online newspaper, The Onion, ran an advertisement some time ago that said,
“I don’t have the time to get to know every person I encounter in the course of my daily life. So thank goodness I have a handy little device at my disposal that helps me know how to deal with just about anyone I come across: stereotypes. Stereotypes are a real time-saver!”
Jesus told a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray: one was a tax collector, the other a Pharisee. One was a Volvo driving elitist and the other a pick-up truck driving redneck driving with a gun rack. One was a dogmatic atheist, the other a United Methodist minister. Jesus says,
“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I like a good stereotype as much as the next guy. But the late theologian Walter Wink, had it right when he said, “When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them which still makes transformation possible. We play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God”
It’s sad but true: even our adversaries are children of God; and even in us, the image of God is often obstructed by pride and certainty.
As psychologist Gordon Livingston says, “Every snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.”
Jesus calls us to bend in delight toward difference for the sake of the common good.
And so our take-aways today:
Bend toward difference or you will succumb to indifference.
Outlast your discomfort with difference by staying at the table.
Don’t compare the best in yourself to the worst of others.
 Jesus’ Third Way, p. 49.