Finding Compassion in the Midst of Misplaced Priorities
Twenty-one years ago I left ministry as a liberal Southern Baptist minister (not really an oxymoron) and went to work for the National Education Association in Washington, DC as a Far-Right specialist. I had completed a doctoral dissertation on the rise of the religious/political far right a decade earlier and was somewhat of an expert. The NEA and public education were under attack from ministers in the south primarily for teaching students to think for themselves.
What these ministers really wanted was to start their own private schools with taxpayer dollars. I was hired to help NEA respond to these attacks. NEA knew that many of their members who teach in public schools also teach in Sunday schools in churches across the country and wanted someone who could follow the religious/political far right and develop trainings to help members understand and respond appropriately.
Not long after getting settled in the suburbs of DC, I started visiting the Holocaust Museum on Saturdays or Sundays. It took 6 visits and over 24 hours for me to make it through the museum. I just couldn’t understand how an educated country like Germany could ever allow such horror, hate and fear to develop and lead to world war. The current presidential campaign reminds me of what I learned there.
German Lutheran minister Martin Neimoller, himself arrested and imprisoned in 1937, wrote of his experience. “First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak.” Now I am understanding how it happened before and could happen again as I see a major party presidential candidate build his campaign on a foundation of fear and hate. Our gospel reading has some insights on how we might respond to such a time as this.
Our Gospel reading for today is from Luke 13:10-17. Reading from the Message:
He was teaching in one of the meeting places on the Sabbath. There was a woman present, so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up. She had been afflicted with this for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her, he called her over. “Woman, you’re free!” He laid hands on her and suddenly she was standing straight and tall, giving glory to God. The meeting-place president, furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the congregation, “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.”
But Jesus shot back, “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?” When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and red-faced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.
We hear today that this election is about the outsider and how we need an outsider to fix Washington. Well, Jesus was the ultimate outsider. The Romans viewed Jesus as just another zealot, preaching that he could make Israel great again and over throw Roman rule. The Romans dealt with Jesus as they had with other so called messiahs. Even though Jesus’ message was different from the others, a message of love and grace, he was executed in the cruelest of ways.
While Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, he sees this woman twisted and bent over, unable to even look at him. He shows her compassion, calls her over and sets her free from the illness that had crippled her for 18 years. The president of the church is apoplectic. Not only is Jesus addressing a woman in the middle of his teaching, he heals her, and on the Sabbath. Two violations of the rules are more than the president of the church can handle and he lets the woman and Jesus have it. You have six days to do come get “healed, but not on the Sabbath.” Jesus responds, “You frauds, you take care of your cow or donkey by leading it to water on the Sabbath and think nothing of it. So why isn’t it okay for me to set this woman free?” The President of the church was left speechless and the people loved it.
Jesus is one who repeatedly is characterized as having compassion on those who were sick, poor, were vilified as evil or considered as outcasts. It was in his DNA. Compassion is simply defined as concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. The president of the church had a different set of priorities than Jesus, really misplaced priorities! Keeping the rules as he understood them was more important than caring for one in need.
Two violations of the norms occurred in this story. One, Jesus spoke to and cared for a woman in the middle of teaching, a no-no, because women were seen as second class citizens at best and unclean as well in Jesus’ day by some religious leaders; and Jesus’ healing was seen as violating the Sabbath, one of the big ten!! Today we have our own set of misplaced priorities.
In January of 2009, Cindy and I received tickets to President Obama’s inauguration at the last minute. We arrived the night before, made it to our viewing position in front of the Capitol early the next day. Over 2 million people were on the mall. It was almost magical, the spirit of unity of peace was palpable. Not a single arrest was made that day in DC. While we attended the western states presidential ball, the leadership of the opposing party met for dinner. They announced the next day that they had one agenda, to oppose the President at every turn, on every policy, even if it was one they had supported in the past. The goal was to make him a one term president. As one of the leaders put it, 'we are going to teach that boy a lesson!' Talk about misplaced priorities!
And now, 7 years later we see the results of the misplaced priorities of both parties. Some polls estimate that 86% of Americans see the country as being on the wrong track. While presidential approval ratings are 54-56%, congressional approval ratings are 12-14%. No wonder many are looking for an outsider to fix the mess in DC. What are we to do, how are we to respond to those who believe that a campaign built on hate and fear provides the answers to a country considered on the wrong track by so many?
The compassion of Jesus provides us insight. Former Marine and Yale law school graduate J.D. Vance has written a NY Times best seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis. While I’ve not yet read the book, I’ve watch him in interviews address the sense of hopelessness that consumes so many who live in rust belt poverty, whose existence seems more third world than first, similar to that from which he comes. Many of these individuals see the outsider’s campaign as offering something better than what they have now. The siren’s call of “I’ll fix it,” lures them forward and out to rallies in great numbers.
I’m a partisan and yet I am compelled by Jesus’ example to have compassion for those about whom J D Vance writes. I served for a year as interim pastor at First Congregational UCC in Craig, CO in Moffat County. Now, Moffat County is as conservative as Boulder County is liberal. I was living in a tale of two counties! The liquor stores in Craig banned New Belgium beer because the company made a donation to a group that sued to stop coal mining in Moffat County. You see, the major employers in that area are two large coal mines and two huge coal fired power plants that provide most of the electricity to the western third of the United States.
The people of Moffat County see such lawsuits as a threat to their very existence and way of life. While sharing meals with them I listened to their stories, their fears, and their anger toward outsiders who just didn’t understand. I tried to walk in their shoes and also share with them the struggles of those on the Front Range and Boulder County, who lived through a 1000 year rain and 500 year flood. I spoke of those who lost not only their homes, but the very ground on which their homes were built. I shared with them the belief of many that such violent flooding was caused by climate change linked to fossil fuels. Both areas see their ways of life and very existence at risk. While we may not reach agreement, we can seek to understand and search for ways to work for the common good.
You see, compassion calls us to at least attempt to understand, to walk in others’ shoes, to see the world through their eyes. It is the right thing to do. Columnist Charles Blow reminds us that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing. In the midst of such a heated campaign, let us do the right thing toward one another.