The last of the middle school students filed out of the building and for the first time since the doors to the after school program had opened at 3:00 p.m., the main hall was quiet. The sounds of the day--the sound of feet racing down a hall when they should be walking, the screams of 2nd and 3rd graders battling for access to markers and crayons, the shouts of teachers and volunteers herding cats into line for dinner, the whines of "I'm bored" and "This is stupid" passing through teenage lips, hastily uttered expletives that are corrected again and again, the pounding of the basketball on the floor of a dimly lit gym, and even the insult-filled threats hurled back and forth between two young men who almost came to blows--all of these sounds now give way to silence.
After a short respite, the voice of a volunteer pierced the tranquility with a single sincere question, addressed to the regular instructors, "How do you put up with this every day?"
A different volunteer puts the question another way. "How can you keep trying to help kids who disrespect you like that?" How can you keep caring about people who don't listen, who refuse to do their homework, who call you names, who talk back, who put each other down, who come inches away from violence on a regular basis and sometimes cross over? Some people just don't want to learn. Some people just can't be helped. Why do you all keep trying?
I smile, in part because he has just voiced an all too frequent internal monologue of my own, but more so because there is a simple answer. "Because I've taken the bus home with them. I've seen where they live."
When you see where people live and where they come from, compassion and forgiveness often come along for the bus ride.
I didn't begin tonight's sermon with this story to pat myself on the back or let you all know what a great, compassionate, self-sacrificing man I am. The truth is that I can't do this "every day" indefinitely, simply because it's a financial impossibility. What I really want to focus on is the broader sense of what it means to take that bus ride home. The great religions of the world call on us to meet people where they are, see where they're coming from, and to encounter them as other people, just like us, equal and deserving of respect. In fact, we are called to cultivate a loving compassion for every single person on Earth. This is no easy task, and one that will never be accomplished so long as we are comfortable cutting other people off from humanity by putting them in neat little boxes.
One of the ways our own culture encourages us to put people in boxes where we will no longer have to care about them is in the criminal justice system. We allow a single action, taken at a single moment, to a define an entire human being and his or her lifetime. A "felon" often loses the right to vote forever. A "repeat offender" can be sent to prison for life via "three strikes" laws. A "murderer" or a "rapist" can be tied down and killed by the state. A "drug user" can be denied college student loans. It's even easier, of course, if the "convict" is already different from us. If he is poor or black or brown, all the easier to cross him off the people worth caring about. But don't think that this is a sin committed only on the right. We, too, want to cross people off of our list of people worth talking to or worrying about if they hold views that are different from our own. The CEO, the televangelist, and the Tea Partier can often be denied compassion by those of us on the left, especially if they mess up publicly.
But the world's religions call us to have a deeper understanding of the world around us to never give up on a single human being. Consider this very difficult message that comes from a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. For those who do not want to read the entirety of the linked content, he recalls the stories of refugees in Southeast Asia who take to the sea, fleeing their homes and seeking a better life. Some of them encounter pirates at sea. Some are robbed. Others are raped, beaten and killed. Confronted with such brutality, our hearts immediately go out to the victims. We want to take their side against injustice. We want to hate the one who did this to him. We want to take out a gun and shoot them all. But Thich Nhat Hanh argues that to do so is to cut not only the pirate off from humanity, but to cut ourselves off from it, too. For the Buddhist, there is no such thing as a separate self that can be "innocent" or "guilty":
With the energy of the bodhisattvas, we embrace victims everywhere. We are the pirate about to rape the young girl and we are the young girl who is about to be raped. Because we have no separate selves, we are all interconnected and we are with all of them. How we live our life affects everything. So we must think, How have we lived our life so that that young man in Thailand has been able to become a rapist? (No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhan Hanh)
Notice the change. Not, "He's a rapist. Kill him." Instead, we are challenged to ask how we have lived so that people become rapists.
I realize that not all of us are bodhisattvas or saints or enlightened ones. I realize that this is something that is very hard to ask people to do. It's even hard to say. I want you to love that person who just raped a young girl. I want you to love Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh. I want you to ask yourself how your life has allowed such people to come into being.
It's not only conservatives who have a knee-jerk reaction against such a proposition. Perhaps conservatives are often the loudest in their opposition to such an idea. We can't be "soft on crime" or "coddling toward terrorists", after all. But I would guess that most progressives, too, find it difficult to attempt such a feat as having compassion for every other human being. I know that I do. But why are we asked to do such a thing?
For one, we are all interconnected. This is true today more than ever. Every single thing we do has ramifications that are felt the world over, even though we are often only a tiny, tiny drop in an ocean of causes and effects. When we buy a product made in China because it is cheaper, we are contributing to the outsourcing of jobs overseas and sometimes even to child labor and other abusive practices. When we buy a diamond out of love for our sweethearts, we might be encouraging killing and slave labor in Africa. When we drive our car the two blocks down the street to the store, we are contributing to the warming of the planet. When we super-size our value meal instead of dropping the extra fifty cents in a donation bin, we are saying that we value more french fries over a poor child having anything to eat at all. When we demand lower taxes and demand that the government set up numerous hoops to jump through in order to get government assistance, we are contributing to actual human beings going without. If we choose to pocket the company's profits for ourselves or raise our own salary as a reward, we are contributing to people not being able to pay their bills. When we refuse to pass a school levy we say that we don't care if a student has to share her teacher with 35 classmates.
We are partly responsible for almost all of the evils committed by "monsters" out there in the world that we ask to bear all the responsibility. But there is a second reason not to make people into "monsters" who can be hated and destroyed:
We can not blame only that young man. If I had been born a poor child who was never educated, who had a mother and a father who were illiterate, who had been poor all their lives and did not know how to bring me up, I could have become a pirate. If you were to shoot me dead, would it solve anything? Who is that pirate? he could be me and the child he raped could also be me. All the suffering of living beings is our own suffering. (No Death, No Fear)
There is a famous Christian phrase that conveys much of the same sentiment: "There but for the grace of God go I." For the Christian believer, all life is a gift from God. Anything that we have available to us is not our "possession." Even talents and skills and so-called character traits have been given to us by the one who made us. But you do not have to believe in a creator at all to understand this truth. You did not "decide" one day to have loving, supportive parents. You didn't "earn" a series of great teachers through "hard work." You didn't provide through your own "effort" a safe, supportive environment to begin exploring the world in. If you happened to have these things, that is wonderful. But you didn't earn them or deserve them any more than anyone else did.
As another personal example, can I take credit for having "earned" scholarships and fellowships to complete first a bachelor's and then a master's degree? Certainly, I did my fair share of hard work and fulfilled certain obligations and requirements. I demonstrated certain abilities and talents. But where did those things come from? As a very young child, my parents read to me all the time. What if they hadn't? As it turns out, I loved reading and asked to go to the library all the time. But what if I hadn't loved reading? I didn't decide to love books and learning. I just did. It was a gift of God or of the arbitrary interaction between my genes and my early environment. And what if that love had not been encouraged? What if my parents hadn't taken me to the library three times in the same week? What if they never asked me about my grades?
I could go on indefinitely, but I'll spare you that. The point is that the difference between me and the kids at the after school program is not one of my somehow being "better" than them. I was luckier.
We don't like to admit this very often. We like to think that people get what they deserve. In fact, there are documented psychological biases shared by most "normal" people that lead most of us to think that the world we live in is just ("just world phenomenon") and that if people suffer it is probably their fault ("blaming the victim") and that if we obtain some good in life then it was because of our own effort and determination ("bias to perceive control"). Taken together, it should be obvious how we end up with an economic and judicial system that sees no problem with "winners and losers," even to the extremes that we are seeing today. And I know that it is very hard to overcome these biases. These biases are built into us for good evolutionary reasons. It keeps us from worrying too much about the very real possibility that we can do everything right and still fail or end up in horrible circumstances. It keeps us from having to feel guilty for the suffering of all living beings in the whole world and sinking into despair. It helps us learn about those things we DO control (it is a worse mistake to have control over something and NOT realize it then it is to not have control over something and not realize it--in the latter case you just wear your silly "lucky" green socks for every home game, in the former, you don't realize that moving out of the lion's way really could save your life). But they are biases and we do need to correct them.
Like the Buddha, Jesus strove to show his disciples that suffering is rarely someone's fault. We can't get ourselves off the hook by blaming the victims. For example, in John 9, Jesus and his companions encounter a man "blind from birth." The disciples want to know "whose sin" was responsible for causing the man's blindness. Jesus corrects them. "No one's," he says. The man was simply born blind. In Luke 13 he asks them, "those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!" In other words, do not blame the victim. Each person is a child of God. We are called to love each and every one. The poor are not poor because God wants them to be or because they are lazy or because they are sinners. There are real causes and real solutions to the problem of suffering in the world. We are called to act in love and compassion and to try and find them.
Furthermore, as this is "Respect Life," month, I want to recall the reasons that the Catholic Church presently and many other Christians historically and presently reject capital punishment. First, it is not our place to judge a person in total. We can judge a person guilty of a particular action or crime, but total judgment--that this person should cease to exist--should be reserved to God alone. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." But God also does not withhold his forgiveness and mercy. Like Muslims who begin every part of the Qu'ran with "In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the compassionate," Christians believe in a God who IS love.
Nothing illustrates this better than the way that Jesus treated sinners. In John 8, Jesus encounters a woman, chased by an angry mob, who has committed the capital crime (at the time) of adultery. She is clearly guilty and the law prescribes a clear penalty. But Jesus says to the crowd, "Let one who is without sin cast the first stone," and the crowd slinks away. None of them will condemn the woman. And then Jesus says, "Neither will I condemn you. Go and sin no more."
Now we might find it rather easy in modern times to forgive an adulteress, or at the very least not call for her to be stoned to death. But the story illustrates the demand that Jesus makes of his followers over and over--never give up on a fellow human being. Never withhold your forgiveness. Never stop trying to convert sinners to a righteous life. Never stop loving. Never stop caring. Forgive your brother seventy times seven times. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Pray to God to "forgive us our sins as we forgive others." How many of us unwittingly condemn ourselves with that part of the Our Father each week? Jesus shared the company of tax collectors and prostitutes and Roman soldiers who were busy with the job of oppressing his people. He prayed even for those people who nailed him to a cross and pierced his side by saying, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." How is it that any follow of this man (and for Christians, God) condemn someone to the electric chair or the lethal injection or the hangman's noose?
We are never in a position to cut someone off from the rest of humanity and drop them in a box where we no longer have to care about them. Why? For the two reasons already stated.
First, because when we follow that person home, when we ride the bus to where he lives and where she sleeps, we realize that "There but for the grace of God go I." Given the same emotions, the same upbringing, the same role models (or lack thereof), the same genes, the same dispositions, the same wants and desires, we might very well do the very same things. I never get in fights and I have never molested a child. Should I pat myself on the back for this? I rarely if ever feel like being physically aggressive toward another person. I don't know why. I don't really "choose" not to. I just don't. It's not like I'm constantly resisting the temptation to start swinging. Likewise, I have never felt sexual desire toward a child. Do I get some kind of medal for this? Did I have to work hard at it? No. I just don't feel it. In both cases, I am called to be forgiving even of those people who do horrible things like violence, murder and rape. Why? In part, it's because I have no idea what it's like to be that person. If you elevated my levels of testosterone, could I still say that I never resort to violence? I don't know.
Now, that's not to say that you can't hold a person responsible for anything. A person who knows they react violently to certain situations does have a responsibility to avoid those situations. A person who knows they are sexually attracted to children does have the responsibility to avoid being alone with them. But we cannot condemn an entire person based on one act when we do not know the inner turmoil the person must face. (C.S. Lewis made a similar point about how God judges each person--even the worst "monster" might in fact be saved, it may be that that person actually did the very best they could given their own urges, upbringing, circumstances, etc. Only God knows the totality of circumstances a person faces.)
But there is another reason that we are called to be forgiving and to continue to keep trying to help even people we consider to be "monsters." It is because we are all interconnected and we are all partly responsible for everything that happens around us. Our own choices and decisions contribute to almost all of the evil (and the good) around us. Often times we may be blissfully unaware of exactly how. But that doesn't mean we can let ourselves off the hook by turning a convenient monster into our scape goat of the day. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, when we vote for politicians who favor policies that increase poverty, we help create pirates and we help create refugees. We, too, are to blame.
To close with a modern example of this close to home, I need only turn to a network that many of us here on DailyKos love--MSNBC. On the weekends, I see almost endless re-runs of "To Catch a Predator" with Chris Hansen. Most of us like to take the side of Chris and be shocked and appalled at the behavior of these "pedophiles" and perhaps even smile smugly as they are carted off to jail. But consider this--one weekend while I was watching a segment of these shows, the commercials told a different message. There was a commercial for some tabloid show with "shocking" footage of teen pop star Miley Cyrus in "racy" photos or caught doing something "naughty" on video. How could Thich Nhat Hanh's point be better illustrated? Here we are, judging and condemning people as monsters while at the very same time engaging in behavior that encourages such monsters to be formed. We are the pirate and the young girl. We are Chris Hansen and we are the predator and we are the ad executive trying to make money by sexualizing young girls all at the same time.
The message of the living Buddha and the living Christ is that we don't get to give up on anyone, ever. We are called to take the bus home with each and every fellow human being and see where he lives and where she is coming from. Much of the time, every fiber of our being will rebel against this call. We are so used to taking sides that we cannot see how we can be for the victim unless we are against some criminal. But this kind of thinking is seriously flawed. Love and compassion are not playing a zero-sum game. There is not a finite reserve of it that will be depleted if we try to spread it around. Instead, love is increased by the loving and compassion grows out of compassionate actions. If we can love even pirates and predators, how much more love will we have for a kid who talks back to us now and again?
Love isn't easy. Love is hard. We put up with those who trespass against us because we have many trespasses that need forgiving. We give back even to those who don't want to receive because we have been given so much that we never asked for or earned or deserved ourselves. And we know deep in our hearts to give up on any of the least or even the worse of these is to give up our own humanity and to deny how intimately we are all connected. May we always love our neighbors as we so desperately want to be loved ourselves.