How to Cultivate Your Capacity for Compassion


It would seem that our impulse for survival and advancement is often stronger than our impulse for compassion and self-sacrifice, Mitchell says. But are we hardwired for survival at any cost? (PhotoBucket)
In his book, "Man's Search for Meaning," holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said, "On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.

"We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return," Frankl concluded.

It would seem that our impulse for survival and advancement is often stronger than our impulse for compassion and self-sacrifice. But are we hardwired for survival at any cost?

Or do we develop attitudes and aptitudes for survival through socialization and experience?

And if those attitudes and aptitudes can be developed in us, is it possible that we could instead cultivate our capacity for compassion and generosity?

These are critical questions in light of the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, especially in light of the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor.

As Christians we live between two worlds: the world of empire where scarcity is a mechanism of the market (producing fear and anxiety), and the world of the kingdom where there is more than enough for all (producing peace and good will).

Walter Brueggemann offers insightful reflection on this tension in his book, "Journey to the Common Good."

To be sure, there are great injustices in the world and much inequality. But that's not the end of the story. There is also much good. We don't have to be driven by greed and self-interest, and many aren't.

In the aftermath of World War II, a small group of nine individuals (selected from around the globe) dared to envision a world in which all humans, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity would be equal.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, they imagined that such equality was possible, not only in some theoretical sense, but in the incredibly challenging realities of everyday life, everywhere.

They drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (unanimously adopted by the United Nations in 1948), providing an ambitious template for a just society.

Cynics may well point out that so far it hasn't actually made people equal. And that's quite true.

Nonetheless, over the past 65 years, the sentiments it has fostered have inspired countless individuals and organizations to devote themselves to the identification and eradication of all manner of violations of this vision.

Peaceful armies of justice keep the vision alive, thank God. And yet I confess that I've become wary of "human rights" talk.

Maybe it's because North America has become such a blatantly, and even proudly, rights-based society. We're always arguing over which rights and whose rights ought to have priority.

Our courts devote much of their time to adjudicating these cases. And in the context of our multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic societies, maybe this is the only way for secular civil society to manage our differences.

But when Christians get drawn into this way of thinking and acting, I feel a sense of dissonance.

It would be one thing if we were fighting for the right to dignity for the oppressed – the socially, economically and intellectually marginalized. And sometimes we are.

But too often we're fighting for our own rights – our right to be and do what we want. And that doesn't sit well with me.

Some have argued that Jesus was a human rights activist. However, he never used the language of "rights."

In fact, he literally laid down his own rights (and even his life) for others and explicitly commanded us to deny ourselves and follow him (Matthew 16:24-26), and Philippians 2:5 tells us that we should "have the same mindset as Christ."

So how does the life and teachings of Jesus correlate with or contradict our current discourse on human rights?

Jesus stands for dignity for all and for non-exploitative human relationships and institutions. In Christ we are one – equal and cherished.

And yet humanity continues to commit horrific atrocities and countless individual acts of hatred, not to mention the perpetuation of exploitative systems, all because empire is built on a narrative of scarcity.

If we want to stand with Christ against this narrative, we must embrace a kingdom ethic.

We must live as if the kingdom has arrived – and indeed it has, though not yet fully. Human Rights Day weekend on Dec. 7-8 offers a ready-made opportunity to put this vision and ethic into practice.

Though no amount of political posturing or economic models for "growth" have accomplished the vision behind the 1948 Declaration of Universal Human Rights, let's not grow weary of living out our faith.

And as we do, I believe that we will see human rights flow as God's kingdom spreads, on earth as it is in heaven.

Lois Mitchell is the Justice Initiatives coordinator for Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM), the director of Public Witness for the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches (CABC) and the director of International Studies at St. Stephen's University in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @cbmlois.

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Tags: Compassion, Human Rights Day, Lois Mitchell


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