Crown Law and Royal Law – The Barrier to Compassion
2015 09 06 – North Leamington United Mennonite Church
[Story of a woman I knew once who was talking to a church elder about how worried she was about money, and even paying her rent. He listened to her story, then said ‘well, have faith’, and walked away.]
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
At the time I did not know this verse. But even then, I knew there was something lacking in the man’s response. It was a polite but firm shutting of the door to her reality. It was the way to end a conversation he did not want to have.
Do you ever think about the word compassion? It means Suffering together. Com-passion. Suffering with someone else.
The minimal description of compassion is a perception that someone else is suffering, and feeling bad because of it. But the man’s actions met that test of compassion. I am sure he thought he was being compassionate by listening to her story the whole way through before turning away.
Jackie Pullinger-To speaking. Compassion is an action.
I think the action he took was erecting a Barrier to Compassion. He avoided any action that would have led to him suffering with her, and therefore, anything that could help her.
Being effective always implies sacrifice. Cost.
So he could have taken her into his own house. Major disruption to his family life, big questions around how long that could go on for. He didn’t do that.
He could have given her the money to pay her rent.
– Cost to him, I don’t know his financial situation, so I don’t know how much he would have actually suffered, but at best it would be inconvenient, plus, who knows if this might set a precedent. He did not do that.
He could have prayed with her, reassured her that our Provider has enough for her needs, perhaps spent some time in the scriptures about God’s generosity, or spent some time with her discerning how she might go about dealing with the situation. Cost to him? His comfort, his time. He did not do that.
What he did, by brushing her off, was create a Barrier to Compassion. Not only did he not take action, he insured that her suffering, fear, anxiety, would not be a part of his life. He separated his life from hers – or rather, he reasserted the separation that already existed. The Barrier to Compassion stops you suffering, and therefore stops you needing to prevent suffering.
I’m going to refer again to Barriers of Compassion.
First I want to go back to our James passage.
Preparing this sermon, struck by the reference to “love your neighbour as yourself” described as the Royal Law in verse 8.
First, I’ve never really liked this precept. It always seems too simplistic.
Love thy neighbour as thyself.
Even as a child I used to look for exceptions
“What if I don’t love myself?” – trying to be clever
I think it was because i learnt it in school, not in church. Part of our simple moral training in being a good person. Be polite, be punctual, don’t push others, don’t slurp your drink. Somehow this concept got lumped in with all of that.
Reevaluating in recent years
For one, I started to pay attention to the teachings of Jesus about who my neighbour is, and saw how powerful, how profoundly disruptive this teaching really is. More on that later.
But here, it is named as the Royal Law. That is the other thing that leapt out of me. One of the wisdom streams in the Bible is Royal Wisdom. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are good examples of this. It is wisdom for the elite and powerful in living a good life. This category gets undermined by the wild ideas of troublemakers like Jesus and the prophets that came before, who hound royalty on behalf of the oppressed. It is from the prophetic stream that we get today’s Psalm reading, which is often titled ‘Put not your trust in princes’.
In this stirring psalm we hear the call to trust God, who is active in the world to feed the hungry, protect the vulnerable, and free the prisoners. Unlike princes, who die, the Lord reigns forever.
Royal Wisdom can’t handle this. Neither can Crown Law – a term I use to refer to the barriers created by the Crown of Canada to legally separate indigenous people from each other, the land, and from non-indigenous people, and therefore, keep them dependant on the Crown for life.
The government of Canada created the reserve system to keep indigenous people in identified locations which are often far away from other settlements. Think about how this isolation and restriction has worked to the advantage of the Crown.
The separation between indigenous and non-indigenous operates as a Barrier to Compassion. Remember that a barrier to compassion is anything that stops me from feeling the pain of another person or community. If I don’t feel it, I get to choose if I acknowledge it or ignore it, and I get to choose how I respond.
Yesterday, I was one of five hundred or so visitors to Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia. We were invited on the ‘Toxic Tour’, a walk through Chemical Valley and an invitation to experience something of life in the most polluted area of North America.
One of the first stories we heard as we walked between vast refineries was of the residents that were moved away as these industries started to spread across the land directly beside the First Nations Reserve, who remained, surrounded on all sides by the petrochemical industry and suffering the pollution in the form of cancer, lifelong respiratory illness, stillborn children and reduced life expectancy.
Why were we there? A primary reason was to breathe the polluted air. To experience something of what the Anishinabek live every day. To suffer together. Compassion.
By going there, by walking in the hot sun, by hearing stories of the rapidly filling graveyard and daycare centre with the hospital on speeddial,
We shared something of that history of suffering, and erased the barrier to compassion that was erected when the Anishinabek were surrounded by industry and administered by a separate arm of the government. We suffered with them. Now we have a reason to share their struggle.
In cities across this continent, homelessness is being outlawed. People who make their homes on the streets have to be put into shelters or into prisons. They are hidden away so that the rest of us do not need to see them, be annoyed by them, have our consciences pricked by them. These laws are Barriers to compassion.
On the Greek Island of Lesbos, the Christian Peacemaker Team stationed there this summer has seen the deadly effects of the very real barrier to compassion. The barrier is a short stretch of water. It is also a long list of laws to make refugees crossing that water a difficult and deadly prospect. Refugees fleeing deadly violence find that there is no safe or legal way to enter Europe so they take to the sea in whatever craft they can find. They risk pirates and human smugglers. They risk catastrophe and drowning. They risk prosecution and prejudice on the other side.
Refugees are a protected class of people under international and national law, so to avoid the responsibility to protect them, nations use whatever means they can to make it difficult or deadly to arrive.
If they arrive, we will suffer. We will have to hear their stories of escaping death. We will have to make room for them in our cities and churches. We will have to support them rebuilding careers. So we build barriers to compassion. We keep them out so that their pain will stay with them. So that we can maintain a distinction between us and them.
That distinction is breaking down in our scriptures.
Both James and Psalm 146 are written to people who are struggling with the oppression of the poor by the rich. The difference is that the rich are part of the community in the case of James. For some reason, he feels
Love thy neighbour as thyself. – is an answer to this. It might seem like royal wisdom – simplistic.
I realize now why this is so significant an idea. It erases the boundary between me and my neighbour. My poor neighbour, or my rich neighbour. If I want to love my neighbour, I need to know how they need to be loved. I need to suffer with my neighbour. I need to be with them and learn their pain. Compassion.
Whoever it was who secretly left an envelope of money for my friend, enough to cover her rent, must have known what it was like not to have enough money. They must have been motivated by love. They erased that barrier to compassion by taking on part of her burden.
What are the barriers to compassion in our lives? In our communities? What is stopping me from knowing the pain of other people? What is saving me the inconvenience of dealing with other children of God? What is keeping you from seeing how to reduce your comfort to increase the comfort of others.
Jesus does not recognize barriers to compassion. He came to be with us, to suffer the indignities and fragility of human life, and ultimately to suffer the consequences of being a rebel rabbi in the face of the empire.
His way is not an easy one. We attempt it only by knowing that he walked this path ahead of us already, and he walks beside us now.