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Now’s a Good Time to Exercise Your Compassion Muscles

 

In the Christian calendar, it’s Lent. I grew up in a Methodist tradition that never mentioned Lent. I don’t know why. Nobody talked about Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. Nobody mentioned the party Tuesday right before. Nobody was counting forty days, skipping the Sundays, to get to Easter. Nobody was giving up chocolate or refusing to eat meat on Lenten Fridays. We dwelt in a Lent-free zone.

I learned about Lent in seminary. As an associate pastor in a non-denominational church in Northern California, I watched my mentor Rev. Samuel Johnson Lindamood, Jr. try to teach his flock about Lent. He even tried to inspire them with a collection of readings and meditations, which was hands down the most unusual Lenten meditation book you’ll ever see. Some of his parishioners embraced Lenten practices but not me.

I teach philosophy, theology, and ethics in a seminary, Boston University School of Theology. Each Ash Wednesday I’d see colleagues and students lining up to have crosses marked on their foreheads made from the ashes of the fronds that were waved about on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. But I didn’t participate. I guess childhood habits stick.

Last year, as I was editing Sam’s book into a coffee-table masterpiece—complete with gorgeous color photographs and titled Beauty in the Ordinary (beautyintheordinarybook.com)—I was forced to slow down and carefully digest the bible readings, the excerpts from some of Sam’s favorite books, and his meditations. The experience finally—finally—inspired me to take Lent seriously. I didn’t get ashes marked on my head and I didn’t fast. But I did give up sugar for Lent. Seriously. Sugar. As everyone who knows me can attest, that was a major sacrifice!

This year, I’ve been inspired by something Sam wrote in his introduction to Beauty in the Ordinary: we might give up something for Lent, but we might also take something on. Obviously, I’m new to the whole Lent thing, and maybe everybody else knows about the “taking something on” option. But I mostly hear about giving things up for Lent, just as I did in 2021. For 2022, I really wanted to take something on instead.

What to take on was a no-brainer. For anyone who’s been living on the moon, here’s some background.

We are desperately trying to claw our way out of a deep pandemic hole, made deeper by politicization that yielded the most disastrous pandemic response among developed nations. So many people are angry, frustrated, and plagued by trust issues. They don’t trust public health experts, they don’t trust political leaders, they don’t trust vaccine makers. Then there was an election season defined by widespread claims of election fraud and conspiracy theories, which amplified existing resentments and deepened our trust issues. Some people were willing to trust the thousands of election officials, the courts, and the federal Department of Justice who affirmed that the election was free and fair; others could only bring themselves to trust the one person they felt sure was telling them the straight truth: President Trump. And that led to January 6th, 2021, a day when thousands of people who were certain they were doing their patriotic duty stormed the Capitol Building to prevent the certification of an election.

I’ve got my own opinion about who to trust and who not to trust. And I know a lot of people disagree with me. That’s true for you, too, no matter who you are or what you think. In some sense, people who disagree with me are my political and theological enemies. They are endangering institutions that I hold dear, and they feel exactly the same about me.

Now, I know Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. And following Jesus is something I take super-seriously. But I’m angry and worried, and pretty much everyone in the United States is. It isn’t easy to follow those particular instructions.

So what did I taking on for Lent? The hardest thing of all, and the most needful: compassion.

I meditated each day on the people who disagree with me and think I am destroying something they love, even as I think they are doing the same. I’m tried hard to remember that they love their families as I do. They want a fair shake in the workplace like I do. They want to be healthy and happy, just like me. They want to feel proud of the way their country actually operates, not just proud of the idea of America—same as me. We have so much in common. There should be ample space for genuine compassion.

So why did I find this Lent so difficult?

Loving our enemies is tough because it doesn’t mean overcoming disagreement; it means loving one another, protecting one another, caring for one another in spite of disagreement. It means seeing the log in our own eye when we’re in the middle pointing out the speck in someone else’s. Honesty. Humility. Love. They all go together. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with my political enemies over a vision of justice, or with my theological enemies about what Jesus would do.

Becoming genuinely compassionate is not something we can do with a passing effort, on the spur of the moment, temporarily inspired by a sermon. No, we are going to have to practice compassion. The compassion muscles located somewhere down in our souls require exercise to grow strong. I reckon we should have been exercising them more often in advance of the social disasters that have befallen us.

Let’s commit to practicing compassion as we go forward. Let’s remember what we have in common. Let’s create a compassionate foundation for debating policy disagreements instead of nurturing ideological alienation and the mutually assured destruction that comes with it.

Let’s take Jesus seriously for a change: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

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Rev. Dr. Wesley J. Wildman is Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University. Wildman is editor of Beauty in the Ordinary, a book of readings and meditations by the late Rev. Samuel Johnson Lindamood, Jr.

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