Does Christianity Teach Compassion?

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Christian Living

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Does Christianity Teach Compassion?

Stephen Kaufman, MD, Christian Vegetarian Association

Previously, I have discussed how the religious quest includes an effort to address three fundamental existential questions. The quest to answer the first two questions, "where did I come from? and what will happen to me when I die?" encourages different ways of looking at the world that are often in conflict. Attempts to address the first question tend to encourage concern, compassion, and empathy for others, while the second question promotes an egocentric, inward focus. This tension between perspectives influences how we respond to the third existential question: What is the purpose of my life?

It is not surprising to find diverse answers to this third question from the broad Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, which spans about 1000 years and features the thoughts, insights, and wisdom of many writers. However divinely inspired these writers were, their written words reflected truths as they understood them. Their varied experiences, perspectives, and concerns have contributed to a rich, but sometimes apparently conflicting, tradition.

There are many passages in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that teach compassion and concern for those who are weak and vulnerable, including women, children, and animals, but there are also passages that endorse victimization, perhaps most notably the injunction for Joshua and his army to kill many of the inhabitants of Canaan. There are many passages that condemn cruelty to animals, but Leviticus describes God’s endorsement of animal sacrifices. Sometimes it is possible to reconcile seemingly contradictory messages, though doing so frequently appears to require considerable mental contortions. An alternative approach is to assert that the Bible contains conflicting teachings, and we faithful Christians have no choice but to choose which teachings to emphasize. Perhaps with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we can discern the direction God calls us.

While the Bible can be used to justify harming other individuals in order to serve our egocentric desires, I don’t regard a Christian faith that excuses cruelty for the sake of selfishness as much of a faith at all. If religion is to help us develop peace, justice, and communal well-being, it must transcend the human tendency to victimize other individuals. That being said, a religion that taught pure altruism and selflessness would be inadequate, because it would fail to account for natural human selfishness, and its exclusive focus on the well-being of other individuals would leave little room for the inward focus needed to address the question: What will happen to me when I die? A religion that taught selflessness might promise to make the world a better place to live, but it would likely attract few followers and would therefore be unlikely to fulfill its goal to better the world.

As I discuss in my book Guided by the Faith of Christ, an important theme (though not an unambiguous, unequivocal theme) of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that scapegoating is wrong. One can find this teaching in many places of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Pauline epistles, and it is perhaps most clearly and emphatically articulated in the Gospels. Next week, I will consider the question: How do we address the human need for a sense of self worth with the biblical teaching that we should not scapegoat, i.e., how do we resist the temptation to transfer our sense of shame and guilt onto others?