Fairness and Justice 3

All of this talk about fairness and justice leads well into something that I had intended to blog about last week.  A colleague of mine recently sent out a link to this organization – Charter for Compassion – asking myself and some others to critique it theologically.  What is useful?  What is beneficial?  What needs to be challenged or defended against?  You can watch the video, or the text of the video is what is printed on the left-hand side of the page. 

The responses were varied and interesting.  We all recognized that there were theological issues here, but for me the issue was one of determining exactly what was going on.  This kind of stuff plays well.  It sounds good when we first hear it.  We’re inclined to agree with it.  But is it as good as what it sounds?  Here are the observations that came out of this discussion, in no particular order.

1.  This video attempts to redefine compassion.  While asserting that “the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions“, this video makes it clear that not everybody has got it right, and therefore people need to be brought into a common alignment on compassion, as defined and dictated by this group.  This group will be the one to determine what is and isn’t compassion.  Which means that other interpretations which conflict with theirs will be rejected as inappropriate or inadequate.  Hardly what I’d call compassionate.  But then again, what I would call compassion doesn’t matter.  Unless it agrees with them.

2.  This group is attempting to redefine more than simply compassion.  Their definition of compassion will be the standard by which Truth in general is measured.  Being compassionate folks, they aren’t going to tell you that your religion is irrelevant or wrong.  But they will insist that you adhere to interpretations of your religion that agree with their definition of religion.  “We therefore call upon all men and women…to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate“. 

3.  This group seems to be more concerned with religion and morality than compassion. 

4.  Ultimately, this group is not concerned with compassion at all.  I make the argument that compassion is an individual response to another individual and situation, that compassion rightly consists of an initial emotional response, followed by an appropriate action that is  intended to alleviate the suffering of the person we have been moved to compassion for.  Action without emotional impetus may be proper, but not necessarily originating out of compassion.  Emotional response without appropriate action is inadequate and stunted compassion.  I also argue that compassion is an individual rather than corporate experience/emotion.  An organization can be engaged in actions that alleviate suffering, but that organization is not compassionate per se.  The founder may have been moved by compassion, and every individual in the organization may be moved by compassion, but the organization itself is not compassionate.  I also argue that compassion is a specific emotion – a specific emotional/action response to a specific individual in a specific situation.  I may be motivated to work from an incident of compassion, but my work probably is not wholly and completely done in compassion.  As an emotion, it can’t be sustained over periods of time, and what remains is a conviction that what I’m doing has value and purpose and meaning, and is right in some sense of the word, but it probably isn’t compassion any longer.  This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just how we are built. 

With this definition of compassion, what this group is advocating is not compassion, but rather policy designed to help ensure that compassion is the ruling norm.  They aren’t addressing the specific act of compassion, but rather would seek to enforce policy that would make prevent actions or beliefs that they perceive as potentially causing damage that would necessitate compassion.  They aren’t interested in us being compassionate, but in attempting to eliminate the need for compassion at all.  Their language is not the language of responsive love, but the language of policy – “to refrain” from saying certain things.  To make certain beliefs or understandings “illegitimate”.  To “ensure” approved educational materials and processes.  To “cultivate” a desired and predictable response.  To “make” compassion the overriding principle in our world. 

None of this has to do with being compassionate, and everything to do with eliminating undesired behavior that this group believes leads to suffering which may prompt compassion – whether legitimately or illegitimately.  This group is actually focused on issues of justice and fairness – attempting to prevent beliefs and actions which might cause suffering, which would then necessitate some sort of compassion.  But justice and fairness are sticky topics – who can argue with compassion, right?

5.  Having read a fair amount of Ayn Rand at an early age, I’m sensitive to the concept of using need and pity as bludgeons for forcing people to do what someone wants them to do.  And this group states this so very clearly that it could have been ripped right out of
Atlas Shrugged.  While setting themselves up to decide upon the legitimacy of any particular god, this group makes themselves and those they claim to represent into gods.  “Compassion impels us to…dethrone ourselves from the center of our world, and put another there.”  Unless that other is Jesus Christ, nothing good can come of this. 

6.  Theologically, the group clearly has some dangerous attitudes.  They determine what religious interpretations are legitimate or not, based on their definition of compassion – even though they’re arguing that their definition is based in the religious traditions that they’re going to set themselves up as judges over.  Logically inconsistent, and theologically blasphemous.  They set themselves up as gods to judge other gods, effectively displacing any other god in favor of themselves. 

Whew.

All that being said, I’m all for compassion.  But I’m not for anyone telling me what I need to do to be compassionate (other than God), nor do I trust anyone who insists that I not only accept their definitions and characterizations of compassion, but follow their dictates for attempting to eliminate the need for compassion.  What this group does is make me aware that I’m not compassionate enough, and that my life needs to be more compassionate.  But that this compassion needs to be in line with my overall understanding of truth and the universe.  If my concepts of compassion are not grounded in something beyond myself, then there’s nothing to stop someone else from coming in and telling me that my concepts are wrong and their’s are better because they have celebrity endorsements. 

My understanding of compassion, and my emotional and action responses to the needs of others are guided by God, not by some arbitrary group of people.  My life as a Christian should indeed be characterized by compassion for others.  I’d encourage Charter for Compassion to focus their efforts on encouraging actual compassion and compassionate responses, rather than attempting to demand that people behave in ways and on terms that this group thinks will alleviate suffering.

4 Responses to “Fairness and Justice 3”

  1. Marie Says:

    You left out the part about how it make me want to lose my breakfast.(Don’t you love comments that raise the level of discourse?).This is theft and substitution dogma, nothing more. And I felt little compassion for myself coming off that tiny screen — they all seemed pretty angry and mean to me.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    I tend to be long-winded as it is, so I sometimes skip important things for the sake of some feign at conciseness.  And I trust to my readers (both of them) to pick up the slack.  Thanks for not disappointing me

  3. micro-scopy Says:

    Will there be a doomsday in 2012?

  4. Lightfist Says:

    Good! All would be well written:)

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