Unreturned Compassion

I originally wrote this essay in 2010 as a Facebook “Note.” Since that portion of the service has steadily faded away, this seems an appropriate moment to republish the piece here at Ordained Geek.

In an opinion piece carried by the The Hour in Norwalk, my good friend the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith, pastor of the First Congregational Church UCC in that city, makes the case that ‘It is our responsibility to defend our Muslim neighbors from slander.’ I commend the essay to you, and I have very little to add to it, except to note that the chorus of those American Christian leaders affirming interfaith relations of kindness and integrity is far larger than those opposing it.

As is frequently the case in these days of instant comment on the Internet, though, one of the latter voices appears right below Rev. Bryant-Smith’s. It’s discouraging, and it features, near the end, this dispiriting flourish: ‘So please, for this weekend of mourning and remembrance, save your one-sided message of unreturned compassion for your pulpit.’

That’s the crux of the matter. Unreturned compassion.

The argument goes like this: ‘They (pick a They, any They) did something bad to us/said something bad about us/think badly of us. That’s Bad.’

So far I agree.

‘Because They did this bad thing, They are Bad.’

Perhaps. All too frequently, one person stands as surrogate for another’s bad acts, with whom they can be identified because of (frequently superficial) shared characteristics. Guilt by association usually looks much different to the one being condemned than it does to the one doing the condemning.

But for the moment, let’s assume that the people named are no surrogates; They bear some actual responsibility. Are They therefore Bad People?

The Gospel word, the Good News, says both yes and no. Remember those whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices, says Jesus (Luke 13:2). Were they worse sinners than anyone else? ‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’

Sin and sinning aren’t escapable things in classic Christian theology. We do the best we can, but we can’t be perfect. With absolute purity unattainable, we rely on the grace of God.

So are they Bad People? Yes. And so are you and I, in our own ways.

But now we really come to the heart of it. What are we to do with Bad People, with Them, and with You and with Me?

‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’ (Luke 6:27-28).

Unreturned compassion. That’s the crux. That’s the center. That’s the Cross.

That’s where we have hope for a society that is greater than what we have. That’s where we will find (or at least glimpse) a blessed community. If we save it only for the pulpit, we’ll never have the glimpse.

Unreturned compassion. That’s the crux. That’s the center. That’s the Cross.