A friend of mine posted this quote of Dom Helder Camera[1] on his Facebook page, and it caught my attention.  I have experienced it to be true.   I have never been called a communist, but I have been called a socialist in such a condescending way it was meant to be a derogatory put-down.

The two sentences on this poster represent two levels of compassion.  I think we mistake the totality of the meaning of compassion for the various actions represented by the first sentence.  “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.”

That level of compassion is a wonderful and significant expression.  It is most often called charity.  People are suffering all over this planet from various manifestations of poverty, whether it be hunger, disease, malnutrition, sub-human living conditions, violence, oppression, unemployment, lack of opportunities many us take for granted and much more.

There is a great need for people world-wide  to be generous with their resources to alleviate the massive levels of human suffering that exist in so many places.   Charity is a beautiful thing!

While acknowledging the importance of compassion as charity, I have to say it is relatively easy and non-threatening .  Compared to what?   For example, when I go to the grocery store I can buy extra food and bring it to the local food bank which will, in turn, see that it gets distributed to those who are in need.   I can do that and feel good about myself that I have done a good thing (which I have), but I can do it in a way that doesn’t really exact much from me more than some extra dollars out of my pocket.   Even if I spent a lot of extra dollars, I am not placed at great risk.  I am not personally involved.  I don’t have to get to know the persons and their situations who will come to the food bank to help feed their families.  I am insulated from their pathos.    I am probably not significantly transformed or changed.

The thing is charity usually does not get to the root of the problem.  The word for “compassion” or “pity” in the New Testament literally means “to be moved from the gut or one’s bowels.”    It means to experience the other deeply, and even place oneself in the other’s context.  This level of compassion doesn’t merely address the surface symptoms (which is incredibly important) but goes deeper.  This level of compassion looks behind the person’s context to see the root causes of their suffering.  This level of compassion takes me into the other’s hardship, struggle, hopelessness and despair.  This level of compassion is more fully captured by the second sentence, “When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

This is Jesus-like compassion.  This level of compassion is far more threatening for it always ends up getting to the systemic causes for poverty; systemic causes  of which I very well might be a contributing part.  My complicity at this deeper level may be a part of the other’s suffering.  There are a lot of issues before our nation right now that are about systemic issues whether it be food stamps, the minimum wage, health coverage for all, unemployment benefits, income disparity, corporate power and many more.  These issues are systemic for they involve the economic, political and social systems by which we live and society is shaped and governed.  True compassion, in the biblical sense, goes directly to the heart of these issues and attempts to right the wrong and correct the injustice that lies at the root of the poverty in the first place.  This level of compassion seeks to empower the other.

The Church has been very good at charity down through the centuries, that is compassion at the first level.  But it has not been so good at this deeper level of compassion that often goes by the names social justice and advocacy.   In fact, the church has sometimes been complicit in the root causes siding with power to oppress or maintain the status quo.

Of course, the reason is that compassion at this deep level will call for changes to occur in me, perhaps radical changes: in my world-view, in my politics, in my economics, in my social views and values, and in my willingness to enter the other’s situation at a deeper level.   It will cost me something, and I may even run the risk of being called a communist or socialist, not because I am, but because I am living life at a deeper level of compassion – much like Jesus.

For more on this link to my sermon:  “Gutsy Love.”

[1] Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara was Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, serving from 1964 – 85 during the period of repression under military dictatorship. 


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