The 22nd chapter of Proverbs seems like a random list of statements that are right brain rather than left because they wander around a labyrinth rather than go straight to a clear point. Yet a message of compassion stands out that begins with how children are raised.
Train a lad in the way he ought to go; He will not swerve from it even in old age. The rich rule the poor, And the borrower is a slave to the lender. He who sows injustice shall reap misfortune; His rod of wrath shall fail. The generous man is blessed, For he gives of his bread to the poor. (Proverbs 22:6-9 JPS)
As a student at Mercer University 1961-1965, I shared a bond with a great many friends who grew up in evangelical churches and told stories of “hell fire and damnation” sermons that terrified us into conversion. As we learned the depths of our tradition that were not being conveyed at church, we all vowed to spare our children the fear and nightmares brought on by our religious training.
Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and Amy-Jill Levine have written about the destructive impact of religious upbringing, indicating the problem is not limited to my Southern Baptist experience. For Borg, Lutheran training in the Upper Midwest was a barrier he overcame to discover what he called the heart of Christianity. Armstrong’s experiences as a young Catholic nun were described as a “climb out of darkness.” Turning her back on Christianity, she found herself returning by an indirect path that made her a historian of religions and now a spiritual leader proclaiming compassion.
Levine’s story is very unusual. She grew up in Boston as an Orthodox Jew whose best friends were Catholics. She felt left out as girlfriends had first communions and other rituals of coming to age in that very non-Jewish tradition. Today she is an Orthodox Jew and New Testament scholar teaching Protestant ministerial candidates at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She enjoys a special relationship with the Catholic Church as evidenced by summer programs she has done around the world. I have not heard her express concerns about negative aspects of Roman Catholicism, but she is sometimes open on concerns about traditions of Orthodox Judaism and what evangelical ministers have been known to say from pulpits. The daily prayer of Judah the Prince, thanking God for making him male and not a woman, had to be explained to a son by this feminist mother who dissents from aspects of her religious tradition yet remains loyal to it. When her children were young, she would bring one of them to her Vanderbilt class to impress the idea of “do no harm.”
‘When you speak of Jews, picture this kid in the front pew. Don’t say anything that will hurt this child.’ I grant that the move is theatrical and manipulative; it’s also remarkably effective.
The same principle holds for any minister whose images of Last Judgment and eternal damnation ignore how children are terrorized while trying to scare adults into conversion.
The terrifying message heard by Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, my Mercer friends, and I was simple. Christianity is about salvation that overcomes sin. The acceptable Protestant response was to “accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.” Failing to make this decision and undergo a conversion experience meant you were destined for judgment and eternal punishment in hell. After the salvation experience, real Christians demonstrated it through ethical living in accordance with biblical commands. Underlying this entire experience was a set of beliefs that were accepted without question. Skeptical probing into biblical authority or other doctrinal positions would make others question the genuineness of your salvation experience.
Fear of judgment and damnation was effective in Roman and medieval times for extending Christianity and enforcing the authority of the Church. Revivalism that originated on the American frontier became even more effective when it allied with television and now the internet to terrify people into becoming followers and ongoing contributors to ministers whose opulent lifestyles are proof of God’s approval.
What is Christianity really about? The answer is simple. Christianity and Judaism, as well as most other major religions, are about compassion. To prove the point for Christianity, we can look at what Jesus taught, the meaning of compassion in our time, and the way Paul summed it up for the church in Corinth.
Memorable sections in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke point to Jesus’s message of compassion. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew: 5-7) is a compilation of instruction paralleling the Ten Commandments and related teachings from Mount Sinai, told in the dual accounts in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Continuity between Jesus and Torah are clear as the tradition is enhanced, not replaced. Two inescapable conclusions from this portion of Matthew are compassion and its expression through persistent actions. Compassion, in Jesus’s eyes, is seen in fruitful living, not in attitudes, passive empathy, or mere belief.
These points are reaffirmed in a parable of judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. The image of all humanity gathered before a judging God was a fear that haunted my childhood. But the emphasis in this story was not on salvation versus damnation, rather it was a test that some passed and others failed. The test was not about faith, or the content of any specific belief of those being evaluated. The sole criterion was whether they treated people in all kinds of situations with compassion, as if they were family members. There wasn’t a numerical aspect to the test –how many times one did this or that action. The habitual nature of it, seen through the variety of actions, was the measure rather than reaching a quantitative goal.
Two famous parables in Luke confirm the emphasis on quality of compassion over competing values. The return of a Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 focuses on a father whose overwhelming joy and forgiveness of a son who had insulted the family, and especially the father, led to neglecting the faithful son who stayed home. The pouting righteous son, who had a legitimate complaint, was challenged to recognize a situation calling for compassion rather than pull back because of a sense of superiority. The father had been insulted and now the faithful son is feeling insulted. Compassion is the best response of the two family members who had just claims of mistreatment.
The equally renowned story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) is misnamed. All of those who saw a seriously injured victim beside the road may have had reasonable justification for minding their own business. The two religious figures may have claimed purity reasons for avoiding contact with blood. They also had dignified positions in society to uphold and perhaps they thought helping the injured was a woman’s function. All we know about the person who acted is that he was a Samaritan, an ethnic and religious cousin not expected to care about the welfare of a Jew. What we know about the character of this anonymous Samaritan traveler is that he acted from relentless compassion, interrupting his plans for the day to care for a stranger and then insure someone would follow up until the victim recovered. Therefore, this parable demonstrated even more active compassion than mentioned in the examples in Matthew’s judgment story.
The meaning of compassion in our time is amply explained by Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion website. When receiving a monetary TED Award in February 2008, Armstrong declared her intention to launch an international effort to support compassion around the world. Her view is that the gist of compassion found in the Golden Rule is at the foundation of every major world religion, so an organized effort to harness compassion builds on the positive energy in contemporary religious traditions.
The website proclaims: “Our mission is to bring to life the principles articulated in the Charter for Compassion through concrete, practical action in a myriad of sectors.” Initial work has grown from inviting signatures to the charter to incorporating Global Goals of UNESCO and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Armstrong’s nonsectarian movement was preceded by a Baptist Progressive Christian denomination, the New Baptist Covenant formed in 2008 in Atlanta’s World Congress Center under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter. The goals and history of this interracial evangelical denomination is described by Emma Green’s 2016 article in The Atlantic, “Jimmy Carter Makes One Final Push to End Racism.” Even though I am no longer a Baptist, I am especially proud of the compassionate work of these Baptists who are reclaiming the roots of a tradition in which I was raised and to which my father-in-law Rev. Thomas J. Holmes, uncle by marriage Gainer Bryan, and Grandfather by marriage Gainer Bryan, Sr., gave their lives and suffered because of their stand against multiple forms of bigotry.
Armstrong’s Charter and the New Baptist Covenant are evolving forms of compassion exemplifying ethics within traditional Christianity and a foundation for world spiritual engagement on practical issues that challenge everyone on earth.
Unfortunately, there is a counter movement in the United States that is especially prominent in the Religious Right. Describing someone as “a person of Faith” is considered a great compliment. Many public figures comment on how much “their Faith” means to them – and defending Faith is supposed to be an outstanding virtue.
What does faith mean in this context? Too often it points away from individual responsibility for actions that are discriminatory by pointing to the superior value of faith as described in Hebrews 11: 1, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This becomes a misuse of scripture to defend the betrayal of truth and compassion. It betrays truth when used to justify rejection of evidence-based positions ranging from scientific proof of evolution of the universe and biological life to whether Russia attacked an election, or an international buddy ordered the murder of an American resident. It betrays compassion when used by an employer to impose the medical beliefs of the rich few on thousands of employees who want access to a legal medical benefit – or when religious liberty is used to refuse an ordinary service through one’s business to selected customers deemed sinful because of one’s faith.
Our nation witnessed the proper balance of compassion and faith in the memorial services honoring President George H. W. Bush. Every testimony given during the national and family observances focused on his evident faith as seen in courageous actions of citizenship and compassion. No one talked about fine points of belief as they gave example after example of love and consideration in action.
Near the end of the family service in Houston, two of the Bush granddaughters summed up his life by reading 1 Corinthians 13. This moving experience made me aware of how inadequate the word “love” is in current understanding of that chapter. The King James translation used “charity” but that is no longer acceptable. An industry of charities makes us aware that love directs their efforts, yet there has been resistance from the many who fiercely declare “I don’t need charity.” Today “love” is too unfocused. It can apply to familial relationships of greatest intimacy, to enthusiasm for sports or hobbies, or to erotic and sexual relations.
When the Bush granddaughters read Paul’s evaluation of religious virtues, the love they emphasized was compassion as seen in a long life of service. Translating love as compassion brings new lucidity to current values.
Compassion is patient; compassion is kind; compassion is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. … And now faith, hope, and compassion abide, these three; and the greatest of these is compassion. (4-6, 13)
The Bush granddaughters gave a wonderful message to our time by reminding us that Paul, writing about two decades after the life of Jesus, summed up Life in Christ in a way that applies to all religions and times. Following a religious tradition and being an active citizen are important – but they lose value if not guided by compassion.
Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010); and The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).
Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2003); and Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (New York: HarperOne, 2014).
Thomas J. Holmes, with Gainer E. Bryan, Jr., Ashes for Breakfast: A Diary of Racism in an American Church (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: The Judson Press, 1969).
Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 226.
About the Author
Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is retired as an expert in the field of organizational management through thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. An energetic speaker and presenter of sermons and educational programs, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.