Re-Imagine Compassion

ec·u·me·nism. ekyəməˌnizəm,eˈkyo͝omə-/. noun. the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches.

Like many Christians, progressive and conservative, I was enthralled by Pope Francis’ recent visit.

One of the many things I appreciate about this Pope is his refusal to be pigeonholed into our binary ideological and political system. Both progressive and conservative Christians were eager to point to some specific statement or action in an effort to claim the Pope as their own: “See? He’s on our side.” Fighting over which “side” the Pope is on points to a larger problem within the Church: ideological divisiveness.

Both psychological and sociological studies reveal that creating divisions is a part of being human. We create political, ideological, gender, and racial binaries, as if there are only two categories of people: Us and Them. Our inclination to create borders between ourselves and others illustrates, at least in part, what it means to be broken and sinful. Mother Teresa said “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other–that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister.” One of the greatest tasks of our time is to see the image of God in every person and to remember that the way we construct “them” is just that: a social construction.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). Paul gets it; binaries are human-made divisions and cannot be a part of the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps today we could re-imagine Paul’s words: “There is no longer American or Syrian, there is no longer wealthy or poor, homeless or housed, black or white, Republican or Democrat, male or female, gay or straight; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

I’ve lived with this us-and-them mentality for most of my life, but this divide has never been so prevalent as it’s been in the Church. I’ve been active in churches on either extreme of liberal and conservative spectrum. I’ve heard both conservative Christians and liberal Christians demonize the other, and I’ve been part of the demonizing. I’ve been both extremely conservative and extremely liberal. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve also experienced intense personal hurt from both extremes.

With extremist ideology, there comes an absolute refusal to concede any mistake. Ecumenism, defined at the top of this post, requires humility: the self-awareness to admit our shortcomings and to ask forgiveness when our actions have caused our sister or brother pain. Ecuminism requires finding common ground with those whose beliefs most differ from our own. We must be willing to see God in those whom we disagree with most. At a conference in Montreat a few years ago about interfaith relations, many college students said it was easier for them to dialogue with people of other faith traditions than people who came from conservative Christian traditions. Again, this speaks to the ideological divisiveness within the Christian tradition.

Ecumenism also requires intentional cooperation and fellowship. Here in Little Rock, a beautiful illustration of this recently opened my eyes to the hope of a future with ecumenical harmony. Two of the YAVs here, Dani and Erik, work for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which I discovered quickly I knew almost nothing about. I knew that they responded to disaster, as their name suggests, though I never considered what this entailed. I’d never thought about all the moving parts and pieces of recovery, especially long-term and sustainable recovery. Each denomination and organization offers something unique to stricken communities, according to their own gifts and resources. For example, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance specializes in emotional and spiritual care and hospitality (when groups want to volunteer and repair damaged homes, Presbyterian churches in the area will house them). UMCOR, the Methodist organization, offers case management. I’d never even considered how vital that ministry is post-disaster. The Southern Baptists specialize in both mass feeding and clearing away debris with chainsaws and bulldozers.

An umbrella organization, VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters), coordinates the ecumenical and interfaith disaster response agency so that every need in the community is met. It’s not helpful for everyone to do a mass feeding or repair homes; there are many parts of the body and each is vitally important in allowing communities to collectively grieve and recover.

This is what this ecumenism like:

The American Red Cross: shelter, blood donations, health

The Southern Baptist Men (and Women): mass feeding, chainsaws & bulldozers (for clearing away debris like fallen trees), laundry trailers

The Salvation Army: clothing donations, mass feeding, canteen units

UMCOR (United Methodist): case management, long-term recovery

Episcopal Emergency Response: transportation

Seventh Day Adventist: warehouse operations

Catholic Charities: case management, relief grants

Team Rubicon: search and rescue, debris removal, house repair

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: long term recovery, hospitality, emotional and spiritual care

This is where I see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 beautifully played out.

(TL ; DR – Every part of the body is important—the feet, the eyes, the mouth, the hands! We all have an important function, and in order to be united, we must recognize each other’s value and worth.)

The coordinated response to disaster is crucial. Whether they provide shelter, spiritual care, case management, or even chainsaws, each denomination/organization plays a specific and vital role. This is a beautiful picture of ecumenical harmony: responding compassionately to suffering, alleviating the stricken community’s burden together as the body of Christ, each according to their gifts, abilities, and resources.

Perhaps one of the reasons ecumenism is so effective after a natural disaster is because this disaster is not as obviously political as, say, the refugee crisis. But in both scenarios there are suffering human beings. Though everything is political (as I learned as a sociology major), what would it mean for the Church to acknowledge the political and ideological differences within, and then imagine a united and compassionate response to suffering? What would it mean for us to no longer use politics to shield ourselves from confronting the reality of suffering?

What do you imagine?

I’m so filled with hope to see denominations across the ideological spectrum can work together to alleviate suffering post-disaster. I believe we have the imaginative capacity to make this happen beyond natural disasters. I have faith that one day, the Church Universal will learn what it means to respond compassionately to suffering, no matter how politically contentious the disaster might be.

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