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Faith, Hope, Compassion – Paul’s Answer to the Global Stress Epidemic

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. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. … And now faith, hope and compassion abide, these three; and the greatest of these is compassion.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7, 13.

Treat others and the planet as you would like to be treated.

Golden Rule Day
When Paul dictated a paean to love in his message to Corinth, he was not thinking of wedding ceremonies; rather, he was imploring the community to overcome internal conflict. His letter makes us aware of disputes over communion, doctrinal conflicts, and social tensions of the local community that created divisions within the church. In the twelfth chapter, Paul compared the church to a single body that had to coordinate the interests of each part because of the fundamental unity of the whole. That was a powerful argument against in-fighting, yet Paul didn’t leave it there because he wanted to talk about “a still more excellent way.” Then he launched into a remarkably poetic appeal for love.

Understanding and applying Paul’s remedy for conflict is complicated by the many and varied meanings of love in our society. I grew up in churches using only King James language even though we knew that charity had taken on contemporary meanings that undermined Paul’s intent. Then came the Good News translation and other updated versions transforming charity into love. But the romantic view of love fostered in movies and gothic novels undermines Paul’s message – although the love chapter can be used beautifully in weddings. The kind of love associated with Romeo and Juliet is not a fruitful model for conflict resolution.

I believe that compassion is the modern term most consistent with Paul’s intent. Furthermore, the combination of faith and hope with compassion as key Christian ideals speaks profoundly to problems in America and the world of 2019. We live in an age of hyper-change that is endangering the planet and may be causing the dysfunctional behavior of Americans under Trump and the British in dealing with Brexit. Compassion, as visualized by Jesus and Paul, is the basis for global efforts to combine religious and political convictions to support action on urgent social, economic, and environmental problems.

American and global conflicts are more difficult than the ones Paul encountered in Corinth. The second edition of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump expands the number of concerned mental health professionals to thirty-seven who speak out about unstable behaviors by a president, his party, devoted base, and the American public at large. Some of them discuss somber processes related to the acceleration of change that has been identified by David Christian in his books on Big History. The provocative Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, has questioned whether human beings have the mental stamina for the current and future demands of change, which he believes are already creating a global stress epidemic. Is compassion a realistic strategy for such complex global and societal conflicts?

I propose to examine faith, hope, and compassion as tools for resolving problems such as those identified by the United Nations as 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Paul’s trilogy of ideals provides insight for today – and his overall priority of compassion stands out as clearly as ever.

Faith, Liberty, and Tolerance.

Letters to the Galatian and Roman communities clarify the importance of faith in Paul’s thinking. Luther’s reliance on Paul led to the Protestant movement emphasizing the centrality of personal faith rather than dependence on authorities to come between God and individuals. Emphasis on religious liberty of individuals builds on that foundation. Personal faith, then, became a tool against authoritarian structures. Yet, when the issue was how to resolve conflict, Paul shifted his theological emphasis away from faith.

Like charity and love, the term faith has more than one meaning. Most important, in my opinion, is faith as a commitment to trust someone or the validity and reliability of something. Interpersonal trust is a necessity for human beings, creating bonds within families and between friends. Safety depends on well-founded trust in people and institutions, along with the reliability of information from our environment on which we base routine decisions. When trust is justified, peace and harmony are established within communities and safety is experienced in the general environment.

But faith can also mean a commitment to belief in general or to acceptance of specific beliefs as matters of primary importance. This is what Christian Evangelicals mean when they admire someone as a “person of faith” or talk about the priority that should be allowed for “matters of faith.”

Most forms of Christianity have expressed key beliefs in creeds which are summary doctrinal statements about God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and church. Creeds served important educational purposes in times when the general population did not read or write; however, they also became instruments of enforcement that were used to stigmatize variation from accepted language.

Those who emphasize specific beliefs seek religious liberty for themselves but, when in authority, use creeds to impose conformity. The Puritans who represented the origin of American concern for religious liberty did not extend liberty or even tolerance to dissenters like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, or Native Americans who were “pagans.” Notorious for the Salem witch trials, Puritans even executed Quakers, the most peaceful and tolerant of all varieties of Christianity.

The Roberts Supreme Court has recognized the religious liberty of small groups of business owners to refuse any compromise with the federal government in order to deprive all their female employees of medical benefits provided under Obamacare. Female employees were of course accorded the liberty to seek other employment, enforcing the greater good of the very few in a way that inflicted harm on the many women whose rights were nullified. The same court allowed religious freedom to be a weapon to undermine the civil right of all citizens to be served equally by a place of business. If the business owner is morally offended by a small variation in decorations people want on a wedding cake, he can refuse to serve LGBTQ customers.

Tolerance is a way dominant religions extend liberty and consideration to minority faiths. Historically, tolerance was achieved when minorities gained power but was lost when that power waned. The Edict of Nantes extended privileges to Protestant Huguenots in France when they had military strength in key towns. After Louis XIV undermined that strength, he repudiated all forms of tolerance. In a comparable situation, LGBTQ rights in military service had grown in recognition under President Obama as policies were adjusted through careful study. Then came the election of Donald Trump who imitated Louis XIV by peremptorily undermining policies of tolerance with an impulsive Tweet that caught the entire federal government by surprise. Nullifying human rights and imposing righteousness was approved by Christian Evangelicals who saw Trump as God’s instrument of righteousness.

Paul was right in turning from faith as a unifier in times of conflict. Those who claim to follow biblical guidance today should recognize how Paul’s emphasis on compassion mirrored Jesus’ preference for compassion over belief.

Hope and Social Justice.

What did Paul mean when he referred to hope? I believe he told us in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians, the last block of theological instruction in the letter. Hope is tied to the Resurrection of Jesus as the Christ and to the expectation of a final Resurrection.

Paul bragged that his life was always in danger, then asked in verse 32: “If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals in Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” Paul then explained how the body could be resurrected from the dead, declaring in verse 50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Hope is founded on Christ’s Resurrection as evidence of ultimate victory over death and all opposition, so that Christians should “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (15:58)”

Paul’s references to the historical Jesus are few and most of them are in 1 Corinthians. He described the Last Supper with disciples (11:23-26), said it occurred just prior to execution, and then listed witnesses to Resurrection appearances that began happening “on the third day” after burial (15:4-8).

Scholarship on the Jesus found in the gospels points to a different meaning of hope, based on the Kingdom of God as the hope for social justice in life and after death. Recognizing the Jewishness of Jesus within the historical context of Galilee and Judea in the 20s and 30s leads to understanding the Kingdom of God as a message of social reform along with hope of eventual justice at the end of history. Jesus may have believed the Kingdom would arrive soon, perhaps as soon as one year as suggested by Albert Schweitzer. Nevertheless, the description of him as an apocalyptic figure whose attention was on an urgent and immediate end of time is inconsistent with his clear emphasis on showing compassion and doing justice now. The Kingdom was already present when Torah commands for honoring God and neighbor were put in action.

For Jesus, hope centered on the present as well as future by realizing the will of God “on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).” About a decade after Jesus was executed, Paul’s message indicated how the Resurrection experience was already being used to shift hope away from social reform as the Jesus movement spread throughout the Roman Empire. This may be seen as a conflict avoidance strategy. It was social criticism, especially of Temple leadership, that brought condemnation on Jesus. There was already conflict with local authorities over faith, so shifting hope to the next life was meant to boost endurance of persecution arising from faith and avoid generating more conflict through emphasis on social reform. In this case and throughout the later medieval period, hope was used to shift expectation of justice to an afterlife in ways not typical of Judaism or consistent with the pre-execution message of Jesus. Hope became a conflict avoidance strategy.

Conflict Resolution and Compassion.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, became the focus of world concern in March, 2019, when the crash of an Ethiopian Airline jet led to worldwide grounding of Boeing’s newest model. An even more significant world event happened there in 2007 when two religious organizations proclaimed April 5 as Golden Rule Day and called on the United Nations to make it an annual event. Support for this event has grown so that April 5, 2019 was the second International Golden Rule Day.

In my 75 years, I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon in which Paul’s statements on love were compared with Jesus’ statement of the Golden Rule, the calls for fruitful action in the Sermon on the Mount, or the story of the Samaritan. I hope that substituting compassion for love in quoting 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 makes clear the obvious connection. Paul’s words represent Hellenistic rhetoric while Jesus’s aphorisms and storytelling reflected a more Jewish style, yet the complimentary nature of the content is transparent.

What is compassion? Like faith and love, the term has more than one meaning. “Walking in someone’s shoes” certainly expresses compassion but implies feelings of empathy more than action. Think of the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). A priest and a Levite passed by without helping. We are told nothing more about them. In real life, they may have been hurrying to keep a schedule, finding time only for sympathetic and earnest prayers for the victim as they passed. The punchline of the story was a question as to who behaved as a neighbor to the victim. Thus Jesus dismissed emotions, prayers, and sympathy as substitutes for action. That is why the story should be named “the Compassionate Samaritan” and be used as a model for Christian ethics.

The parable describing the Last Judgment as separating sheep from goats (Matthew 25:31-46) tells us more about compassion than judgment. The story assumes those involved are Jews and dismisses membership in religious sects or families performing Temple roles as irrelevant – thus faith as belief is assumed to be unimportant. The key issue is how people treated those who were hungry, in prison, or otherwise needing help – just as the victim on the road to Jericho needed assistance. How many times individuals took compassionate action is not the issue, rather it seems to be whether it was ever done or perhaps whether its was something that was usually done. In other words, an acceptable “batting average,” not quantity or perfection, was the expectation.

Adding Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 to the above parables “triples down” on the expectation of action over passive empathy.

Is compassion a feasible strategy for global issues reflecting what Robert Jay Lifton calls “malignant normality?” The mental health professionals writing in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump would include assumptions that societal tolerance and encouragement of violence, destruction of the planet, and mindlessly following orders are normal behavior tends to promote malignant normality. Their articles cry out for attention to difficult issues too many of us want to deny – but prescriptions for cures are not to be found.

Just as Paul saw compassion as the superior method for overcoming conflict and building unified cooperation, so have recent efforts to unite the world for justice and peace relied on the importance of compassion in all major religions. Examples include:

  • The United Religions Initiative (URI), launched by retired Episcopal Bishop of California William E. Swing in 1993, has 990 Compassion Circles in 109 countries, one of which helped launch Golden Rule Day in 2007. Local circles “unite to bridge differences between people of all beliefs, to create community, and to solve local and global challenges” in 14 “action areas.”
  • Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion has community chapters in approximately 50 countries and “provides an umbrella for people to engage in collaborative partnerships worldwide” to facilitate “concrete, practical action in a myriad of sectors.” They recently embraced the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) as one form of direct action.
  • The New Baptist Covenant, “a ministry of action” convened in 2007 by President Jimmy Carter “to champion the weak and oppressed, honor the diverse workings of the Holy Spirit and to share the love of Christ.” This is a new approach to a denomination, for it is based on congregations which “form a Covenant of Action with each other” which “identify a pressing issue to work together to address. Covenant of Action projects have included literacy programs, food justice initiatives and economic development advocacy.”

The websites for URI, Charter for Compassion, and UN SDGs list affiliated organizations and communities that are linking up to support each other. Compassionate action is being defined in myriad ways based on local situations. A large mutually-supporting network is growing as people all over the world join the effort.

Will these efforts save our planet from any of the overwhelming problems generated by negative effects of industrialization, urbanization, automation, and corruption? This is where hope steps in, the kind of dedication to justice and reform in this world found in Jesus’s use of Kingdom of God.

One basis for hope is the ending to the Sermon on the Mount: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” (Matthew 7:24) Another reason for hope is the power of networking as an instrument for realizing justice, which Jesus described this way: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

Paul understood that compassion is unifying. Like yeast, it is also transformative. Local networks are using compassion to activate the Kingdom of God in response to crises threatening life on Earth. Hope is motivating the use of compassion to mitigate what Harari calls a global stress epidemic.
David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berekeley: University of California Press, 2011), 440-472; and Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018), 262-274.
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2018), 32-34.
Bandy Lee ed., The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Address a President (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019).
Robert J. Lifton, “Our Witness to Malignant Normality,” in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, xlvii-li.

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.

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