Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What is Jesus' Central Message? A Rebuttal

Bill over at The Art of The Rant wrote a post about what Easter means, concluding that Christ's highest message is forgiveness, meaning forgiving a person even in the absence of reconciliation. There's no question Jesus preached about forgiveness, but I have to disagree with Bill. I believe the central tenet of Jesus' message is compassion. Some may call it love, but that word doesn't convey the work necessary to do what Jesus taught. People think of love as a nice emotion, you feel it, but there's no connotation that one must act in that word other than feeling nice feelings toward another. Compassion on the other hand is more of a verb.

Compassion is hard work. It's an emotion that requires action. It's a feeling that takes you out of yourself and into the experience of another. It melts judgement, but it doesn't melt holding the other to his/her responsibility. To feel compassion toward another, you have to be able to understand the person. To do that, one must be able to listen, not just hear the words and think about what you want to say or how boring this person's troubles are (hearing yada, yada, yada inside one's head) and cutting him off. Tied up in that listening is the desire to help the other and to subvert your own fears or pride or self-absorption in your own problems or in your need to be busy. You put that person on the front burner. And in putting that person on the front burner, you then want to spend the time to understand and analyse and feel. And having done that, can put the person's bad behaviour in context. Still, compassion won't let you be all nice and cuddly. It requires you to speak up and have the courage to say what needs to be said, in a compassionate way, in short to "interfere" or to stand up for yourself if you're the target of this person's crap. The recipient of your words will know if they come out of compassion -- thinking of the other -- or selfishness -- thinking of yourself.

The way Bill talks about forgiveness is the way I hear many talking about forgiveness on talk shows, in the pulpit, personal conversations. But it's not really about the other, it's about your own self-preservation, to not be consumed in anger and bitterness. It's a good thing, yes, but it doesn't require as much of us as compassion does.

Jesus wants more from us. He doesn't want tolerance or forgiveness in the absence of compassion. The parable of the prodigal son, and Paul's own words about God turning his back on those who lie etc., tells us that Jesus does not condone bad behaviour nor tolerate it under the rubric of forgiveness or love, but will wait and receive the person back when he comes to his senses. Until then, he leaves him to his own devices. Compassion gives us the wisdom to know when to do that. When the woman said to Jesus that even dogs eat the crumbs from under the table, compassion drove him to understand her point of view, respond, and change his own travel plans. North American society would be a lot less lonely if we did the same.

8 comments:

Bill said...

I suspect you are correct forgiveness is the action required and done, but love and compassion are likely the reason.

I would agrue that Love and compassion are the reason, but forgiveness is the message that arrises from that reason.

talk talk talk said...

In talking it over with my Pastor, I'd forgotten (doh!) that it all started with God showing compassion towards us, His creation. We had fallen away from Him, He wanted to bring us back together, and so He sent us Jesus to show us truth, redeem us, and forgive us.

I agree that love is the reason (isn't that a song?) but compassion is also an action. It isn't just feeling for somebody, it is doing for somebody as well. John asserts that Jesus is the truth (John 18 when Pilate asks "What is truth?" with Jesus standing right there before him). Jesus had shown compassion in many ways, by healing, by teaching, by giving responsibility, by freeing people. And Jesus showed the ultimate compassion by sacrificing his life for ours. It's very clear in John (and what I've always believed, notwithstanding the reappearance of the Gospel of Judas) that Jesus is in charge -- it wasn't Judas who orchestrated Jesus' death. It was God who planned the whole thing -- Judas, the guards, Pilate, etc., who are mere assigned players in that final act -- and Jesus who agreed to it for he had compassion upon us. If Jesus had not wanted to sacrifice his life for us, he would've prevented the crucifixion from ever happening.

Someone once said God sent Jesus so that He could understand what it is to be human. Whether or not that's true, what Jesus discovered about being human, I believe that in the end, on the cross, it moved him to ask God to forgive us -- his compassion moved him to do so. But that request was one small part of a much bigger act. (BTW, there's a great book by former Jesuit priests called "Don't Forgive Too Soon." Very insightful and practical and fun with its drawings and questions.)

Compassion is what is missing in our society. The lack of it allows people to weasel out of repenting, to guilt those who've been wronged into forgiving in the face of unrepentance, and to tolerate intolerable behaviour. I argue that of all the places on earth, we are the most in need of Jesus.

Bill said...

I was with you until your last statement , "The lack of it allows people to weasel out of repenting, to guilt those who've been wronged into forgiving in the face of unrepentance, and to tolerate intolerable behaviour."

I am not sure I am reading it correctly are you saying a compassionless person believes he deserves forgiveness, regardless of repentance as a right, and thus preasures us the wronged into forgiving without repentance for his behavior?

If so this IMHO seems to contradict the idea that countering evil behaviour with good is the choice weapon of the Christian.

Why do I say that? Because of Romans 12:19-21

19 Don't seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God's wrath. For it is written, "Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord." [does this not imply we are to "tolerate intolerable behaviour."]

20 Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head."

21 Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

talk talk talk said...

"The lack of it allows people to weasel out of repenting."

I'll try to explain what I meant. In my experience, people behave badly and their victim is blamed for upsetting relations. For example, I heard this story on the radio about a girl whose sister is getting married but didn't ask her to be a bridesmaid, however, she expects her to help organize the wedding. Long story short, she doesn't want her to be a bridesmaid because she's fat. What should she do? The response from people was this girl was upsetting the apple cart for no reason, no way a bride would omit her because she's fat, she should help organize the wedding, if family relations are strained it would be her fault. Excuse me? Her fault?! It was her sister who created the mess in the first place, but it's the girl (the victim if you will) who is supposed to grin, forgive her (cause she's a bride, she's her sister) and pretend this rejection never happened. The best advice was to buy the most stunning outfit she could find and enjoy herself at the wedding.

Because people didn't have compassion for the "fat girl" no-one expects the bride, nor requires her, to apologise for her bad behaviour, never mind her skewed thinking that led her to behave that way. And worse, if family relations are strained, the family will blame the "fat girl" not the bride. The bride gets to weasel out of repenting. This is not unusual.

"to guilt the wronged"

I was thinking about people around the situation, like the family in the above scenario because the family wants peace at any price, and since they know the transgressor will not repent, they want the "fat girl" to pay -- the price for her is feeling less about herself, that she deserves to be excluded, that she's not worth an apology. But you're right, I've also seen the aggressor guilt the victim.

"Romans 19...does this not imply we are to tolerate intolerable behaviour"

No, actually. It means we are not to seek revenge, which is a bit of a relief because it means we don't have to hold grudges, or live in bitterness, or be angry forever; it means we can continue to live without being subsumed by the transgressor's actions. Not avenging ourselves does not equate to tolerating bad behaviour. It equates to living in emotional health. Jesus said to his disciples that if they're not accepted in one place, to dust their feet of that place and move on. The disciples aren't tolerating the rejection, they're walking away from it, not wasting their emotional health on it.

In John 8, Jesus prevents the mob from stoning an adulteress. He showed compassion upon her -- people have interpreted this as he forgave her. He didn't; he simply said "neither do I condemn you." And he bluntly told her not to do it anymore. This is not tolerance. In telling her to "not sin again," he was telling her that what she had been doing was wrong and to stop it.

I'm going to have to stop here, but I'll try and get to your other points later. (If I'm still confusing you, let me know.) Thanks!!!

Bill said...

Much clearer.

As for tolerating the intolerable, Roman's 12:19 does not expressly say tolerate the intolerable, I took that possibly farther than the intent of the verse.

It may not specifically say tolerate but adds up to as much.

If from a social and cultural point of view tolerance means; "the collective and individual practice of not persecuting those who may believe, behave or act in ways of which one may not approve." (wikipedia)

Then this would be the outcome of waiting on God to exact vengeance, as Romans 12:19 suggests.

Also The follow-up verse 20 says we should go one step further feed and give drink to our enemies.

talk talk talk said...

I hadn't been thinking in terms of the collective. I agree with you as you defined tolerance -- we should not persecute those we do not agree with.

But God speaks to us as individuals, thus on that level I was thinking of tolerance as (from dictionary): "a willingness or ability to accept or allow without protest or irritation." We ought to be able to stand up and say to a person that their behaviour is intolerable without persecuting them or exacting revenge. It's interesting how the NRSV translates that verse:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God...

He's saying that God needs to be a part of our lives. Not only are we not alone, but we should not act as if we are.

Verse 20...the Bible is full of these things which seem at first glance to be noble, but in fact...well, they're not such great images. If you heap burning coals on someone's head, what happens? Well, I think they'd scream first, then their hair would set on fire, then their scalp and face would melt, then they'd die. Lovely.

What I believe Paul is saying here is by feeding your enemies, you show them up to be the bad people that they are, you know that old adage about killing people with kindness? In this case your actions shame and condemn your enemy in the sight of others and of God. Again, it's not about tolerating their behaviour, it's about bringing it into the light for all to see.

talk talk talk said...

I was talking to someone about this heaping coals metaphor, and they pointed out to me that it's not about forgiveness, or tolerating the enemy's behaviour, it's about showing them and others that they cannot affect your behaviour. You will continue to be a good person. And so just as you treat others well, you will treat them well too. And by treating them well, you also shame them.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of a people who think the Entire Earth is like a christian parable? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."?
Does this not count as something God or Jesus would hear?
Our earth is our only home.
This is our place. Whether out of an apple from the tree of knowledge in the garden of eden, or a more prosaic theme, this is it.
We are all of us here.
If it wasn't for this globalization theme and trying to make the whole world be like the US, we'd have many fewer troubles. Why can't we leave other people alone?
Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. There he was, walking along quite happily in his own personal godliness, and lo! a wounded human in his path. What to do?
His government said: this man is a bum, an outcast, not worthy of your time.
The Samaritan, being a humanist in his soul(and likely the very best kind of religious nut) considered the words of Jesus and weighed them up against his politicians and even his family, then bent his back to help this obvious hater of all that is well and good in the Samaritan's world.
Jesus was one of the first documented Revolutionaries, and He still gets pissed at people using his name in vain.
What is going on in the name of ANY religion is a mistake.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, render unto God that which is God'.
However this shakes out, still people have a responsibility to each other, no matter what.