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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Between a Rock & a Hard Place

Child Prisoners -  Auschwitz-Birkenau

Are you comfortable with David's [in the Psalms] many cries for vengeance? How might a Christian pray “against” enemies?.... What injustice around you hurts enough to move you to pray against it? If nothing does, what does that say about your compassion and concern for justice for other people? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 784).

What if Christ's crucifixion had developed a little differently? What if Jesus's enemies had not attacked him directly, but instead had approached him with this ultimatum: “Give up your ministry forthwith or we will brutally murder your mother Mary and your brothers this very afternoon. We will not touch you personally, on the contrary, we will make sure that you live the rest of your days in the lap of ease and luxury.” I wonder what Jesus would have done given this option. The Christian's viewpoint is colored when the assumption is made that only the self will be hurt by decisions made. Clearly, this is often not the case. For example in World War II, I could have with great ease and equanimity prayed for the gentle nudging of Hitler's conscience. Forgiveness daily could have flowed from my heart and lips. Unfortunately, it was really not my place to forgive, but rather for those he tortured and murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And if I had any empathy at all for the victims of hatred, it of necessity meant that some prayers would call for enforced justice as well as compassion. Forgiveness of an enemy when offered for myself by myself is highly commendable and clearly the Christian thing to do. It is a much more difficult matter when I presume to forgive in the stead of others.

We are often challenged to have empathy – to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and see things from their point of view. This, it is assumed, will result in compassion. Often the opposite is true. For example, the abolitionist during days of slavery was far more likely to be infuriated rather than filled with compassion when he tried to assume the slaveholder's viewpoint of people as chattel. There is a saying that extreme cases make for bad law. Maybe Nazis and racists are extreme cases and provide little guidance for dealing with less lurid enemies – say more in the line of “enemies” encountered in everyday competition – as when two people are vying for the same promotional opportunity. Today I was at TASCO (a City teen program) and overheard a young teenage boy say with conviction while watching a movie “I don't like mean people.” The thought immediately crossed my mind that here is a true American. I greatly like to think of my country as a place that does not like mean people. I like to think that compassion and goodwill characterize it even in times of stress and duress. But we are faced with an enigma – can compassion extend not only to the innocent but to the guilty as well – and exactly what form does such compassion take? Hatred takes on the character of obsessive mental illness – perhaps such an understanding is a prayerful place to begin.

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