“How is it possible to hope in the face of death and to believe against the whole world?”
German theologian Eugen Drewermann’s question takes on new urgency in the aftermath of the assassination attempt over the weekend on Arizona’s U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of six other people. When I first heard about the violence in Tucson my heart sank, and I began to wonder what was the entire point of trying to spread hope and love in a world so determined to stamp out both?
It’s certainly not the first time I’ve had that thought. The descent of political discourse in this country to its lowest common denominator, and the language of violence that pervades both political and religious conversation has been going on for some time. You can only demonize the “other” for so long before someone picks up a weapon and uses it to rid the world of that “other” who is responsible for all the problems – the suffering, the joblessness, the despair. The shootings in Tucson are simply a logical consequence of all the violent words that have been exchanged back and forth.
Exactly what motivated Jared Lee Loughner to start shooting is still unclear. It’s not like the shooter who opened fire in a Knoxville, Tennessee Unitarian Universalist Church. He had books by Sean Hannity and other right-wing talkers in his possession and was clear he was out to kill liberals. The motives here are not so clear – but what is clear is that the tenor of our national dialogue is toxic and dangerous.
No matter the motive, the outcome is the same – the shootings strike fear in all our hearts, and we seek answers, someone to blame, some laws to pass, someone to lay responsibility on so we can feel better and get back to life as normal. But the blame game accomplishes nothing and hardens each side into the righteousness of their position.
Drewermann’s question then becomes more pressing as we seek a different way out of this current madness: “How is it possible to hope in the face of death and to believe against the whole world?” As I meditated on the question, I ran across an interview on NPR with author Karen Armstrong, who offers one answer: compassion.
”There’s a mood of despair around, whether we’re Easterners or Westerners,” Armstrong tells NPR’s Neal Conan. “And despair is a dangerous thing, because once people lose hope, they can resort to extreme measures.”
To talk about compassion in the wake of the shootings, and in the midst of the ongoing blaming, seems like the typical response of namby-pamby religious liberals. Let’s all join hands and sing “Kumbayah.” But, that’s not what Armstrong is suggesting. Instead what she’s asking us to do is something very, very difficult. Armstrong admits in the interview that she struggles with compassion on a daily basis, as do we all, I suspect.
Having compassion for others is difficult. It’s easier to pay lip service to the idea of being kind to people – but that belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what compassion is truly about. As Armstrong writes in her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, “’compassion’ derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning ‘to suffer, undergo, or experience.’ So ‘compassion’ means ‘to endure [something] with another person,’ to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own and to enter generously into his point of view.”
We have no trouble feeling compassion for Giffords, or those killed or injured by the gunman’s bullets. But, can we truly put ourselves in the shoes of the shooter? Can we feel the pain, the madness, that drove him to this desperate act? Can we truly suffer with him?
The act of truly feeling compassion is hard work – and it’s work that we usually don’t see the point in doing. Why do I need to feel John Boehner’s pain? Why does an anti-gay person need to feel my pain? Why should we try to feel the pain of those without health insurance or without jobs? What good does that do? Doesn’t it just lead us further into despair to feel other’s pain in addition to our own?
On the contrary. When we do the hard work of compassion, the differences we perceive between us begin to disappear. Instead of using labels of “left” or “right,” or “gay” or “straight,” or “pro” or “anti,” we come to appreciate what we hold in common – our humanity. As humans we long for love, security, and the assurance that our lives matter and that we are important to this world.
Do I want to feel the pain of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, or Pat Robertson? Nope. In many ways, I hope their pain is deeper than mine and I hope it eats them alive. It is precisely those feelings that reveal the urgent reason why I need to feel their pain, because refusing to do so puts me in a place of hatred, a place of blaming, a place of division.
Our national refusal to feel compassion for one another has led us to this place of blaming and demonizing. We root for our side to win at all costs, and as this past weekend has taught us, all that does is ensure that we all lose and our divisions grow even deeper.
Do we now need more laws to limit guns, limit access to our leaders, or limit our own freedom to peaceably assemble? No. We cannot legislate our way out of this morass. The only way to truly lift all the boats in this sea of despair is to do the hard work of compassion.
Not everyone will join Armstrong’s call to compassion. Some of us are too deeply mired in the politics of hatred and blame, and some of the biggest offenders are growing rich off the practice. They have no motivation to practice compassion. Those of us, however, who believe that embracing compassion is the only way “to hope in the face of death and to believe against the whole world” must get to work. This work requires us to give up the idea of “us vs. them” and truly come to a place of “some of us for all of us” – even for those who peddle despair for profit.
The burden of this work of compassion must fall back on religion despite the fact that politicians have so thoroughly co-opted religion that the idea of compassion has been completely obscured. Churches, mosques, and synagogues must now step up and reclaim this lost virtue. They must dedicate themselves to doing this work – to once again become beacons of hope and compassion in the face of death and despair. The challenge is for religions of all stripes to come together and again teach people to “suffer with” each other instead of inflict suffering on those they hate or with whom they disagree. It’s time for religions of all stripes to put aside their moralizing and side-taking and once again teach us how to love one another just as much as we love ourselves. It’s time for all religions to again teach us about our common humanity, and in that teaching restore our hope and optimism.
“You have to be optimistic,” Armstrong says. “Because when optimism fails and despair takes over … then you’ve got a problem.”