Compassion and Justice

April 23rd, 2013

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Like most people, I’ve been fascinated, horrified, and devastated by events of the last week. I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion; what is it, what are my limits, and how can it grow?

For example, since the Boston bombing I felt a LOT more compassion for the younger brother than the older, and a LOT more compassion for the victims and their families than the bombers. So clearly my compassion is highly conditional. So what are the conditions?

I realized something I should have known from being a parent, actually just from being a human being who’s made many mistakes. Compassion is so easily confused with justice.

I can have compassion for someone without approving of their actions. And justice is a whole separate process. The justice system should BE compassionate, meaning that it treats ALL players as human beings with basic human rights, but its role is to safeguard society.

Others will take care of the justice process. My real impact is in spreading compassion, relaxing some of the conditions I put on compassion, expanding my circle of compassion, creating the type of world where bombings and violence are less likely.

Maybe I have more compassion for the younger bomber because he’s the same age as my son, and because I remember being 19 and being in situations that I didn’t know how to get myself out of. The limits of compassion are so often set by our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another.

Well I’ve occasionally felt so angry I wanted to blow something up, even though self control has always prevailed. And I’ve often been frustrated with consumerism and imperialism, and many of the things that radical religious people rail against, even though I would NEVER resort to violence to express my anger. So I can get in their shoes from that perspective.

Without, even for a second excusing their actions, and without for a second undervaluing the lives and freedom of their victims, I can find some compassion for the bombers and I do so to break the cycle of hatred. Maybe its the best way to honor the victims.

There is a story out of the Jewish tradition about two students who are arguing about when, technically, the day begins. One says that it’s when you see a tree in the distance and can tell if it’s an oak or a fig tree. The other disagrees. He says its when you see an animal and can tell if it’s a sheep or a goat. They couldn’t agree and so they went to their Rabbi for advice. The Rabbi says, “It’s when you see a man in the distance and make no distinction between whether he’s Palestinian or Israeli. And it’s when you see a woman in the distance and make no distinction between whether she’s Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Then you know the day has begun.”

One of the things that gets in the way of compassion is mistaken identity. A Bangaldeshi man named Abdullah Faruque was assaulted in the Bronx soon after the Boston Bombing. He was accused of being Arabic, and the attacker assumed the bombing was perpetrated by Arabs. Wrong assumptions in every direction, mistaken identity and a bass ackwards view of justice. This isn’t justice, it isn’t compassion and it achieves nothing other than to bolster self righteousness.

If we’re honest, its self righteousness that so often gets in the way of compassion. If you can’t see a little piece of yourself in others who make mistakes, then you can’t find compassion. If you think you’re better than someone else, you will never find compassion for them; maybe pity mixed in with judgment, but not compassion.

Thomas Merton said,

The whole idea of compassion is based on awareness of the interdependence of all living beings, which are all part of one another.

If you break the world up into hard and fast categories like good and evil, American and Muslim, one religion and another, compassion will be scarce. If there is to be any good to come out of this awful situation, it will be greater compassion on all sides.

I can have compassion because ultimately Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is part of me. He’s part of everyone of us, likely the part of ourselves we have a lot of trouble accepting. What we need now is a little less judgment, and a lot more compassion. Tolkien wrote,

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

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  1. A so well worded article that I don’t know what to say or add, Ian. But I just want to share my feelings on the subject. What kills compassion is self-righteousness as you say, but self-righteousness roots from fears and doubts. We feel so insecure in our world that we try to compensate it with self-righteousness, trying to suppress other voices that challenge our feeling of security. Self control was always there for me, too, but when other guys were bullying me, it came to such a point that either I would react, or fade away within myself. I think it was self-control again, because I fought only once against such bully guys, and in front of many to provide an example. Then everybody left me alone. However, while I broke the nose of the guy who was bullying me, it was just self-defense, and it hurt my heart hitting him. I was angrier because he gave me no choice. I had asked him to leave me alone for many times already. Though I had to what I had to do, perhaps it would be worse if I waited for longer, because sometimes people have it coming.But when the heat was gone, and he was clutching his broken nose, I remember I looked him in the eye, and said for the last time: “Leave me alone… please!” I don’t know if it was justice, but compassion was there, because I was sad for what I had to do to protect myself. Do you know what he told me? He never intended to hurt me so much, that he was just having fun (while using me as a punchbag)! When I looked at his eyes, I realized he was telling the truth. So this brings another truth: I think people lack compassion, because they can’t put themselves into the shoes of others. Aka emotional ignorance. As Jesus said, “They don’t know what they are doing!”I wish you the best, my friend!

  2. ian says:

    Thats an awesome story/ example Selim. Good for you, and so true that you can protect and defend yourself without losing compassion.

  3. Mike Mavrides says:

    Very good, very thought provoking. Judgment and compassion, how are we to balance the two? There are opposing forces at play in the world that are always struggling. We align ourselves with one side of the struggle or the other and we get emotionally involved. This is our failing. I have just read your blog of February 27th, 2012 “Claim Your Power” where I think you answered this question admirably. 

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