Naturally Not Compassionate

I am teaching a class in pastoral care and counseling at seminary. I decided to roleplay a hospital visit. I had one student to roleplay having a back injury with uncertain prognosis. Then I roleplayed a rather poor pastoral visit.

I am pretty good at poor pastoral visits— I just have to do what comes naturally to me. So I go up to my patient (student) and I stand over him and ask how he is doing. I am distracted, looking around, not paying too much attention to what he is saying. I am more interested in saying what I want to say, rather than getting him to say what he wants to say. I did not draw him out and I quickly moved towards a closing prayer and then I leave.

Then I had one of my other students take on the role of chaplain. She had been trained by my wife, Celia, so I knew that she was good at doing things the right way. She asked permission to talk to him. She sat down a maintained a body language of interest. She encouraged him to talk and showed clear evidence of interest in what he said and was going through. I was very pleased. She did a great job.

I asked the class to critique our performances. They definitely identified obvious differences between the two of us. The best one was probably this:

She was Compassionate, and you were not.”

I jumped in and said, “Actually you don’t know whether I was compassionate or not, and the same with her. You cannot read our minds. The thing is that SHE DEMONSTRATED COMPASSION, AND I DID NOT.”

Upon reflection, I think this is kind of the point. When we do what comes naturally to us, we generally are recognized as not compassionate. In many cases it is because we are in fact not compassionate. In other situations, perhaps we have empathetic feelings, but they fail to be recognizable. Compassion is a volitional form of empathy, so if empathy never makes it to action, it could be argued that there is no compassion.

It is pretty natural for us to be ethnocentric/racist (rejecting those seen as of a different ethnicity), nationalistic (rejecting aliens), religiocentric (rejecting those of a different religion), sexist (demeaning some based on gender issues), partisan (rejecting those of a different political or ideological bent) and xenophobic (generally rejecting those who are different). What is natural isn’t necessarily good.

It is surprising to me how many Christians seem to pride themselves in these natural tendencies. I had to hide messages from a pastor friend of mine on FB because he would share every hatefully and biased story he could find about Muslims. Another pastor I had to hide messages because he had turned his FB page into a non-stop advertisement for some unpleasant politician who was running against an equally unpleasant politician. It may be natural to do that sort of thing, but in ministry we are certainly called upon to do better than what is natural. When I was young the rainbow was a symbol of hope… and then racial diversity. Now that some have appropriated the symbol for a different use, it is so odd to see some of my friends freaking out about it. But I guess it is natural. Friends of mine back in the US seem to think that it is an awfully Christian thing to build a really big and long wall. Seems like an inherently flawed idea (walls don’t have a great track record historically) but the Christian church has all to often loved establishing cultural walls to make it clear that others are not welcome. So perhaps they want to extend that idea elsewhere.

Perhaps it is time to do the unnatural thing— show compassion to those who are needy— even if (or especially if) they are different than us.

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