Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Compassion Doesn't Discriminate

The following is a rant that has little to do with the general nature of this blog, but I can connect it to Jack's interest in compassion.


Yesterday morning during my routine stop for morning caffeine, the coffee shop television was tuned to one of the network news programs and featured a story on the Wesleyan student, Johanna Justin-Jinich, who last week was allegedly killed by a young man, Stephen Morgan, who had been stalking her. They showed the pictures of both, and it struck me that her picture was senior-prom-perfect, and his picture was the worst one they could possibly find (unkempt hair, jail clothing, etc.). This was all in keeping with the point of the story, of course, which was to angelify the victim and demonize the (alleged) perpetrator. (I don’t recall whether they were using the politically correct and legally advisable term, “alleged,” in their references to the latter.)

I noticed myself experiencing empathy for the perpetrator and, at the same time, anger that I was probably one of the few people watching the story who would have such a feeling, let alone admit it. “How could I have empathy for a monster?!” was the gist of the reaction I got when I opened my mouth.

I opened my mouth because for too long we have allowed those who purport to be “religious” a double standard. The older I get, the more double standards bother me.

To my knowledge, every major religion values forgiveness. And compassion (which I will translate as empathy). Christianity certainly does (“Turn the other cheek.” “Love thine enemy.”). Yet these are the same people who will actively seek this young man’s vilification – if not execution – with never a mention of the forces and experiences that brought him – a human being – to this circumstance.

I would suggest that truly religious persons would be as compassionate toward this young man and his family as they would be toward the families of the young woman. The truly religious would know what the superficially religious do not: that the most likely reason this young man committed the action of which he is accused is a significant lack of the very kind of empathy that religious people profess to be extending to others. All others. Not just those who think and worship like them, not just those who follow the rules, not just those who do what the “good book” (whichever one we happen to be talking about) says.

I think we are all a split-second away from a dire act, regardless of deceiving ourselves otherwise. We are a violent species. From road rage to bar fights to rape to war, the evidence of such is incontrovertible. And do not say that those things are done by other people! Those things are in you, too. Maybe they haven’t manifested, but they are there: all they need is the right set of circumstances and, wham, you’re a murderer. And even if you haven’t and never will kill someone, you’re responsible when it happens. Don’t you live in a country that sends your children off to kill? Did you pay your taxes? Then you supported killing. And don’t tell me you stand around at protests holding anti-war signs and that makes it okay. You can’t end violence with violence.

It’s way too easy to point fingers at killers and hold ourselves holier-than-thou when it comes to what we consider heinous crimes. We forget that those heinous crimes do not happen in a vacuum. Their motivations do not develop overnight. We – society – create the killer and we create the circumstances in which killing seems like the only option. And we go to church every week and pretend that it’s not so.

While you’re there this week, I suspect it will be quite easy to say a prayer for Johanna and her family. While you’re at it, see if you can muster up an authentic prayer for Stephen Morgan and his family.

I bet you can’t.

And that will say a lot. In a truly religious mind, compassion doesn’t discriminate.


Crystal said...

I love this essay! Very thought provoking. It reminds me of a discussion on the Krishnamurti Network site recently. In a forum discussing "If you are not at all concerned with the world but only with your personal salvation, following certain beliefs and superstitions, following gurus, then I am afraid it will be impossible for you and the speaker to communicate with each other. We are not concerned at all with private personal salvation but we are concerned, earnestly, seriously, with what the human mind has become, what humanity is facing. We are concerned at looking at this world and what a human being living in this world has to do, what is his role?" J. Krishnamurti

A forum participant wrote. "If someone does something to us, then we want revenge."

My response was "I think “what a human being living in this world has to do, what is his role” is to love. To love every other human being as if he were our favorite child. Then when “someone is doing something to us” revenge will not be our first thought. I think we would then ask ourselves, what caused him to do that thing? Think to ourselves, this is my child whom I love. Then we will not want revenge against this person, but rather we will want healing for this person.

Does it take a saint to do that? I don’t think so. I think it takes conditioning, just as it’s taken conditioning to want revenge."

I don't go to church and I don't pray. However, I do care about people. I care about Johanna and her family and the pain they're suffering, and I care about Stephen and his family and the pain they're suffering. My thoughts of healing and love go out to all of them.

Could I feel that way if Johanna were my own child? I hope so, while at the same time I hope I'm never in a position to find out for sure.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Thinking of someone as our favorite child - a great way to reframe our thinking about others' behaviors!