The Limits of Compassionate Action

Forget what I was going to write. Forget everything, but the boy on the beach, the boots of the Turkish police standing over his body, arms lifting him up.

Isn’t this why we have faith? Sometimes it seems like people might not need us for much, but they need us for sorrow. Someone has to say the words.

I’ve buried a child, remember the size and weight of the casket.

What words do we have?

The Big Grief is that this latest death is not new or unusual. Stories of refugees and the atrocities which drive them to desperate journeys make front page headlines for a while, then fade. Meanwhile my country, the United States, continues our descent into lunacy.

Yet State of Formation exists because of our hope. Recognizing the potency of faith when exploited by hate, we gather as diverse voices to reach instead for dialogue, understanding. We gaze into each other’s lives looking for reflections of our common humanity, a divine belovedness that makes cooperation possible and peace a plausible goal.

How can we sustain hope in the face of so much suffering and our own complicity? Because we are complicit, that I know. There is a spiritual truth, celebrated in many traditions, that we each hold responsibility for the other.

The contrast in recent reporting on the crisis in Calais brought this into bold relief: passengers en route from Paris to London (including a family returning from Disneyland) complained about the “appalling” experience of being stuck on the Channel train for four hours (in the dark!) because hundreds of refugees were attempting to board the train, trying to escape the conditions in France (nine have died this year in the attempt).

In my work as a clergy-in-training and racial justice activist, there is a slogan we often use (on signs and in retweets): Black Lives > White Feelings. It attempts to call to accountability the self-absorbed focus that seduces and blinds those of us with dominant privilege. The slogan reminds us that personal discomfort, even deep pain and sadness, cannot be an excuse for physical, spiritual, emotional and mental oppression – to the point of exhaustion and death – of others. The slogan reminds me to be vigilant in my self-care, so that my feelings as a white person don’t hinder me from showing up for Black liberation.

Holding my heart open in compassion can be overwhelming, and yet spiritual practices are my resource and strength. This morning as I am praying, I am remembering the Buddhist practice of tonglen, of breathing in suffering and breathing out loving-kindess. And I am lifting my prayer to Our Lady, Mother of God, who promises that she, Mama God, is with us, and we are under her protection.

Opening our hearts can lead us to unexpected action, as we are forced to see the humanity in those people who are suffering and need help, we find that we need to take action. What would you do if a refugee knocked on your door? Would you respond as this family did?

As we continue our interfaith work, fueled by hope, to achieve greater dialogue and understanding, I challenge us to re-consider the limits of our compassion. Our efforts to come together for peace between our faith traditions are part of the work to build a world without war. But it is so much easier to share a post on facebook, retweet a link, or write a check than to literally open our homes.

As faith leaders, part of our sacred calling is to nurture the spirits of those in our care, and the pain of witnessing and working to end injustice is real. But what of the pain experienced by those suffering injustice, the ones who don’t have the privilege of writing on this blog, the ones whose stories we tell for them (as I am doing, right now)? How are we being called to show up for refugees?

I encourage us┬áto continue the spiritual practices that sustain the reach of our compassion. Let compassion break our hearts open so that the discomfort of difficult questions, of giving up power for the sake of another’s liberation, is part of what it means for us to believe.

Lotus in water photograph from Wikimedia Commons.

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