May Compassion Be Our Undoing

Artwork I gave my son for Christmas from Etsy.

A bit of dialogue from Return of the Jedi popped into my head the other day (as it sometimes does). The Emperor tells Darth Vader to go to Endor and wait for Luke Skywalker to come find him. Vader questions this and the Emperor responds, “his compassion for you will be his undoing.” The Emperor was right in thinking Luke’s compassion for his father would lead to their meeting but wrong in thinking he could leverage that to defeat Luke. Over the protests of Obi-Wan and Leia who are repulsed by Vader’s evil, Luke insists there is still good in him and he determines to call it out and coax it into flourishing. It turns out that Luke’s compassion is key to undoing the Empire.

We are in a moment where the two main political sides in the USA view each other as wholly evil, as foes to be defeated, rendered powerless, and given no voice in government. Neither side has compassion for the other. Neither side can sense any good in the other. The past election season was filled with attacks on character, each side claiming that to be on the other side meant a person was morally deficient, that a good person could only be on their own side. Each side is convinced it alone knows what should be done about any situation. Even basic facts are rejected if they come from the other side.

This morning on Facebook, Mark Van Steenwyk asked “what does a politics of grace look like?” I think it looks like Luke insisting there was still good in Vader and acting on that commitment. I think grace is best defined by that Wendell Berry directive: “love someone who does not deserve it.” Both Gandhi and Rev. Dr. King were clear that love and compassion for those who stood opposed to them was key to their movements.

It is the acid test of nonviolence that in a nonviolent conflict there is no rancor left behind, and in the end the enemies are converted into friends. – Gandhi

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition. – Rev. Dr. King

The quest for a politics of grace is most needed in this moment. Compassion is the compass on that journey, pointing us to the good in the other, helping to understand their perspective, and the desire for the good they have. It is especially important for those of us who sense a call to nonviolent resistance to understand that approach is based on the same belief Luke had of Vader – there is still good in the brothers and sisters  who are called the opposition. If we employ all the creativity, vulnerability, and compassion we can muster to sense the good in our opponents and call it forth in each other, me may find that compassion will be the undoing of many of the hurts and ills of our time.

Lovers of the Dead: An Ode to the Not Yet

Here are some excerpts from a talk I gave at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference in 2014 – an Ode to the Not Yet. I’m attaching a PDF of the full paper if you wish to read it.

2 Cor. 4.10-12 states: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” Not only is life doing work here, death is doing work too, work than can be done in no other way.

It may be the case that sometimes as we pray for others we are attending more to our own anxiety, our own second-hand experience of their tragedy… perhaps sometimes our motivation is a need to see something happen. A Vineyard pastor recently described the already as the ’thrill of victory’ and the not yet as the ‘agony of defeat.’ If we approach praying for others with this mindset, then I would suggest we are preoccupied with our own anxiety.

The not yet is the perfecter of love. The not yet is the purifier of faith. The not yet is the protector of hope. The not yet grows the kingdom. The already enjoys the fruit of the not yet’s labor. The already and the not yet are the poles of the dialectic. The kingdom is the paradox that only exists in their tension. The not yet is not the agony of defeat. It is not the absence of the kingdom. It is the sine qua non of the kingdom. To love purely is to love the dead is to love the not yet. Only in love of the dead, love of the not yet, is love purified of self and the already made possible, not as negation of the not yet, but as affirmation that the kingdom is there too.

We tend to think about the power showing up and performing some miraculous thing, some evidence that the already is breaking in. That is how we commonly describe what is going on. This gives the indication that power is on the side of the already and that the not yet is powerless. But there is power in the not yet. As evidence, I submit to you the power of death. We all know that death is very powerful. Try as we might we cannot ultimately break free from its grip. It has a power over us more than any other force in life, even taxes. But it is not a wholly negative power. It is a power in its very powerlessness. There is power in what looks to us as powerless. As evidence, I submit to you the cross. In the embrace of death, in the foregoing of all forms of power as we think we know them, Jesus becomes completely powerless, and in that powerlessness he conquers sin, death, and the world. The not yet operates in this mode of power, in the power of the cross. As people called to live cruciform lives, this is the standard mode of power in which we operate. We give up power, we embrace the cross, when we risk to trust, when we dare to hope, when we submit to love.

Our sympathetic anxiety can leave us unable to sit with those who suffer, we feel like we have to do something, we have to pray, we have to fix it, because their tragedy could become our tragedy. We know the kingdom is come when we can sit with those who suffer, when we can be present to tragedy, when we can love the dead. Sometimes those who suffer need healing, need something to be fixed; other times we are called to suffer with those who suffer.

Just as revelation is dependent on hiddenness, the already is dependent on the not yet. Faith does not grow in the already. Hope does not exist in the already. Love is not perfected in the already. Only in the not yet are the theological virtues – the pillars of the kingdom – formed. Those most in love with the not yet, those most free of self-conscious anxiety, are precisely those who usher in the already. Those who have are given more. Those who are anxious about what little they have lose even that. The already is the kingdom. The not yet is the kingdom, not the failure of the kingdom. As I noted from the Fourth Gospel and the command to love, the kingdom comes by obedience. Only disobedience marks a failure of the kingdom, because the rule of the kingdom extends no further than the end of obedience to the command of God that comes to each of us in our particularity. More than universal, more than individual, the command of God is absolute. Universal duty easily explains away all hard demands. Individual conscience leads to imitation after our own fashion. But the absolute command of God coming to us in our particularity only allows for two responses: obedience or not. And what is the abiding nature of this command in all its absolute particularities? To love purely. To love selflessly. To love cruciform. To love as one loves the dead. To love the not yet.