By Jason Coker
Human compassion does not know nation or border—it cannot discriminate. To do so would not be human compassion.
Determining who deserves help and who does not deserve help is not compassion at all. Sometimes we are forced to make these terrible decisions—prioritizing help. This is the nature of the deeply religious notion of helping the most vulnerable in our society. Prioritizing help and assistance to those who cannot help themselves.
Historically, this has pushed all the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), to take special care of widows and orphans. This drive to help the most vulnerable is not rooted in paternalism. It is rooted in human compassion recognizing power dynamics that systematically make life impossible for some. Parentless children could not survive in ancient cultures without some sort of external help. Women in antiquity who had lost their husbands to death were also at the mercy of society. Human compassion in any society certainly prioritizes the most vulnerable.
This same call to care for orphans and widows also applied to the foreigner or stranger. The New Testament’s story of “The Good Samaritan” exemplifies this conviction of taking care of the stranger and/or foreigner.
Human compassion calls on society to be less cruel. Human compassion calls us to be better for “the other” because as Dr. King reminded us in the 1960s “what happens to one directly happens to all of us indirectly.” Human compassion is a recognition that we are all intricately (even if unknowingly) bound together. I cannot ignore what is happening in Iran or Syria or China or Russia. What happens there comes back to me. What happens to Republicans comes back to Democrats and vice versa. What happens in Mississippi affects Alaska and vice versa.
We are inextricably bound together. I cannot ignore human beings at our southern border in the US no more than I can ignore the immoral number of human beings incarcerated in the US. Both of those human crises affect me and they call on my capacity to have human compassion.
Demonizing “the other” is a projection of my worst self onto someone else. While demonizing is an attempt to show the flaws of “the other,” it actually only reflects the worst part of the one demonizing. This is the power of non-violent direct action. It is a movement toward justice from the place of love. Love compels us toward justice and never does so at the expense of others but on behalf of others.
Make no mistake, human compassion is not some call to a moderate middle where the extremes come together. Human compassion is radically different. Human compassion accepts human difference and acts because of difference not in spite of it. This is how the Rev. Will Campbell marched for Civil Rights and still visited incarcerated KKK members in prison. The best parts of religions all call us to this compassion.
As a Christian, I see it in the best of our religious practices. I have also seen it in my sisters and brothers of other religions, and our sisters and brothers from no religion. This is a sign of our strength as human beings, not a sign of our weakness. It takes courage and strength to care for those who would harm us, because we know their hate and violence can never be transformed into good through any other means besides our own compassion toward them.
I am still learning the path of non-violent direct action. It is counter intuitive to me. I was raised to fight and never quit—I think this is true for many who grew up in poverty. Even the work I do right now alleviating poverty feels like a fight. Trying to develop language around poverty alleviation that is none violent is difficult because we “combat” poverty or “fight” poverty or we are “anti” poverty. Even the nomenclature that we use to describe our important work is violent. Reframing anti-poverty into peacemaking or hope building continues to be part of our work, too. Even that has to be rooted and informed by human compassion.
We all have the capacity for human compassion. It is a revolutionizing force that challenges the very notion of enemy. If there is an enemy in the world, the biggest and toughest is the one inside of us all. The enemy of human compassion that is also in us is where we must work. This “purification” to use Dr. King’s terminology, is always a foundational step toward the other for common good.