Compassion and Change

Ockham's Razor is a program on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio. Sunday 23 August 1998 brought a discussion of the effects of the communications revolution by Malcolm Long, a leading broadcaster known from the ABC and SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), who now runs his own company. The transcript is available at the ABC Website (July 2015)

Long says we "really are in the foothills of a revolution of human communications and therefore, in the way we think, and that things will never be the same again."

Later he makes this comment: "These developments ... are profoundly disturbing to some.... They underwrite many of the forces that are changing the backdrop of people's lives before their very eyes. Some, like Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, try, cynically I believe, to encourage people to believe that these trends can be ignored or rolled back. They can't. Facing up to the communications revolution and its consequences is a better option."

It is disturbing to me to listen to some of the rhetoric of Hanson and listen to the rhetoric of some so called 'evangelical' christians. There is a similar underlying conservatism and fear; they sometimes sound uncomfortably alike. This train of thought was reinforced for me as Long's piece continued. He spoke of the unprecedented availability of information, and the great freedom to take and use ideas from all over the world.

"What I call the village vicar syndrome, whereby in the past an intellectual and moral elite like the village vicar, would hand down self-serving wisdom to the village folk, well that has probably gone forever."

There is always a temptation for clergy to be manipulative and "hand down self-serving wisdom" to our little village. Those of us who shudder at the actions of our less subtle colleagues are only too well aware that at the base of the shudder is a self recognition (at least of our temptations.)

Go with the flow, ride the rapids, or stay out of the boat?
Go with the flow, ride the rapids, or stay out of the boat?

And yet what is the church to do? The rampant pluralism of the internet and other forms of communication is not only frightening, it is dangerous. Much stuff you see on the net and in women's magazines draws people in directions that human experience knows to be dangerous. "Follow Christ", we are likely to say. And yet so often that falls into social conservatism, or legitimises it. It does not address the grave shortcomings of our social systems, it supports 'peace and personal affluence at any cost' as Francis Schaeffer used to say. It can lead us away from genuinely good, godly and freeing advances.

How do we avoid using the gospel to become another irrelevant sect?

We see in the New Testament the words "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Jesus says it twice in Matthew, and we can see him living out the implications of that statement all through the gospels. He is attacking with those words. the conventional wisdom of his times which said that if you kept the Mosaic Law, you would be doing the right thing by God. A sort of 'Do all the right sacrifices in the temple, and keep all the right rules and regulations in life, and God will be happy,' theology.

In fact, the people who were called sinners... were not necessarily people who did 'bad things' as we understand the word today. Sinners were people who didn't do things. They didn't keep the law properly. They were the people- according to conventional wisdom- who didn't offer the sacrifices God required. They didn't keep the right rules properly.

In the book of Hosea (6:6), God says
"I desire steadfast love (translated mercy in the KJV), and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings."
It's this desire of God, which Jesus is placing before us.

The word often translated as mercy is about the kind of relationships God wishes us to have with each other. Indeed, it's the kind of relationship God has offered to have with us, too. Theologically we say that in Jesus, God came to us, with us, as a human being. The word mercy might be better translated as compassion. It means not just sympathy, which might be from a distance. Com-passion literally means to feel-with. (Passion: feel and com: with.) We are to enter into the feelings of others. To feel with them. To understand- in the sense of 'standing under'.... their feelings and experience. To get into their skin almost.... as God was in Christ.

That, said Jesus, is what God requires. Standing under the experience of another- compassion, not rigid keeping of the law.

The common response to this is that Jesus said that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away? This is so. But compassion does not mean we ignore or lessen God's law, or 'go soft on sin.' How we do the law depends on 'where we stand.' Jesus said, essentially, stand in the place of compassion, and then do what you see that the law requires. The conventional wisdom of the time said, stand on the high mountain of the law, fulfil that first, and then you may be compassionate.

Such a different standpoint has a profound effect on our behaviour: The high view of law, abandons the wounded traveller lying on the roadside in the name of a holiness a God requires.
Standing in compassion drives us to stopping on the road with the Samaritan and to hearing the Law again and anew:

What does the Lord require?

to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

to learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:7

Disengaged Holiness, tradition, respectability..... all such pretences of God's desire fade into the background before this.

The reason some have called EMU (Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church) a 'new phariseeism', is that it stands and lives from the viewpoint of law. Pharisees get an unfair press in the New Testament is some ways. They were highly committed, and deeply pious, often suffering for their faith. Judaism's survival of the Roman Empire has much to do with the Pharisees. And EMU christians are by no means the only ones who put 'Law' first. It is always the easy way to solve a problem.

But what Jesus objected to so strongly in the New Testament, and what got him killed, hinges on the very points above. Phariseeism kept the law. He called for the law to come under mercy and compassion so that its purpose might be seen and done.

Many of us put 'right' before compassion. 'We cannot go soft on sin.' This attitude goes hand in hand with social conservatism. It colludes with our too human desire not to challenge injustice. It makes us want to turn back the clock and helps clergy and elders become self serving.. The faith becomes no guide for us in a time of high change, but is a liability, and becomes a path to social and even technical Luddites.

Remembering the Law, but placing it under Jesus' call to compassion, means we have a guide to living which can be judiciously critical of what is new, and challenge what is unjust or dangerous. But it is self-critical, and saved from being self serving and building a sectarian village.

We who are men, are challenged in our tendency to be fascinated with technique, and not look at the human implications of something. And when we are discomforted or afraid, we are challenged about that denial of fear which so often builds constricting theological systems.

(A.P. August 1998)

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