I recall having a conversation over coffee several years ago with another bisexual Christian, where we were discussing our concerns about a phrase being used by one of the presidential candidates at the time, the phrase, “compassionate conservatism.” Both of us agreed that it had kind of a menacing undertone to it; my personal take on the matter was that it was a very PC way of stating the usual phrase of “love the sinner hate the sin” (which in my opinion more often can be interpreted as, “feign acceptance while tolerating the sinner, withholding any true semblance of love and acceptance until the sinner reluctantly agrees”), but his take was a little more ominous. His thought was that the phrase, “compassionate conservative” being spoken by the anti-LGBT people conjured up images of someone gently suffocating someone with a pillow as opposed to beating them to death. Granted, this was an extreme example, but his point was, that no matter how soft and gentle and sweet the conservative opposition to LGBT acceptance and affirmation was worded, it was still the same. The desire is to take away our rights and freedoms to be who God made us to be. To use the term “compassionate” while perpetuating the same prejudices so long held to by some, no matter how carefully downplayed and concealed under the guise of “love” or “compassion” is merely playing lip service to true “compassion” that is embodied in the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus.
I can only say what my personal definition of “compassion” is, and then in a short recollection of an event that took place in my life not too long ago, try to illustrate an example of what being compassionate, and especially in the face of persecution, is to me. Compassion in action, to me, is defined as the ability to step back from any personal differences I may have with another human being and see that person as they are at their core, as another child of God, and acting in accordance. It is the ability to look past the details of what creates the illusion of separation between myself and another child of God who is on an equal plane to me in the mind and eyes of God, and behave as if I cannot see that which may create division. It is seeing clearly through the eyes of love, letting love filter out conflict, letting love guide my actions. It is remembering that no matter what differences another person and I may have as individuals, that we are both are children of the same God. My faith calls me to display the same unconditional sense of love and care to that person that God shows me.
I know, some may be saying, easier said than done. How can I show love to the person who publicly denigrates me based upon my sexual orientation? How can I begin to have any sense of love for a person who has said that I should not have the right to live simply because of who I am? Why should I feel compassion for someone who has not shown any to me? I would be lying to say that it is effortless for me to be compassionate towards certain people, considering how some have treated me in my life. But there is a way I have found to make it easier.
I recall that those who have hurt who hurt others in some way more often than not do so out of their own hurt, their own pain, their own fear. I think to myself, “If that person who committed that hurtful action towards me were truly happy, truly fulfilled, had some sense of meaning to their lives and felt wanted and needed, had some sense of God’s unconditional love for them, would they still have done such a thing?” More often than not, the answer is no.
I have seen many who have been hurt so repeatedly that all they do is hurt others back; often it is all they know. When they hurt someone, rarely does the person they are hurting return their hateful action with love, but instead seeks revenge-which keeps the cycle of violence going. But there is one force I have seen that can sometimes shatter that chain and that is sincere love and compassion. Not merely responding out of love because it was what Jesus said was “the right thing” to do, but genuine love for that person as another child of God. Looking past the pain and hurt and fear that may have compelled them to hurt me, and offering sincere and non-judgmental, no strings attached, love to them with no ulterior motive. Those of us among LGBT Christians who may still hold some anger at the way other Christians have treated us — sometimes it helps to remember that they are only doing so out of fear, not out of any sincere dislike or hate.
How often do we hear of those who have committed atrocities who have been in internal pain and suffering themselves? The person who suddenly one day, decides to go to work with a rifle and take out everyone, and then themselves is often spoken of in the aftermath of such tragedies as “so quiet, such a loner who kept to him or herself.” It is often revealed that those who are convicted of horrible crimes of abuse against others are often victims of horrific abuse as children themselves. It is no coincidence that those who commit crimes against others are more often than not those who are forgotten, downtrodden, and left out by modern society, those who are suffering and hurting and living in the streets. My thought is, were some of these people given and shown real love and compassion, real and true acceptance, a sense of being loved by others and by God, would they have developed the apathy and lack of compassion for others necessary to justify the horrible things they did? I do not think so. As Jesus said, we reap what we sow, and I feel that one of the consequences of a lack of overall compassion is that it breeds a lack of compassion in others. This lack of compassion seems to tragically carry on like a cancer until somehow, acts of unselfish love break that chain of hurt and begin to build a healing and a reconnection to God’s Love.
In other cases, I hear of those who have had a harsh religious upbringing and who have been told they are an abomination in God’s eyes ceasing to feel as if it is important or necessary for them to treat others with love, basic respect and compassion. In the extreme, I have known people who have walked away from fundamentalist and legalist Christianity and gone to the other end of the spectrum into “satanism,” which teaches as one of its “doctrines” that compassion for others in need is a “waste of time and energy.” These individuals who pursued this often were those who had been shown little to no compassion in their own lives, and what I found even more tragic was that those who had shown them little compassion were fundamentalist Christians who placed adherence to dogma over love, acceptance and kindness. I have, in various places on the Internet and in public conversation been witness to those who are self-defined “compassionate conservative” Christians display what I felt to be a serious absence of compassion for anyone who refused to convert to their point of view. The olive branch was extended to those in need, but quickly yanked away when it was clear that the person to whom it was being extended to was unwilling to change their thinking and the structure of their beliefs about God and Jesus. I often see the legalistic and literalist Christian place dogma, doctrine, and a literal understanding of the Bible as far more important than basic human kindness and respect for one another. This is not true compassion, nor is it the answer to the query so often quoted by many of “What Would Jesus Do?”
I truly believe that one of the key teachings of Jesus’ message was the importance of love over law in how we treat and interact with one another. It is our capability to allow our love for others to override our inner need to be “right” about something, to override the value we place on the way each of us understands and sees God individually. Instead we must focus on our ability to see God in one another as opposed to limiting our image of God to that discerned from a literal reading of the Bible. Such reading, although it offers some sketches of what God is, does not offer the full color, glorious, and diverse picture which can be provided us by the beauty of all of life, all of humanity, all of our existence.
I feel that Jesus saw a picture of God that was truly beyond what the human mind can fully capture by simply reading about it or through observation of religious ceremony. One of the key things he wanted both His followers and His detractors to understand is that it was not through ceremony and observation that we truly show our Love for and gratitude to and reverence for God. Rather, it is in how we treat one another, with love and compassion, over legality. His “New Commandment” that we Love God with everything we have and Love Our Neighbor as Ourselves is something that I feel was given to override the way of thinking that had been the standard until His arrival. Though some feel this passage alludes to two commandments, I see only one: I believe that by demonstrating the second, to Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself, we are observing the first. I honestly feel that the love we show for one another is the highest form of worship and love we can show to God. I think that Jesus was right in this being the only way for anyone to truly know God, and that this commandment was intended as an alternative to the harsh religious laws of the Pentateuch and those outlined in the Old Testament. To me it simplified things, a new law that covered everything that was truly important.
This is often disputed by some Christians who observed that Jesus said that the old laws “had not passed away” — not “one jot or tittle.” What Jesus truly meant by this statement is that those for whom the religious codes, laws and observations had spiritual meaning and significance, helped them to feel closer to God, and were beneficial to them as individuals in their own path were free to do so. If these laws brought them a greater happiness, then they should continue to follow them. But I think His admonition was for them not to allow their observance of said laws to override the true message He came to teach: Love is far more important than laws. That is to say, not to see anyone who was outside of those laws as somehow “lesser” in the eyes of God. No one should label them as inferior on the eyes and mind of God, because they cannot. Not to allow their personal beliefs, fears and differences to override their ability to show true human love and compassion for one another. In other words, even those who were of another faith, another belief, who had a different understanding of God or life should be treated as equally and with equal love. No more outsiders, no more outcasts, no more division, but all people allowing themselves to be ruled by Love. Thinking first with the heart instead of the mind. If a man lay dying by the side of the road, and the religious Law considered that man for whatever reason to be a “sinner” or “unclean,” breaking the Law in the name of Love for that person to care for them.
I wanted to relate a little incident that took place in my life recently that sort of sums up what I feel Christian compassion is all about. Call it the “parable of the liberal bisexual Christian and the conservative fundamentalist Christian” if you will.
I found myself in a very dangerous area of a metropolitan city, very late at night, stranded. It was close to 3 a.m. and I needed to get to a place about five miles away. I did not realize that the last bus had run for the night, and I therefore decided to call a taxi…until I realized that although I had a few dollars, I did not have enough for the fare. There was no place for me to get money from a cash machine, so I was pretty much stuck. Add to that the fact that I was in an area that was a very high crime area. At that time, a homeless man came up to me and inquired as to what was wrong. He was not drunk or under the influence of drugs, and seemed very clear and articulate. My inner thought was at first that he was about to ask me for some help. But here he was asking me if I needed help. I told him of my dilemma, and said I had no way of getting to where I was going or the money to get there.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. Here was someone who had approached me when I had anticipated them asking for money. He looked as if he had not eaten in days, had any clothes save for the ones on his back, and had neither a home nor a bed to go to as I did. And he asked if he could help me. I told him God Bless him, I truly appreciated his kindness, but I did not feel there was anything he could do.
Before I could finish, he was asking every driver at the gas station where I found myself if they were going in the same direction I was, could they give me a ride. Many did not even pay him heed, assuming he was seeking a handout for a bottle or a drug fix. I told him not to put himself at risk that way.
He stopped and said, “If you could find a cash machine, would you be able to get the money for a cab?” I answered yes and he says, “Well, the closest one I know of is about a mile away. Heck, I’m not doing nothing, I can walk there with you, kind of as protection. This is a bad area.” I conceded and agreed, and he said, “Follow me.”
Along the journey, he began to talk and introduce himself. He was from another town, and was trying to get back home. He had been a drug addict and had left that life behind and was doing the best he could to find a job and make an honest living. He had been at the gas station going through the dumpster and had found a discarded bag with some food in it. I thanked him for his kindness in walking me to where I needed to go. “No problem,” he said, “this is a crazy part of town. Besides, it’s what the Lord would want me to do.”
At that point, he asked me if I believe in God, and I told him yes. He began to share his faith with me and as he did I realized that he had some decidedly different beliefs about God and the Bible than my own. He began to talk about how Falwell was right about Sept. 11, that it was “God’s punishment” for “America’s sins” – the feminists, the abortionists, the “sinners.” How he fully believed that the Pope is the antichrist and Catholics are Satan worshippers, that the Statue of Liberty is the “whore of Babylon” spoken of in Revelations, how the devil is everywhere and the End was near, how every word of the Bible is literally true, and how the Lord is going to destroy anyone who was not a fundamentalist. How he knew he was “put” where he was to walk me to where I was going to give me this information, in the interest of “my salvation.”
He had no idea that I do not take the Bible as literally true and infallible. Or, that I believe that God loves Catholics as well as other Christians and non-Christians with the same unconditional love or that I believe Sept. 11 was not “God’s will” but rather the consequences of another type of fundamentalism. I didn’t tell him that I see “Satan” as a metaphor to represent the temptation to do the unloving as opposed to the loving thing in any given situation and acting out of fear instead of trust in God. He didn’t know that I think Revelation is all a metaphor for the need to put faith in God in times of crisis, or that although I am predominantly pro-life but also believe in a woman’s right to choose, that I am a feminist or that I believe in creation by way of evolution. He had absolutely no idea that I am bisexual and intimately involved with both a woman and a man, that my sexuality would be deemed by most conservative Christians as “unnatural,” and that I support LGBT rights and marriage. None of these issues ever even came up. He was simply sharing his personal beliefs about God that were different from my own. But I tried to focus on the fact that he loves God just as much as I do, we just see God differently.
Now some may be saying, as another person said to me about this, “Why didn’t you tell him? If he had all these ideas about God that are the same type that create and perpetuate LGBT persecution why did you not try and open his eyes to the fact that you were one of those he might call a ‘sinner’ if he knew the whole story, but that you too were as much of a believer as he is, only in a different way? Were you afraid?”
The answer is no, I was not the least bit afraid. Although most Christians I have known with similar beliefs made me feel persecuted, for some reason, I was able to transcend any feelings of that in this exchange. It was just that the fellowship I found in this and the gift of someone being there to help me out of nowhere just made the details and semantics of doctrine seem totally irrelevant. I decided to respectfully listen to what he said, interjecting here and there when he brought up the things which I did agree with like the little miracles of everyday life, about feeling grateful to God and loved by God, the importance of showing love for one another as human beings being the highest honor to God, and how God had helped us in the past.
Just as he was a recovered drug addict, I am a recovered abuser of alcohol, and we talked about ho faith got us through that. He had an interesting take on the story of Lot’s wife, how it is written in the Bible that when she looked back at the burning city of Sodom that she “turned into a pillar of salt” and died. He used the analogy of her “looking back” to help himself stay off drugs. He knew that “going back” to drugs would result in disaster. I thought this was very clever and added that I thought that another meaning could be not to dwell on the mistakes we might have made in the past, lest that drag us down.
We finally arrived at the destination, a truck stop where there was a cash machine and a payphone where I could get transportation. He waited with me until the cab came. Though he never once in that whole time asked me for money, as I was leaving, I gave him five dollars that I had which was over and above what I would need for the fare and told him to go and get himself a decent meal. We told each other God bless and I was on my way. He mentioned as I left, that he knew our meeting had been divine intervention, and I agreed.
On the way back, I thought of this whole incident and I thought to myself, “That was compassion in action. Two people with very different ideas and beliefs, from different lives, not quibbling over beliefs but showing genuine care for one another’s well being.” He could have asked me a lot of specific questions about what I believe, and tried to witness his ideas more aggressively but he was too caught up in the kind act to put concern on that. I could have disputed the ideas about God he had and made a point to disagree but I was too caught up in gratitude from help from a stranger in a vulnerable situation to even think of such a thing. I am not one to try and alter anyone’s beliefs in a way that might make them uncomfortable as I know that is not what I would want others to do to me. I felt truly blessed by the experience. It helped me to understand just what the world might be like if we were all able to allow the innate capacity we all have to show love for our fellow human being to be our predominant concern. This should guide us — not what religion, denomination, color, nationality, sexuality, sexual orientation, Biblical understanding, gender, or culture that person is. Our overarching question should be: “How can I show them love, how can I be there for them, what gifts God has given me can I use to make their life better in some way? I feel that such a world really would be a Heaven on Earth.
I will add to this another incident that took place not too long after the incident I mentioned, a much shorter story, though. A man approached me at a train station, pleading me for a quarter to make a phone call. He was stranded and needed to telephone his wife to come and pick him up. I gladly gave him the money for a phone call. He made the call and walked back over nearly in tears of gratitude. He spoke very little English, and thanked me again for the help. He then said, “You believe in Jesus?” I said yes and he said, “Well, you give one quarter, Jesus gonna give you so much more!” And I don’t know if he understood my reply, but my answer to him was, “He already has.” It is the gratitude I feel for all God has given me, not my hope for something in return, that makes me want to practice compassion and help others in need.
And it is not only about giving food or a quarter to help those in need. I wholly believe that, at times, the greatest gifts we can give another are those that have no cost. Listening without judgment to a friend who needs someone to talk to when no one else seems to understand. A smile for someone who seems to have misplaced their own for the time being, in hopes that they may find it again. Letting someone know that they are important to you, that they are important to God, that they are loved, even if they don`t seem to ask you to with words. Not allowing individual differences to keep us from remembering that we are all equally and unconditionally loved in the eyes of God. And not allowing fears and apprehensions that we may have that arise from those differences to obscure the knowledge that all are part of God’s wonderfully diverse creation, that there truly are none who are “the least of these.” While I may be very non literalist in my understanding of God, the Bible and Christian faith, I have believed for a long time that if there is one thing God wants us to do, it is to treat one another with love and respect.
I want to close with these thoughts, which were inspired by a prayer the Minister at my church said once, that sums up why I feel compassion is what makes us a part of God, and why it is something I value above all else in my faith:
God has no eyes in this world, but ours, to identify injustices, to see a better way, to locate and Minister to those in need;
God has no ears in this world, but ours, to hear the cries of those in need, to listen with love and compassion, to hear the need in another’s voice and Minister to them;
God has no mouth in this world, but ours, to speak out for justice, to offer words of encouragement and support for those in need, to let others know how much they are loved;
God has no feet in this world, but ours, to walk the extra mile alongside others who need a friend, to travel to places to help those in need, to go and share God’s Love with those who are not aware of it;
God has no hands in this world, but ours, to heal the sick, to build homes for those who have none, to carry those who cannot walk on their own, to hold someone in our arms when they need comforting;
God has no mind in this world, but ours, to seek and find ways to make our lives and those of others better, to create works of art and ways of sharing, to create a better world;
God has no heart in this world, but ours, to feel and share love with all others.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.