The Compassionate Life (Part 1)
We’re making our way through Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison. Last week, we looked at Part One: The Compassionate God. If you haven’t read last week’s posts, I highly recommend starting there. This week, we’re in Part Two: The Compassionate Life.
As a reminder, last week we learned the definition of compassion (emphasis mine):
To be compassionate then means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition. (6)
Part Two: The Compassionate Life
In Part One, we learned that our ability to understand and give compassion is only possible because we have already experienced the compassion of God in our lives and been given the example of compassion in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Now, in Part Two, the authors’ premise is that living a truly compassionate life can only happen through and because of our participation in Christian community:
Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together. (47)
A compassionate life is a life in which fellowship with Christ reveals itself in a new fellowship among those who follow him. (48)
Relationship with Christ is relationship with our brothers and sisters. This is most powerfully expressed by Paul when he calls the Christian community the body of Christ. (49)
This is why body theology is so important. We cannot truly experience the life we are called to experience in God if we are not connected to the community of God. We do not have a holistic body theology if we do not have both the body of CHRIST and the BODY of Christ — participation in the community of God and the action of service in the world.
The authors are very clear as to why we need the community of God in order to live a compassionate life:
As a community we can transcend our individual limitations and become a concrete realization of the self-emptying way of Christ….Left to ourselves, we might easily begin to idolize our particular form or style of ministry and so turn our service into a personal hobby. But when we come together regularly to listen to the word of God and the presence of God in our midst, we stay alert to the guiding voice and move away from the comfortable places to unknown territories. (56)
It’s easy to become comfortable. We are creatures of habit and sameness and whatever-is-easiest, especially those of us living in the First World where materialism and consumer culture define our sense of security and success. But God calls us to a radically counter-cultural paradigm shift that the authors call “voluntary displacement,” the individual choice to move ourselves out of what is comfortable and familiar in order to answer the unique call of God in each of our lives.
When we are willing to make this shift, we are placing ourselves in a position to be compassionate:
Voluntary displacement leads us to the existential recognition of our inner brokenness and thus brings us to a deeper solidarity with the brokenness of our fellow human beings. (62)
We have the most excellent example of voluntary displacement in the person of Jesus Christ, who made the choice to move out of what was comfortable and familiar in order to answer the unique call of God:
The mystery of the incarnation is that God did not remain in the place that we consider proper for God but moved to the condition of a suffering human being…In the life of Jesus, we see how this divine displacement becomes visible in a human story…It is in following our displaced Lord that the Christian community is formed. (62-3)
This is why body theology begins with the incarnation of God. Without the choice God made to become human flesh and live among us, we would have no example to follow and no reason to follow that example. God chose to become like us, to become one of us, to become the same as we are so that we could experience the compassion of God in our individual lives. In the same way, we are called:
Voluntary displacement leads to compassionate living precisely because it moves us from positions of distinction to positions of sameness, from being in special places to being everywhere. (64)
When we’re in the position of sameness and everywhere, competition loses its ability to separate us. When we relate to one another though the compassion of God, we cannot help but live compassionate lives — lives defined by kindness and gentleness to those who get hurt by competition. We no longer have to struggle and fight to keep what we believe is rightfully ours or worry that sharing power might lead to losing what we have worked so hard to gain.
Because body theology begins with the incarnation, it ends with our own voluntary displacement into the lives of others through service as the BODY of Christ in the world. God’s choice and our choices bring our theology full circle and enable us to discover and experience the compassionate call of God in our minds, souls, and bodies — both individually and corporately as the community of God:
Living in the world by hiddenness and compassion unites us because it allows us to discover the world in the center of our being…displacement makes it possible to be in the world without being of it. (68)
This is what Richard Niebuhr would call Christ Transforming Culture. Rather than hiding from the world or fighting against it, we can embrace those around us with compassion and in doing so create space for all of us together to experience the redeeming and transformative power of God.
We’ll continue our journey through Part Two on Wednesday.