Friday, June 17, 2011

The Fractured Component of Compassion

Marcus Borg writes in "The Heart of Christianity;"

"The practice of compassion means both charity and justice.  The distinction between the two is important.  About a hundred years ago, a Christian activist and author named Vida Scudder listed three ways that Christians can respond to a growing awareness of human suffering: direct philanthropy, social reform, and social transformation.  Direct philanthropy means giving directly to those who are suffering, social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care, and social transformation is about justice - changing society so that the structures do not privilege some and cause suffering for others.

The first two are about charity, the third about justice.  All three are important. Charity is always good and will always be necessary, but historically Christians have been long on the first two and short on the third.  One reason is that charity never offends; a passion for justice always does.  To paraphrase Roman Catholic bishop Don Helder Camera from Brazil: 'When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.'" (p. 201, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003)

Today I'm continuing to work at banding my wooden bucket that I started so long ago.  The willow is now much more pliable, and it's actually becoming a strong, tight band around the staves as the willow dries and shrinks.  The willow is split, and only one half is used for the band.  Riving the wood is a traditional method of splitting the wood along the grain, and larger logs would be done using a froe, or a handled wedge that could be inserted into the split and worked along the branch, prying it sideways to split the wood along its length.  These I simply get started with my knife, and then the thin willow splits easily by hand, adjusting the pressure between my fingers to steer the split down the center of the wood.

Pondering Borg's evaluation of the unbalanced nature between charity and justice, I would add that there can be no justice and therefore no meaningful charity if there is no initial separation from the system that capitulates to the injustice.  By changing the way I live, I am no longer manipulated by a society that is offering something I no longer want.  The control over me is lost.  A society that promotes personal gain and independence as the key to happiness is powerless to promote justice, but when I no longer believe that money is the road to happiness, that my pursuit of stuff will bring me peace - then I can understand that my charity needs to become something other than a check written to a benevolent organization, or a bag of toys dropped off at a goodwill center.  Then I can understand the value of relationship with my neighbor, my friend, my world.  My compassion then becomes a new perspective, a new way.

Having split the wood, the bark is now stripped off the outside, leaving a white, smooth, half moon cross-section to wrap around the bucket.  After measuring the length, the ends are notched to lock together to form a circle.  The band can then be slid onto the bucket, and after a day or two of drying, the shrinkage produces a ring that can't be moved.  It's an amazingly simple process, but very effective nonetheless.

An example of this insidious societal influence is in a conversation I had some time ago with a friend that wouldn't answer my direct inquiry into a personal financial issue.  "I can't tell you that; it will change how you think of me."  That blew me away.  First, I think he believed that should I know what he had, it would make me envious and even possibly judgmental of him.  He assumed we valued the same stuff.  Secondly, and possibly even more disturbing to me, was his understanding that we would no longer be able to maintain a good friendship if we shared our secrets.  If I really knew him, I wouldn't like him.

He may very well have been reacting from experience.  Perhaps the last time he shared with someone he got burned.  I understand that, but it's sad.  It's a classic mutation of our society that births the idea that the more we have and the less we invite others into honest relationship the happier we will be.  A life lived with an open hand is definitely one of risk, and there will be pain, but the alternative leads to believing that life simply means money, and compassion is handing a portion of our cash to our kids or our underprivileged.  While this belief allows us to remain unfettered and maintain our distance from those not like us, it robs them and us of the other half of the equation, which is relationship.

It also effectively hinders any justice.

Gandhi has apparently said,  "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."   If this be true, then our own personal transformation,  be it social or spiritual, must first precede the justice we wish to see in society. By ignoring societies definition of success, by no longer hearing the siren call of self confirmation by trying to find ourselves in others or by accepting them solely on our own terms, we begin to see those around us as "a surprise we gladly accept."  (p.32, Jurgen Moltmann, The Passion For Life, Fortress Press, 1978). Then our compassion can ultimately become, through meaningful relationship, a celebration of humanity that can bring about the justice that makes our charity work.

Kinda like some shrinkage around a coopered barrel.

Spalted birch staves, willow band.  In progress.

No comments:

Post a Comment