Compassion and the sacred texts
Last month I attended an Australian Youth Orchestra concert. It included a performance of the Compassion song cycle by Nigel Westlake and Lior Attar, which is music I would highly recommend (their album won the 2014 ARIA Best Classical Album award).
The song cycle includes Arabic and Hebrew texts on compassion, drawn from the Tanach, the Mishnah, and the Hadith. As a result, some have suggested that it could reach across barriers in the Middle East, and remind Jews and Arabs of their shared values. But that got me thinking: How much can a few brief passages really express the main message of a sacred text?
The original seed for the project was the traditional Jewish prayer, Avinu Malkeinu (watch the Westlake/Lior version here). This is my favourite song from the cycle, filled with a haunting beauty. But it also contained a powerful message for Lior:
In broad terms, ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ speaks of being liberated through compassion. So it’s a plea, if you like, to be instilled with a greater sense of compassion in order to be liberated.
And I found that to be a really beautiful way to look at compassion as a vehicle to greater liberation and a universal concept which Buddhism talks about and Christianity talks about. I just personally felt it was a great thread to unite all religions.
As a fluent Hebrew speaker, he was afraid that singing Arabic texts would feel foreign and disingenous. But what he came to realise was that it was in fact a neighbouring language with a common source and many shared words and concepts. That in fact the current rivalry only served to conceal what what they have in common.
Interestingly, neither Westlake nor Lior consider themselves religious. Like me, they recognise that sacred texts can contain the wisdom of our ancestors, and so they chose passages that agreed with their message on the importance of compassion.
Compassion: The essence of religion?
I think it is fair to say that compassion is a natural human characteristic. As a result, it is unsurprising that over the years religion has attracted people with compassion, and that their sentiments have made their way into the sacred texts. Some of those sentiments are common across different religions. For example, in our western society the Golden Rule is probably most closely associated with Jesus, but Lior finds it in the Hadith, and the concept pre-dates Jesus.
To me, the interesting question is whether compassion is truly the essence of the religion. Is the compassion of believers because of their religion, or in spite of it? Does compassion really triumph over judgement or exclusivism in Judaism? In Islam? In Christianity? Are the words to be applied as is, or have believers had to carefully attach strings to reconcile them with other passages?
Certainly all three religions have been interpreted to support the entire spectrum from “religion of peace” to “holy war in defence of the faith” (even against fellow believers). As a former Christian I know that just about every change in society leads to some Christians condemning it, while others find verses or principles to support it. And they are all working from the same text. Could compassion be the same?
A compassionate Jesus
Compassion drew from Hebrew and Arabic texts. What about the Greek texts of the Christian New Testament: Can we draw a message of compassion from them? Jesus himself is described as having compassion on the crowds that followed him, as well as on some of those he is said to have healed. And, as already mentioned, the Golden Rule is commonly taken from the Sermon on the Mount.
A number of his parables contain messages of compassion. For example:
The Good Samaritan: When a lawyer tries to put limits on who “Love your neighbour” actually applies to, Jesus presents the story of an outsider who was a more compassionate neighbour than the religious elite, and encourages the lawyer to show similar compassion (Luke 9:25 - 37).
The Prodigal Son: A son goes away, wastes all his money, and is left destitute. When this lost son finally returns, his father is filled with compassion and welcomes him with open arms (Luke 15:20 - 24).
The Sheep and the Goats: Jesus’ followers are encouraged to assist those in need. Those who do will be rewarded, since assisting the least of Jesus’ followers will be as if they assisted Jesus himself (Matthew 25:34 - 40).
Some less compassionate parables
In the previous section, I gave three parables where Jesus encouraged compassion. Here are three parables with a very different message (though one parable may seem familiar!):
The Great Banquet: A man is planning a great banquet, but those he originally invited won’t come. After inviting the poor and disabled, he tells his servant to compel people to come in, so his house will be full (Luke 14:23). This simple verse has been used throughout history to justify enforced conversions and wars between different branches of Christianity.
The Ten Minas: It’s not the main point of this parable, but after judging his servants the king calls for his enemies to be brought in and slain before him (Luke 19:27).
The Sheep and the Goats: This parable is usually taken to be encouraging believers to show compassion. However, it has a sting in the tail: Those who have not shown compassion to Jesus’ followers are condemned to eternal fire and punishment (Matthew 25:41 - 46).
Religious violence and tribalism
One of Jesus’ messages was that he came to bring a sword, not to bring peace (Matthew 10:34). These are hardly words of compassion, and can easily be used as a proof text to justify any act of war or violence. For example, consider this short but chilling sermon in Joyeux Noel. Here, WW1 authorities are responding to the Christmas truce with the enemy Germans, a truce where troops on both sides realised their shared humanity.
Maybe that is not what Jesus had in mind, but even in context it does sound like Jesus is actively involved in splitting up families. The best construction I can put on the verses is that they are merely descriptive: Jesus has come to bring a brilliant new religion which will save the world, but, since not everyone will accept this new religion, breaking up families is just an unfortunate side effect. Even then, I’m not sure that is a recommendation for the religion.
The complete passage in Matthew has other troubling implications: Believers are to give their life to Jesus and put him first, even before family. Compassion is mentioned, but the only reward is for acts of compassion toward other believers, not to the general population. Even Jesus’ compassion for the crowds that followed him can be read as compassion for wanderers who haven’t accepted his true religion.
More generally, one of my concerns with exclusive religions is that they enable tribal behaviour, the formation of groups with “us” and “them”. This tribal behaviour can lead to treating outsiders harshly, even if the religion has commands for compassion. In the case of Christianity, there are so many denominations forming their own separate tribes that it is common for Christians to treat each other as outsiders.
I’ve done it, so I know what it’s like. As Christadelphians, we were taught to fear “the world” as a corrupting influence. I can’t imagine that encouraged us to spend time and effort understanding those outside the group (except possibly to convert them). We could pity those around us for not having The Truth, but we couldn’t properly acknowledge them until we recognised they weren’t out to get us. And this isn’t just a Christadelphian quirk: talk of “the world” being at enmity with believers comes directly from the New Testament (see for example John 15:18 - 25).
To be fair, religion can bring people together, and even without religion humans have plenty of ways of splitting into “in” and “out” groups. But it is much harder to show compassion for all if there is a large group of people that are viewed as inferior and/or dangerous.
Dealing with apostasy
One result of exclusive religions is that defectors from the religion can be punished harshly, sometimes by their family and sometimes by the community as a whole. This hardly shows compassion.
It is well known that those leaving Islam in some countries risk their lives. See this article for a recent example of the threats (and the apparent feeling that they need such threats to stop people leaving a good religion). The Mosaic law has similar provisions. In the Christian world, I don’t know of people getting killed, but there are plenty of stories of people who have been completely cut off by their family and friends for leaving. I believe this has happened to some Christadelphians, and am glad that I am not one of them (in spite of close family relationships I feared the possibility of it, and that is concerning in itself).
While I don’t believe the Mosaic law still applies to Christians, its provisions against apostasy can still be found in the Christian Old Testament and are worth discussing. Firstly, in Deuteronomy 6:10 - 19 Moses, their leader, reminded Israel that their god was with them and had given them the promised land. If they did the right thing, he would (compassionately?) drive out their enemies. But if they left this god for other gods the entire nation would be destroyed.
Deuteronomy 12 and 13 discuss various kinds of apostasy and how to deal with them. There is to be no curiosity, and no exploring of other ways of worship. Not even if a prophet appears with miraculous signs or fulfilled prophecies to prove their divine mandate (this is said to be a test from God to make sure his people loved him enough). As a side-note, this could arguably be applied to Jesus himself, particularly given he was reputed to use miracles to uphold his divine claims. And it’s not just individuals: Entire towns are to be destroyed, innocent and guilty alike, if they follow other gods.
But in the middle is a passage that to me epitomises the exact opposite of Lior’s concept of compassion as a vehicle for liberation. Deuteronomy 13:6 - 11 gives the correct way to deal with a family member who wants you to follow other gods:
You shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.
No pity, no compassion here. No matter what your ties to that person, you are the one who is responsible for leading the people in killing him. And we are told that this is to make everyone who hears afraid to do the same thing. In fact, it seems that God (and the correct religion) are to be put before everything else. This sounds a lot like Jesus’ divisive words: that believers have to put him even before family members.
It is hard to express how utterly I detest these kind of rules. If a religion claims to have truth, then it shouldn’t need heavy penalties to keep truth-seekers inside the fence. I refuse to accept the family religion just because it is the family religion: it is too hard to maintain allegiance to things that feel fundamentally wrong.
It is already extremely hard to re-evaluate core, fundamental beliefs. I struggled with self-doubt for years as I discovered that what I’d always known to be true didn’t match the real world. I also knew that acknowledging this would turn my world upside down, so I continued to avoid doing it until I had no other way forward. I don’t know what I would have done if acknowledging this had meant facing a death sentence. I already felt close to breaking: maybe I would have gone insane. These kind of rules are no laughing matter: they affect real people.
The problems for an apostate don’t stop with threats in this life. The New Testament compassionately promises us the future wrath of God for denying the God who is supposed to be self-evident (hint: he isn’t). Even the much-loved John 3:16 shows that God’s love, claimed to be for the world, actually only applies to those who believe in Jesus. Those who do not believe are asserted to be already condemned. We are told that we prefer darkness to light, because our deeds are evil. Character assassination on a grand scale is par for the course.
Personally, I don’t believe in hell, resurrection, or future judgement, so these passages don’t worry me too much. But I do hear stories of some believers who feel justified in trying to pressure others into belief so as to save them from hell. And that does concern me.
The balance of scripture
Long ago, I wanted to be able to conclusively find the Bible message on any topic I cared about. As a software developer, I even developed Bible software that would assist me to do that (see here for more). But now I’m not even convinced that there is one coherent “Message of scripture”.
In this post I have mostly presented negative verses: either verses that don’t show compassion or limit that compassion to those in the tribe (the Good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount being notable exceptions). Judge for yourself: Is this a fair representation of scripture? I know there are other verses on compassion, but can they outweigh the verses I’ve presented?
It’s easy to say “The balance of scripture is on the side of compassion”, but what does that actually mean?
- If I have 20 verses, and the other side has 10 verses, do I win? Or are we both wrong?
- Can one strong verse trump 10 weak verses? (it’s certainly more likely to be quoted in isolation…)
- Can a big principle (like “God is love” or “love your neighbour”) trump a list of petty commands and counter-commands?
- Do we need an independent arbiter (“the church”) to pronounce on which message is the true meaning of scripture?
Fundamentally, there is a tension between many key principles in the Bible. For example:
- Showing love vs upholding truth.
- Justice and judgement vs mercy and forgiveness.
- Faith vs works.
Over history, these have been reconciled in different ways by different denominations and people. Many have come, each claiming that at long last they had recovered the true meaning of scripture, and strangely enough few of these people have agreed on what that true meaning is. There are various rules of interpretation around, but nobody agrees on those either. In fact, sometimes it feels like the more cautious and scholarly the rule is, the fewer Christians actually know it.
I am sure that there have been compassionate people who have been made more compassionate by their religion, and judgemental people who have been made more judgemental by their religion. But that raises the question: “How much of that really came from their religion?” If it is possible to present long lists of verses supporting either view, it’s quite possible that pre-conceptions determine which list of verses are prioritised.
Removing objectionable verses
The final resort of those with a strong conviction on the true message of scripture is to downplay, minimise, or downright remove verses that they don’t agree with. For example, some have argued that we should just focus on the true message of Jesus (typically the Sermon on the Mount).
Thomas Jefferson famously composed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth with a razor. But on what grounds can we pick and choose scripture like that? Only by a conviction that our knowledge and our interpretation is better than the complete original sacred texts. I can do it as a human seeking messages of inspiration from other humans, but can a Christian really do it?
Leo Tolstoy derived five “reasonable and beneficent commandments” from the Sermon on the Mount. However, upholding these commandments required him to reject the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments, the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church, and much of the New Testament. This may in fact be where the search for truth leads, but I think it is difficult to do that and still call yourself Christian.
Compassion is the measure of a man
Back to the concert: It came to encore time and Lior sung Safety of Distance. This was the song he sung at the ANZAC Centenary Service at Gallipoli (video here). And it has an inspiring message: that two countries which have been bitter enemies can now be friends and show compassion for each other’s losses. I feel similarly inspired when I see the Australian Turkish Friendship Memorial near the Shrine of Remembrance, or the Kemal Atatürk Memorial in Canberra. But I think the compassion shown has come from a shared humanity, rather than from religion.
Lior sings that compassion is the measure of a man. If so, I’m not sure how well I measure up (it doesn’t help that as a software developer I’m inclined to prioritise logic over emotion). But if compassion is the measure of a religion, I’m really not sure any of these three religions measure up. They all contain verses and teachings encouraging division and tribal mentality, and those have worked themselves out in terrible ways through history.
So, is it enough to present a few verses and conclude that compassion is the essence of both Judaism and Islam? No, I don’t think so. If Compassion did anything to bring Jews and Arabs together, I would be glad. But I would also be extremely surprised. For me it will remain a collection of beautiful music, with an ideal that I think admirable but unrealistic.
Leaving aside the sacred texts, though, it is possible for us to reach out to each other as humans and to bury our differences. Charles Dickens’ vision of Christmas gives us one such example:
A good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
If it ever existed, Dickens’ Christmas ideal has been replaced by a more commercialised festival (which fortunately still allows time for family to gather). But this message of humans working together need not be limited to Christmas time. In the march to the grave, we are truly all in this together. Rather than striving for an uncertain afterlife where some will be rewarded and others punished, we should work together in this, the life we know we have.