Religion & Philosophy

Sundays with Uncle-God Momma: anger and compassion

My friend Dawn wrote a post worthy of a Sunday; please read it:

On Considering Compassion

Well, as one who can dish out vitriol with the best of them, i can feel a finger pointed at me. I also know better…which obviously doesn’t mean that i act better.

I’m familiar with the Bodhisattva’s vow: self-sacrifice for the sake of compassion towards all living things, to practice until every blade of grass attains enlightenment. (i differ with it there, the grass is already enlightened)

The fear-anger-hatred continuum is the strongest metaphysical force in the universe because it is easy; it does not take self control. It’s dangerous because it is easy and because it is self replicating and communicable.

On the other hand, there are times when it’s needed…or at least when the action it is likely to produce is needed. Maybe it is more that there are times when its abundance needs to be turned from its current ends to more productive ends.

As i look around, i can’t help but see it everywhere in my country. It’s used to control us (War on Terror) and to divide us (politics). I can no longer rationalize the answer that the top of the social scale is simply callous in its disregard for the lower rungs. It displays hatred towards them. What else can explain our current state of affairs and the treatment of the majority of Americans?

But i can think of two examples where anger and compassion were married to produce positive action. The early labor movement in America was militant against its oppressors, yet displayed compassion towards the oppressed. Compassion being necessary for solidarity. The Civil Rights movement, motivated equally by compassion for one’s fellow man regardless of skin color and anger at injustices suffered by people because of that skin color.

Both examples produced profound change for the better, and in light of Dawn’s post i have to wonder if they were successful because they managed to harness anger that grew out of compassion.

That’s the important part: compassion needs to come first, because only it can control anger. Only it has any hope of channeling vitriol into anything except destruction. More precisely, it is compassion that can turn destruction into the creation of something better, rather than destroying to create from hatred. Creation from hatred can only be malformed and ignoble.

Our nation is terribly lacking in compassion. The myth of rugged independence has run amok. There is no such thing as independence, either in origination or action. Existence is in relation. We cannot live without death, nor can we grow rich without creating poverty. The fallacy of independence only allows us to believe that we exist outside of relation. But we can be prosperous without creating poverty. When prosperity is based on compassion it becomes a matter of the common wealth.

That’s not Communism, because the state is unnecessary for – and probably counterproductive to – true compassion. It has nothing to do with taking from one and giving to another. It is not “charity” as commonly defined, where some portion of individual wealth is handed out to the less fortunate. It is the simple recognition that existence is in relation and that harm to one is harm to all. Conversely, compassion for one is compassion for all.

And if all this sounds too Eastern and esoteric, try Luke 6:27-31 (and onto 36 if you’re so inclined):

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Anger is understandable when others do terrible things unto you, it can, and should, motivate action against injustice. It leads men to turn over the tables of money changers in the temple, strike for a living wage and face loaded guns for peace and equality. But it cannot be forgotten that the opposite of injustice is justice, and justice is not possible without compassion.

4 replies »

  1. I do consciously try to be a compassionate human to all living things but I am not a ‘turn the other cheek’ type of person. When I get slapped for no good resaon then I want to return the favor. Also as you said in your post….anti-compassion (anger) is sometimes needed to address injustices. Oh, and I do like to eat meat.

    Here is a question that I have been struggling with the last 20 years. Is the political vitriol truly worse now than it was 25 – 50 years ago? Or is it just covered and broadcast better by the improved and diverse communication media (maybe even egged on and highlighted by that same media)? It is only recently (since I’ve retired) that I have devoted more time to studying history. Sadly, it seems that most history is written from a POV and I feel it is very difficult to really get a handle on the historical truth. Hell, even living through some historical periods, I still wonder if I really know the truth about those periods.

  2. I’m of the opinion (and it is mine alone) that “turn the other cheek” is more likely about reaction than action. It is a refutation of the “eye for an eye” law, and here we need to seriously consider the thesis of Jesus as a social revolutionary*. (That’s a strong thesis, btw, strip away the miracles and some of the mysticism and that’s what you’ll find.) Yes, i believe that anger has its place because there is injustice and it cannot be corrected by meekly accepting the injustice. King did not take “turn the other cheek” to mean stay-the-fuck-at-the-back-of-the-bus; he took to mean that when the agents of injustice confront you with clubs, dogs and guns that you meet that confrontation without them. He appealed to the power of compassion.

    Meat is good, and killing a plant to live is still killing to live. At least that’s what the cows have taught me. Spiritually speaking, vegetarianism comes mostly from the East and from systems where the goal is to exit the circle of life…not somehow make it more pleasant.

    I’m not sure, but if the vitriol is worse it is so only by a degree or two. And you’re probably right, the major difference is the ease with which vitriol is broadcast. Where there may be a difference is that today there are few movements that stand against the vitriol with compassion. We can choose to remember history as the victories of men like King rather than the degradations of men like McCarthy.

    *Discussions of Jesus are dangerous because of the layers of church and state that envelop whoever he really was. It’s important to note though that very early in Christian history (mid first century) we can see two schools taking clear shape. One is called sapiential and focuses very much on activity here and now. The other is apocalyptic and focus on being personally prepared for the always imminent end times. Paul, who represents the latter, obviously won. So when people look at Christianity and note a disconnect between what Jesus appears to have said and how Christians generally act they are actually revisiting the oldest schism of the Church. To them i would recommend reading authors like Schweitzer and Crossan who approach Jesus as a social revolutionary.

  3. I’ve never read anything by Schweitzer or Crossan. I’ll check them out. Thanks.

    It would really be great to know the actual Jesus and what he really thought. One thing of which I am sure is that American fundamentalists would be sorely disappointed if they knew the truth.

  4. Crossan has an easy read called Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, which is backed up by a much more scholarly edition that i’m currently digging through. (The Historical Jesus) It’s fascinating because of its historical context and sociological/revolution context. Actually, it’s rather alarming to read for this 21st C. American.

    Crossan is a Christian, but he’s also a founding member of the Jesus Seminar. It’s worth checking out, and they’re current project is early Christian history.

    Thanks for engaging, Mad Hatter