The Emerging Church meeting on Sunday 18 August, entitled “What would the Kingdom of God feel like?” crystallised the notion that the salient feature of Jesus’ ministry was his commitment to teaching us to be compassionate.
In the era when he lived, compassion was most often a scarce commodity. In today’s world, two millennia of striving by the major religions as well as by enlightened free thinkers, to elevate the notion of kindness, has made a vast improvement in the way humans now treat each other. But there is a long way to go yet.
Is compassion a moral imperative, that is, is it just the right thing to do?
We know that to feel compassion and empathy to one suffering is a virtue, because the measure of a civilised society – of a society becoming more civil to its own – is in how each member of that society acts positively with and to each other.
Throughout the history of the world, this has been far from the case, exemplified in man’s inhumanity to man. Think of such things as marauding usurpers of land; slavery and slave trading; the exploitation of whole races as colonisers plundered their mineral riches; and so on.
Jesus set out a new way to treat people by adopting compassion as his principle and by showing that this was strength not weakness, because it recognises that people matter. Jesus never let an opportunity to be kind pass him by, even if he wasn’t asked directly for help.
Compassion has the virtue of bringing out the best in us by giving us a sense of purpose in our lives. Knowing that we are doing something to help others fulfils us because we can see that others matter. In other words, we feel better.
And it has been shown that compassion reduces blood pressure in those who practise it and that they lead calmer, happier lives.
People who practise compassion also influence others to follow their example and be more kind.
In fact, as an editorial in The Age on Sunday 12 July 2015 stated, “The ascent of compassion could be seen as Darwinian progress, an enlightened evolution in the species that helps to protect and cultivate its survival.”
If this is so, Jesus was on the right path – the Kingdom of God requires it and it will feel good.
“The alternative,” the article said – “an absence of compassion and empathy – is a vista too bleak to contemplate.”
The challenge the article put forward is for us to live a life of compassion in the small moments. One aid it offered to spur us along this path is for us to cogitate times when we have been loved or cared for deeply, and to extend that feeling to others around us.
Carol Frost, writing in the ‘Faith’ column of The Age of 26 May 2019 on this subject, says. “The secret of acting with kindness is not to second-guess our first generous impulses. Bitter experience has taught me that if I hesitate – to offer a coin, a lift, the time of day – the opportunity passes me by, and I am left with only regret.”
It seems to me that compassion is the casuality of our present individualised, frenetic, society, undoubtedly exacerbated by the loosening of the community bonds that used to unite us.
But Australian moral philosopher and professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer, believes that people in affluent countries are welcoming the opportunity to give today, as they start to reject hedonistic, individualised lifestyles.
Carol Frost, referenced in the same article, sums up with this thought. “Christ always saw through to the hearts of those who believed in him and left them in no doubt of his love. We can never repay the love he shows to us. But we can use our precious time on Earth to show God’s kindness to the people we know and meet, for His sake.”