Friday, October 14, 2011

The Challenge of Compassion

Last Wednesday about a dozen of us stood in front of the Wells Fargo Bank on Hawthorne across from the Del Amo Mall protesting that banks treatment of American Vets returning from our wars to get relief on their mortgages. We were protesting under the Occupy Wall Street movement the fact that 99 per cent of us are being held hostage by a system of government and business that concentrates wealth in the hands of few fed by taxpayer dollars while 20 per cent of this country is unemployed.

We were protesting the fact that lives are being destroyed by a system that is broken and unjust and that needs to be fixed by either huge taxes on the very rich and their corporations or seeing these same corporations, who seem to have piles of cash, use that money to train the workers they claim they need. We were protesting because the system is morally bankrupt and this makes it our religious concern. We were there to stand on the side of love, to stand, at the very least, on a sidewalk in front of one of the most corrupt banks and let people know they are not alone. We didn’t expect to change the world that afternoon but we did want to witness our faith that people, ordinary people, of all colors deserve better.

Many of the motorists who drove by honked in support. We noted that they were mostly Priuses, old cars and public buses, which says a lot. At least one motorist gave us the finger. To which I and others among us felt like giving him one back. As I reflected on that obscenity and my reaction to it, I came to heart of our challenge as religious people. If we stand on the side of love and want to show compassion to those in need, how can we do it when some of those in need either don’t know they are in need or are fearful of what they think we stand for. Compassion is all well and good when the person you are showing it to wants your help. Quite a bit more challenging when they don’t want your help.

I still remember working in a soup kitchen when one of the clients threw the food back at me. I remember how angry I was at his ungratefulness until Frances reminded me that I had the privilege to think receiving a free meal was worthy of gratitude since it only reminded the desperately poor how dependent they are on the largess of the rich. A more compassionate response to either the finger flipper or the homeless man would have been to step away until my anger released its deadly grip. And to realize that it is more likely fear and her sister anger that force others to attack us, just as our reaction is naturally to return that anger and fear.

Compassion begins when we remember our own pain and then realize that anger and hurtfulness are expressions of that same pain in others.  I am not saying we let people walk all over us.  What I am saying is that we give people, even strangers, victims of injustice, the benefit of the doubt.  What I am saying is that if you sat down with them and were able to hear their pain you might be able to judge them in a different light.

With Grace and Grit,   John