Matthew Part IV: Compassion—a radical critique

“I am a part of all that I have met . . .”                     Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Ulysses, line 18


“Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion. Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion.

Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion. The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms. Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.

Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context. Empires live by numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact.

Jesus penetrates the numbness by his compassion and with his compassion takes the first step by making visible the odd abnormality that had become business as usual. Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces and ideologies that produce the hurt.

Jesus enters into the hurt and finally comes to embody it.”

Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (2nd Ed. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001) pp 88-89. (Note: I have rendered the above single paragraph into five shorter paragraphs for emphasis.)


“The history of America is not just pioneers and cowboys and inventions and business. It’s also brutality and slavery and oppression. If we want the country to be better, we have to look at that history.”

Ijeoma Oluo, “White Lies,” The Sun Magazine, December 2018, p. 10

  In January 1943 my father volunteered to go to war as a Chaplain in WWII. He served in the South Pacific in the Solomon Islands, and later in the Palau, the location of the deadly battle of Peleliu. My older brother Bob, who has researched my father’s life, quotes a letter home from September 28th, 1944, in which he says, “watching the invasion from a mile or two offshore: ‘war is worse than hell, and neither words nor pictures can describe it’.”7 Toward the end of his military service, on Memorial Day 1945, he wrote the following poem:

Voices from the Grave

Your day of triumph dawns o’er all the world.
Soon will the tyrants’ banners be unfurled
No more. Their ignominious defeat
Shall mark your gloried victories complete.

Let now your knowledge of their damned design
To crush all freedom, and to undermine
The firm foundations of our noble State,
Keep strong your purpose, ere it is too late.

Remember long the brutal carnage done,
When you the present victory have won;
Forget not through the years those anguished cries,
That from the slaughtered innocent arise.

Keep ever fresh in mem’ry for all time,
Their ruthless, bloody carnival of crime.
Close not your minds to grim reality:
They’re not all dead, nor their philosophy.

Not that in vengeance you must now repay;
(Revenge would only bring your own decay)
But that from evil memories of war,
Stern peace may enter through a guarded door.

The day of Brotherhood is not yet come.
(It may in some far-off millennium.)
Until it does, hold fast your present pain,
Or else we’ve died our battle‑death in vain.

Several years later, I have a distinct memory, as a young boy, ten or eleven years old, of listening to my father deliver a message from the pulpit of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he was the pastor, looking around at the congregation and being hit with the terrible awareness that no one was truly listening. I don’t recall the specifics of the message but in Brueggemann’s terms, what I was witnessing was the “numbness” of the congregation. Admittedly, it was a ten-year-old perception but it was the early 50’s, just a few years after WWII and the seeds of the American empire had been well sewn, something that President Eisenhower warned us against as he left office:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” 8

Eisenhower’s warning echoes my father’s, though his focus is not upon external “tyrants” but upon the forces, internally, within our own nation, that had been set in motion by the mobilization for and the fighting of a “just war,” where we could and would see ourselves as the “good guys” fighting evil.

Why, you might ask, are you talking about Jesus, World War II and Dwight Eisenhower in a piece about the nature of justice?

Because, if we are to understand the true nature of justice, we must understand the current system of retributive justice and the culture which espouses it. We must apply Ta-Nehisi Coates’ mother’s commitment to teaching him “ruthless” interrogation of himself, not only to ourselves, individually, but to our entire culture. When we do this, we will see, as he saw, that we are not “innocents”—not individually nor as a culture. We must see how the history we tell ourselves about ourselves as a nation is full of “sympathy and rationalizations” that protect our concept of ourselves as “innocent,” as “the good guys” on the world stage.

We must tell ourselves the truth about who we actually are—in all of our goodness and in all of our terribleness. When we avoid telling ourselves the truth we are prey to our shadows and are subject to our fears and we project onto others the terrible parts of our selves—our capacity to do untold harm—and find them, whomever the object of our projection is, to be less human, less than ourselves.

We are all subject to this false way of thinking.

It has no political boundaries. And when we employ it, it leads us to actually realize our own capacity for doing harm, while we are thinking we are better than whomever we judge to be less than or evil or something terrible. This way of thinking seems to me to be the basis of the retributive justice system—an eye for an eye system of justice, which is, in reality, not justice at all.

Such was the case—this way of false thinking—in the founding of our nation, where Europeans invaded the land, believing they were the instruments of God’s will, which did not encourage any kind of “ruthless” self-interrogation, but rather promoted a self-justification for the taking of the land, for thinking of it as their own and for the slaughter of its inhabitants.

Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their repaiers, so as they were quickly dispatched, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400, at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stinck and sente thereof; but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prays thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”

William Bradford, “History of Plymouth Plantation” (Boston, 1856)9

If we step back from this description, even just a little bit, we can see the “sympathy and rationalizations” William Bradford employed, to arrive at his conclusion that God had “wrought so wonderfully . . . to inclose their enemies in their hands.” How convenient the belief that God is on their side. How justifying for the slaughter of “so proud and insulting . . . enemy.” How relieving of any responsibility for their actions—for their taking of human lives—mothers, fathers, children, not to mention the land. Given this belief system, how difficult it would have been to see the Native Americans as human beings, like himself, deserving of love and respect, equally capable of doing good or of doing harm.

Carl Jung, following a trip to America, commented on this particular aspect of the American psyche. He said he couldn’t help noticing what he called the “Indianizing” of many whites who had settled here and he “warned his students that when they analyze an American’s ‘shadow,’ they must be much more careful than when they analyze a European ‘because when the American opens a . . . door in his psychology, there is a dangerous open gap, dropping hundreds of feet, and in those cases where he can negotiate the drop, he will then be faced with an Indian . . . shadow, whereas [it] is safer for the European to open the door because [he] finds a shadow of his own race.’ ” 10 Of course, the same would apply to the black slaves imported from Africa, through whose labor the wealth of this nation, this empire was built. And according to Ijeoma Olua, this is a reality about who we are as a nation, that we have to acknowledge, if “we want the country to be better.”

But as Brueggemann says, “Empires live by numbness . . . Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact.” As the quotation from William Bradford in the 17th century shows, this is how our nation started and this is how it has proceeded until the present day where we have a President, our 45th President, who embraces dishonesty, racial bigotry and a lack of concern for stewardship of the earth, as a way of life—no interest in, no pretense to telling the truth about himself or about the world we inhabit, which is really no surprise, given that he has inherited, as the elected head of state, a nation that Dwight Eisenhower cautioned against, a nation that has become an empire with a military presence in hundreds of bases around the world.11

So Brueggemann’s view that the compassion of Jesus is a radical criticism of our current culture, including the implementation of retributive justice, offers us a way of thinking about a different kind of justice—a justice that is primarily relational and restorative—restorative of a connection, a relationship that has been broken, a justice that is based upon our interrelatedness, our connection with each other. But for us to access this connection in our current world of deep divisions we must do the terribly difficult work of interrogating ourselves, searching out those places of dishonesty, of rationalization, of self-righteousness, all those things that we are afraid to acknowledge in ourselves but that identify us as human and connect us to our common heritage, our common cause, which is to care for each other and for the one small world we inhabit.  

It fell to me

It fell to me.
          I don’t know why.
          How can we know these things?
          It fell to me to dismantle,
          to take down the fortifications,
          to take apart myself
          not so to destroy
          but to try to understand,
          to hope to know
          the inner workings
          of a single human heart
          and go from there—
          to Auschwitz,
          for example,
          as an end point
          of all that brought us there,
          or, as a new beginning, for me,
          my own very private mirror
          that shows a heart quite able
          to morph such an image
          of unspeakable acts
          reflected there
          never, never to be done again
          into others of their kind
          that go unnoticed, unseen,
          unrecognized as such
          until their carnage has been done
          and then we say once more,
          “Never again! Never again!”,
          to ourselves and go on—
          to drones over Pakistan
          for example, run by little boys
          with joy sticks and video cams
          from half a universe away
          and think, no doubt,
          if they think at all
          of what they do,
          of what we ask them to do
          in our name and with our money,
          think, no doubt, that they are fighting evil.
          “A silly comparison,” you say,
          “Auschwitz and drones.
          What have you learned
             in all your dismantling
          if this is where you end—
          with drones and joy sticks?”
             And where would you suggest I look, dear listener,
          that I might understand more clearly
          what I am complicit in—
          East Oakland, perhaps?
          Where, dear listener, would you look?
          Where would you look?

And then we must listen.

A Way Forward

There is that of Divinity
          in each of us
          but none
          has the whole.

Therefore, we must listen,
          listen to discern
          what part we speak
          what part we hear
          what part is left unspoken.

We must not think
          our part is whole,
          nor another’s part
          nor the part left unspoken.

But searching our soul,
          open to discovery
          of something new
          about ourselves,
          hearing something new
          from another,
          being aware of something
            yet to be spoken,
            will lead us forward.

And what new thing
          might we discover?
          What fear uncover,
            that leads to deafness
            and to judgment—
            of ourselves or of another?
            And how might owning
            that part of us
            and sharing
            in faith

            that we will be heard
            and held as human,
            show us the Spirit
            and the way forward?

To read the final section of this essay, visit Matthew V: Imagination.


7. Robert Denham, unplublished, Memoir—My Father, p. 24
9. Source:). Quoted in See also: Barry Spector, Madness at the Gates of the City: The myth of American Innocence (Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2010) p. 156. The author analyzes in great detail the mythological underpinning of the stories we tell ourselves about our innocence—a book about which Howard Zinn says, “strikingly imaginative. This is truly an original work.” Using Greek mythology and Carl Jung’s psychology he critically and brilliantly examines the stories we Americans tell ourselves in our culture’s love affair with the notion that we are the exception, that we are innocent, how we project onto the “other” all our own worst fears and instincts about ourselves.
10. From – Elayne Wareing Fitzpatrick,Traveling Backward: Curious Journeys and Quixotic Quests Beyond the Youth of Old Age (Xlibris, 2009), p.354, also quoted in Barry Spector, Madness, p. 128, facing the opening page of Chapter 7—Red, White and Black

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