“He saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them.”
Jesus understands something about the people who greet him as he steps off the boat, fresh from crossing the Sea of Galilee. He is able to intuit their need, their desperation, as they mill about aimlessly in the deserted place where he and his crew have landed. They run up and down the road before him, hoping that somehow, anyhow, he can help them. Jesus can sense this. He knows and he understands. He can feel it, literally, in his gut.
Mark wants us to see that compassion is at the center of Jesus’ nature, and at the center of God’s nature.
This is not a claim to be brushed aside lightly. Many people in history have and still today worship a dangerous and angry God, one who must be obeyed above all else and propitiated with sacrifice. Christ’s nature, as displayed here, rejects that God.
So when we talk about “compassion,” we have to understand it not in the abstract, but in its literal sense: suffering with.
Thus far, we have a decent start to a sermon. But there is an application beyond dusty pews and stained glass. Take, for example, the recent national conversation on race.
More specifically, white people talking about black people.
I think it’s fair to say that the Christian take on how to talk about race is: if you’re not willing to suffer with those who suffer, you should really shut the fuck up.
I don’t mean that rhetorically. Literally, Jesus is so moved by the crowds that he sets aside his own needs and takes on their suffering as his own. If white folk aren’t willing (or able) to enter into the lives of minorities, how they suffer for being black or brown or red or yellow, then anything they say is only a prayer to the God who must be obeyed, not the one known through relationship.
This is why David Brooks’ columns, for example, are so obsessed with finding the rules, the “virtues” that make for a good society. He’s praying to the wrong god. Sure, he dresses it up with language about “distorting history” or “individuals making choices,” but it’s the same old hymn: it follows the rules of God, or it gets the Hell again. Follow the rules!
Any time you lay rules on someone, you’re putting a burden on them. That’s not fair to those who suffer, obviously. When someone mourns the loss of a loved one, and tries to prepare for life after death, who would accuse them of “excessive realism,” as though obedience to a pollyannaish “secular faith” could heal all wounds? The right response is to take their hand and sit with them in their grief.
In the same way, the relational response to encountering the grief of racism is simply to say: “I am here with you. I am listening.” Brooks could have crafted a much better column by writing just that much and leaving the remainder of his column inches blank.
Because there is no advice ever given that cannot be simultaneously ignored, allow me to point to one other application of our text.
In recent weeks, I have been wading through column after column written by conservatives who can’t quite wrap their heads around how they’re supposed to relate post-Obergefell. There’s some disingenuousness in their responses, yes, but there’s also a real struggle for conservative Christians these days. If for no other reason than that they’ve sussed out that hate and judgmentalism are losing propositions, they’re pondering the question of how to respond in a non-hateful way to a society which seems to have settled on values they abhor.
The answer, of course, is to find a way to suffer with that society. You find a way to sit with and experience for yourself the suffering of those hated for their sexual orientation. You find a way to sit with and experience what it’s like to be thought of as a monster for being born into the wrong gender. You find a way to sit with and experience for yourself being shunned, denied, demeaned, judged, victimized.
Not your interpretation of these things, mind you. Not an analogy from your own experience. Compassion demands that you find your way into the suffering of others and put your arms around it. I don’t mean this in the liberal sense of “embracing diversity,” or “welcoming the marginalized,” either. That’s only trading the meanness of supremacy for a more generous version of the same thing. No, I mean: get behind somebody’s eyes and discover for yourself Jesus Fucking Christ it sucks to be black or gay or transgender in America. It sucks to die on a street corner begging the cops to let you express yourself.
Once you’ve got that, once you’ve got hold in an intimate way of the sheer miserable fucking reality that follows some of your fellow citizens around their entire lives, then you’re qualified not to speak, but to listen. Only when you understand someone’s suffering—when their suffering becomes yours—can you be in true relationship.
Wisdom, scripture says, begins with the fear of God. I rather think it begins when you can speak meaningfully of “our suffering.”
America’s conversations about its common life would be far more productive if they started with a sense of the collective suffering violence, injustice, and oppression impose on both those who are crushed by them and by those who benefit from them. It can be enormously complex to untangle all those threads, enormously burdensome to parse fortune and misfortune and their signification across generations.
But the only way to understand the crowds of the nation is to have compassion for them. And in turn, the only way to have compassion is to let out of Whitman’s ocean, the crowd, come a drop to speak its peace.