I worry often I’m not a compassionate person. Don’t misunderstand me—I care about people (from a distance), want them to thrive (as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me), and hope that justice “rolls down like rushing waters” in their lives (provided I don’t get hurt in the process).In this era of slacktivism, I’m afraid that I’m not alone. Many of my comrades in this Overrated generation (to borrow the title from Eugene Cho’s book) hope that our Facebook likes and Amnesty International retweets will substitute for providing for the needs of others. It doesn’t require a whole lot of reflection to provide an ephemeral “thumbs-up” to something. Our hearts and our minds aren’t touched in an abiding way, for we have allowed the needs of others to only deal a glancing blow to our souls. Our hearts are left unfazed as we move from the guttural cries of child soldiers and trafficking victims to the careless cackling elicited by the next viral YouTube video.
But Jesus allowed such needs to punch him in the solar plexus and lock him in a full nelson. In Matthew 9, he has compassion on a crowd of people because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” After this emotive moment, he heals the sick. Then, in Matthew 14, he sees a crowd of 5000 people in need and heals more sick folks—and gives them a miraculous meal to top it off. For Jesus, seeing the needs of others caused him to feel deeply. But he didn’t just feel and move on; he acted.
God gave us emotions. Far too often, we either suppress them or glorify them. Jesus, however, chose a third way: he used them. Jesus sees the crowds, feels their pain in a genuine way, and tends to their needs. Thus, Christ demonstrates how emotions are tools we can use to showcase what the kingdom of God is like: plentiful, healing, restorative, and just.
But in order to feel that compassion, in order to fill those yawning bellies, in order to touch the leper and heal the blind, Jesus had to be present. He suffered with them so that he could serve them. That’s why at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, we are in churches and other organizations in neighborhoods throughout Central Indiana. If we are ever to feel what they are feeling, we know we must be present with the immigrant victim of domestic violence, with the tenant facing eviction, with the ex-offender unable to find employment, and with the refugee facing removal back to a country that offers nothing but danger and anxiety. We must suffer with them if ever we are to move beyond a fleeting, ineffective bout of compassion so that we can walk with them and provide access to justice.
April is Social Justice Month. I pray that as you learn about the Clinic and the needs that God is calling you to fill in your community, you will experience catalytic compassion. This is the kind of compassion that causes you to weep—and to work.
Until Justice and Peace Embrace,
Christopher L. Purnell