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From Compassion to Action

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Sep 24, 2009

peter002_100pxRev. Peter A. Friedrichs is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, Media, PA

Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during  President Obama’s health care address was plastered all over the media as if that was the most important thing that happened there.

What struck me about the speech was the wealthy, comfortable, well-dressed and well-fed crowd that sat in judgment.  The well-insured crowd, apparently unmoved by the plight of millions of their constituents. I asked myself, “Where is their compassion?”

I was left with the impression that, once again, the “haves” are sitting pretty and turning a cold shoulder to the “have-nots.” I have the same feeling when I hear the shouting at the town hall debates and the tea party protests.  Those who oppose reform generally already have coverage they’re satisfied with.  It’s the “I’ve got mine, who cares about yours?” mentality that is so deeply troubling.

Some five hundred years before Jesus was born, Confucius preached the gospel of compassion as a means to transcendence.  The concept of ren, or “loving others” is central to Confucian practice.

Several hundred years later, a Gentile told Rabbi Hillel that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole Jewish teaching while standing on one leg.  Hillel stood on one leg and said “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah.  The rest is commentary.”

According to author Karen Armstrong, the Golden Rule and its ethos of compassion is the central, unifying concept in all the religions of the world.  The Unitarian Universalist faith calls on followers to “promote and affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”

Compassion calls us to consider ourselves and our place in the world and requires that we step aside and to make room for others.  This is what seems to be missing in the public debate over health care.

Compassion calls us to open the door to our heart and to allow another to enter that sacred space.  To be compassionate we must be prepared to have our hearts broken. We cannot be at once compassionate and detached from the messiness of life.

Last Friday I picked up the newspaper to a front-page picture of Frank Marshall, an unemployed security guard whose circumstances unexpectedly forced him into a homeless shelter.  Here was another moment of truth.  Would I meet Frank’s eyes and allow myself to be moved by his story, or would I choose not to see him?

We are faced with this challenge every day. If we are to be compassionate people it is imperative that we dare to return the gaze of our fellow human beings and be moved to action by their stories. Action is what it’s all about.  Why are we here if not to alleviate the suffering of others; to give voice to the voiceless, to transform ourselves and our world?

Our compassion for the plight of others – our willingness to see them, to be moved by them, and ultimately to stand alongside them – is the true expression of our own humanity, and our own divinity.

3 Responses to “From Compassion to Action”

  1. Dick Blanton says:

    Very good commentary.

  2. Susanna Whitman says:

    I remember years ago talking about universal coverage with my aunt, who I love. She said to me, “But there would be long waits for treatment.” I replied, “But *everyone* would be covered.” To me that is the essence of the debate. I know which one I value more. Do you?

    In Britain, there is an expression for what Rev. Friedrichs says above about “I’ve got mine…” It’s known as “I’m all right Jack.” (Meaning who cares about you.) It seems to me that this attitude is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even have an expression for it, because most of us don’t see it. It’s part of our cultural fabric. Let’s unravel those strands and weave in some compassion.

  3. Sally G says:

    I’m not sure how this article about compassion came from the reaction to Joe Wilson’s outburst. I hope that we can all agree that civility is important. In any intense debate, as Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ [9?]) said each time as he opened one of his many town hall meetings on healthcare reform in August, “We will all hear ideas that are loathesome to us; but give the respect to the speaker that you would want yourself.” That is the essence of why I resented Joe Wilson’s comment: the place and time WERE inappropriate. Had he held a venomous press conference after the joint session of Congress, and made his point with documentation, or even asked to be recognized on the floor after the speech (is such a motion was possible in the format of the evening), I would have had much more respect for Rep. Wilson. As it is, he just added to the insanity, doing nothing constructive. As a member of the House of Representatives, he is expected to practice more self-control than most citizens do during debate—that is part of his job. We certainly don’t want to go back to the Congress of the 1850s, where on at least one occasion—one member attacked another with his walking stick. Let us all do our best to keep emotions controlled during a reasoned debate, give respect in the form of silence to any speaker, regardless of our own opinions, and marshall our forces to speak up forcefully for our position in turn.

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