YEVEGENY YEVTUSHENKO told a moving story concerning prisoners of war that were forced to march through the streets of Moscow in 1941. Russian soldiers and policemen struggled to control the noisy crowd watching that parade.
Curiosity was not on the mind of the onlookers, most of whom had lost either a father or a husband, a brother or son in the war. Gazing with hatred, they clenched their fists and shouted with revulsion. But the sight of downtrodden prisoners wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches, or walking feebly silenced them.
Suddenly a woman managed to break free and ran towards a prisoner to push a crust of bread into his pocket. Soon, from every side the women were running towards other prisoners, pushing whatever they had into their hands or pockets. What was supposedly to be a scene of hatred turned into a touching portrait of compassion; the prisoners were enemies no more, they were people (William Sykes).
Compassion is a complex emotional attitude towards another. It is a human condition, involving “the simultaneous interplay of cognitive, affective and volitional dimensions”. (Oliver Davies) Cognition is necessary; for compassion demands a rational assessment of a situation involving finding solutions to the problems. Besides including a reason, compassion is affective; one must share in the suffering of the other.
To a certain extent, compassion is volitional for both recognition and ability to enter into another person’s feeling will push for actions in the person’s best interests.
The action of the Russian woman aptly reflects the complex condition. She was not required to respond to any call of duty. Instead, she demonstrated a human quality through the gift of bread. Such a gift only provided temporary relief but it would not transcend the person’s suffering. Christians understand, on the other hand, divine righteousness and as God’s people, are called to demonstrate love and mercy to those around them. Jesus’ suffering on the cross adds a new dimension to the understanding of the relationship between compassion and suffering.
Suffering is not necessarily meaningless for Christ’s death brings a redemptive purpose, which in turn enables a Christian to shed, by sharing the suffering of another, light on the person’s painful condition. It is no longer a duty to care for the “resident aliens” and “widows and orphans” (Deuteronomy 14:29).
Jesus now embraces this compassionate and liberating action of Yahweh highlighted in the Old Testament.
His suffering helps Christians to be sensitive to the pain and anguish of the person. Any compassionate action should bless the suffering neighbour’s existence by bringing hope and love. Christian compassion is both God-centred and humane. It is tied to the mystery of the cross.
What does compassion mean to the Christians living in an affluent society? The answer lies in a willingness to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Recognition of unfamiliar territory of suffering and human survival is necessary for coping with the disillusion associated with an unreal world of media entertainment, reality shows and advertisements This recognition helps the believer to be more sensitive to those suffering (disability, disadvantage, disease and death) and to withdraw from the thrill and trivia (insult, rumour and scandal).
Christians must develop a capacity to care by committing to love, justice and sacrificial compassion. This compassionate path demands a view that “a radical spirituality of compassion is not merely our best hope; it is our only hope”. (Dave Andrews) This radical spirituality is a call to solitude.
A Christian needs divine assistance to overcome a sense of futility, learn to be selfless, break the barriers of fear and cherish a life of simplicity. In our solitude, the preoccupation of our welfare must give way to an involvement with others. We must emerge from our cultural fortress to open our lives to strangers, conquer the fear of uncertainty and take risks by learning to be objective, and provide a realistic assessment of a situation.
Overcoming these obstacles not only creates a paradigm shift, but a radical assessment of the community; one must be prepared to live a simple life of success not based on number crunching. For example, a church reaching out to the lower-income groups in the neighbourhood must be prepared to look beyond the cost-effectiveness of community programmes. Unpretentious service and selfless devotion of time and energy must accompany the display of sympathy and empathy in the lives of ordinary people.
A desert of compassion provides the nourishment for a Christian who is dependent on God. Mapping and walking a compassionate path requires a radical shift of mind, heart and soul for the believer. It is a discovery of the self in the presence of the divine, and his compassion for the other draws the believer nearer to God.
Chan Yew Ming is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.