It’s tempting to talk about compassion by selecting from one or two very specific traditions, using soundbite sources such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the Bible – as if the soundbite is everything. Compassion in many ways cuts across religious traditions and it is therefore easy to take a syncretistic line, mashing Tao, the Buddha, a bit of Plato and the foundational texts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity all together in a kind of psychological fusion food. What I’d like to do here is to disentangle this a little by looking at compassion in the early Christian West. That’s not to claim it as a western phenomenon, or one from the first centuries of the Common Era, but simply to look at one of the ways it has been explored, discussed, and developed.
So in this post I will look at some roots of the idea of compassion from the Bible but also from other early writings within the Christian traditions, acknowledging from the outset that this will skate over some really important schools of thought and texts.
One of the problems in looking for compassion is that it appears in all sorts of different guises. What, for example, do we gain from using the N-Gram viewer, which shows us a pretty steady decline from the 1800s until 1940, and then a slow reverse of the trend? Is it the same as charity? Do we need to look for the actual words? Is it important to look at compassion and charity in terms of their roots in Latin and Greek? One thing that playing with N-grams shows is that the word “kind” seriously outstrips the Latin-root words. Here, in a five-word comparison between compassion, charity, compassionate, charitable, kind between 1600 and 2008, we can see “kind” really takes the lead.
So let’s start from this deceptively simple idea. A plain comparison of words already contains some difficulty: “kind” may surpass “compassionate” because of its use to mean “family” or “species,” as in Genesis 1, where “God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind.” But even this connection is interesting when we see the roots of our relationship with one another being based on things like Group Cooperation (I’ll come to this in a bit). It is at least worth considering the idea that kindness carries with it the notion of being good to those like us. Maybe how much like us is worth considering: family links, national ties, a common humanity, a relationship with all sentient beings?
The “com” on “compassion” has a similar force to it: “suffering alongside.” In terms of Christian theology, compassion is an essential to the working of God with Humanity: fundamentally incarnational. Whatever views any of us take on Christian belief systems, this, too, is worth pausing over: compassion cannot simply be an emotion without a body. One of the earliest writers to see this in a Christian context states plainly Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (Letter of St James, Ch 1, v 27) From the start of Christian morality (however well or badly it may have been enacted in history) words have not been enough.
So is compassion the same as kindness in modern use? I suspect current thinking about compassion wants it to be seen as more than a charitable sympathy. Maybe it’s just me, but compassion – for example towards farmed animals – may be more far-reaching than kindness: in the former we might look at prevention of suffering through providing better conditions or avoiding being the cause of suffering by abandoning use of animals as food resources altogether, whereas the latter conjures up for me just an extra level of care – more feed on a cold day.
Charity for me likewise seems to speak of an external action moving to help someone in need. It is less about suffering alongside than it is about helping: it has a me-and-you duality to it. This is partly because the word contains the Greek “charis,” a gift, which suggests to me the creation of a giver and receiver relationship – but it is also (because of this) connected in my mind with the institutional nature of charities: Children in Need springs to mind, but bigger and smaller projects also fall into this category, in which a sector or sectors of society come together to alleviate suffering.
All three terms have a sense of action-to-help at their heart. A very recent analysis of morality as cooperation by Curry, Mullins and Whitehouse suggests that we can tease out from the wide range of human adaptations some key practices and attitudes that would make up a foundation for morality, so the list includes a strong cooperative thread, including Family Values, Group Loyalty and Reciprocity. The group cooperates to sustain the group. We might debate about “Who is my neighbour?” but action with or on behalf of those in social proximity with us is a recurrent theme. It is one that Jesus both upholds – in his requirement of forgiving those who have wronged us – and extends radically beyond the immediate into loving our enemies. In Curry et al.’s definition, he is proposing “dovish traits” rather than “hawkish ones.” Subsequent writers from the Apostle Paul to teachers such as Ambrose of Milan (4th Century CE) and beyond extend this to considering economic wellbeing, but fundamentally Western Christian practice has been about actions and attitudes around forgiveness, cooperation and peace. The Rule of St Benedict (6th Century CE), for example, lists 72 “Instruments of Good Works” which, while they start with loving God and end with never despairing of God’s mercy nevertheless contain some interesting insights about helping and getting along with others, from clothing the naked and burying the dead to the subtler injunctions not to nurse a grudge or to make peace when you don’t mean it. Big and obvious actions-to-help are to be accompanied by smaller or interior efforts. As modern Benedictine Abbot Christopher Jameson put it in his book Finding Sanctuary “This mutual activity of forming and protecting is the means by which a community becomes a sanctuary.”
But again, words are not enough.
In a previous post on the subject (on my own blog https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2018/03/25/into-compassion-focussed-practice/) I have referred to “revolutionary compassion” and this comes, at least in part from the last text I want to explore.
The themes I have picked out centre on teachings around forgiveness and peacemaking, and this (in some ways) rather external view of compassionate practice does seem to me to be to be the hallmark of much Western thought on the subject: action and words in imitation of the foundational teacher and ultimate judge. But when Julian of Norwich writes in the 14th Century CE, she proposes, towards the end of her book of Shewings or Revelations, a different view which, while it was not new, is certainly surprising: drawing (perhaps) on Thomas Aquinas, writing 120 or so years earlier, she says that we love our fellow creatures because we love God and because God loves us. For Julian at this point in her book this is not Jesus the self-sacrificing hero or the Galiliean Teacher, but a radical model of compassion from a feminine point of view: Jesus as the model of love is “the true Mother of our nature,” “Our very Moder in qkynde.” Her model of compassion is one with which she identifies closely, and perhaps this is a takeaway message: that we need to make compassion our own, not something to be imitated. Insight and standing alongside the one who suffers.
“To the properte of Moderhede longyth kindelove, wisdam, and knowing, and it is good.”
“To the proper essence of Motherhood belongs compassion (“kinde love”), wisdom and understanding, and it is good.”
Nick Swarbrick was, until Summer 2018, a Principal Lecturer in the School of Education, coordinating the undergraduate programmes in English Language, Education Studies and Early Childhood Studies. His postgraduate studies began by looking at Western Spirituality in the late fifteenth century, but his later writing has mostly been connected with Early Childhood Education. Nick’s blog https://nicktomjoestory. deals with topics such as spirituality, Early Years pedagogy and children’s literature, and he tweets as @nickswarb