VIEW FROM THE PEW
Know how you tend to clip things out of publications when they are something you agree with? My collection from rail transit bashers got so unwieldy I actually
ditched it, and I can’t quite decide to do the same with the Trump cartoons … yet.
Last month I got out the scissors for the opposite reason. A letter to the editor about a Department of Education announcement that free meals will be offered in several more schools was so nasty that I saved it. I plotted ways to seek out the smug, mean-spirited man who wrote it so I could shame or scold him. He opined that feeding poor kids forced to head to school on empty bellies will lead them to expect government to take care of them forever. I rehearsed my speech: “Those free proteins will fire up the brain cells of a great inventor or a future doctor who will find a marvelous cure, nurture the next generation of sturdy working people who will be proud when they succeed in putting food on the table for their kids, who will have to hear about bad old days of poverty when Dad or Mom only ate breakfast when they got to school.”
But of course, I didn’t follow through to deliver the lecture or even write a scathing letter-to-the-editor to refute him. I kept the clipping, though.
I should file it, and my whole thought process about it, under “Year of Mercy: how’s that working for you so far?” We are halfway through the “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” decreed by Pope Francis.
(“Extraordinary” isn’t advertising age Vatican hype, it’s church-speak for something different from the traditional, e.g. the usual pattern of a jubilee every 25 years. I confess I never noticed the pattern.) We’ve seen coverage of many ceremonial or institutional things being done in the name of mercy. Pope Francis got the m-word up in lights with his book “The Name of God is Mercy” which hit the bestseller lists, bringing his 21st century spin on “Jesus’ most important message” beyond our church.
Touching the flesh of Christ
A New York Times book review in January praised Francis for being “utterly direct” on touchy issues. He’s not telling us to feel good by giving a bag of Spam and noodles to the food pantry but takes us to the global view of mercy, for those “immigrants who have survived crossing and who land on our shores … we touch the flesh of Christ in he who is outcast, hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, ill, unemployed, persecuted, in search of refuge.”
The pope wrote that “humanity is wounded,” suffering from “the many slaveries of the third millennium,” not just war and poverty and social exclusion, but also fatalism, hardheartedness and self-righteousness. He is “most critical of those eager to cast stones,” said reviewer Alessandra Montalto. “Pride, hypocrisy and the urge to judge others … are targets of his ire.”
Reading that made me cringe; I have more in common with the nasty letter writer than I like to think. Unlike him, I’m in favor of putting my tax dollars into free lunches. That’s the feel-good, cans-for-the-foodbank approach, write a check for someone else to do the good deeds. But I can’t make eye contact with the guy at the stoplight with a handmade sign asking for help. I avoid driving in certain areas to avoid the sight of tent-dwellers at the curb. I never make the effort to go to a Legislature or City Council or neighborhood board meeting or join a group that does confront the people in charge of “doing something” about homelessness. I watch televised news and “tsk tsk” about why somebody doesn’t do something to fix the flaws of our community, our world.
Truth be told, I mostly limit my works of mercy to the close circle of my life where, God knows, I am in company with other ill, frail, unhappy, needy, helpless people. I’m dissatisfied that mercy is just a flicker in me, not a raging flaming force. We don’t have room here for my excuses.
Though they didn’t have to memorize the corporal works of mercy as we did — the first of which is “Feed the Hungry,” remember? — we know that other brands of Christians get Jesus’ teaching about caring for the poor and unfortunate. Who are the congregations feeding and housing homeless families in their church halls, or erecting those igloo living quarters on their grounds? Who have years-long traditions of cooking and taking food to the grungy loiterers in corners of the island most people avoid? Who started the 1970s peanut butter ministry which grew to become the Institute for Human Services, biggest homeless shelter in the state? The answer is Protestants, bless ‘em.
Not exclusively Christian
What the pope calls “Jesus’ most important message” is not an exclusive Christian thing. Compassion for the less fortunate is a common thread in major faiths, a subject that was explored in an April 17 program at Chaminade University. Key speaker at the discussion of “Compassion and Mercy: a Comparative Discussion of Buddhist, Judaic and Christian Understandings” was a renowned Buddhist teacher, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, a Catholic university.
Sharing the podium with her were Honolulu Rabbi Peter Schaktman and Dara Perreira, director of the diocesan Human Resources office tasked with combining mercy and institutional professionalism. Hawaii’s Catholic university hosts a continuing series of programs exploring different religious perspectives funded by an international Buddhist organization and named for retired Hongwanji Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani, an early interfaith leader in Hawaii. Now 92, he was in the crowd of about 50 people.
“In Hawaii, we live in a bubble” where it is easy to be isolated from the global concerns that require compassion, said Karma Lekshe. “If we close our eyes to the suffering of the world, we are not going to develop compassion. A compassionate person has no choice but to work for social justice.” Now a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, she was Patricia Zenn, a Malibu surfer, when she came to University of Hawaii in the 1970s.
She earned UH master and doctorate degrees, has studied Buddhism in India and Nepal, and is author of several books and a popular speaker on Buddhist teaching, including at a recent Indonesian conference on “compassion and social justice.”
Karma Lekshe said “We pass out sandwiches … but we need to address why are people hungry? When we support an unjust economy, we are contributing to the poverty. Why are products so cheap at Walmart … because they are made by prisoners, children, people with no choice.”
Schaktman, rabbi of the Aloha Jewish Ohana, said that “In Jewish tradition, compassion is an obligation. In scriptures, compassion is for the poor, widows, orphans, all who are vulnerable or needy. We must imitate God and his compassion. Our action is based on judgment … there’s a right and a wrong and we will be judged.” It is the focus of the Jewish high holy days, of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, the annual remembrance of God’s promise to give compassion and forgiveness to his people.
Schaktman said Jewish sages have instructed that, “Even if we give grudgingly, we still have to give. The lack of a feeling of compassion does not allow us to fail to act.”
One family, one world
Perreira said, “Jesus said whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you have done to me. It is important that we recognize that we are one family, one world.
“When we believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God, we know we have the capacity for compassion. But God gave us free will. There are people who live with the view that ‘I’ll do whatever I want until something happens to stop me, a heart attack, I reach rock bottom.’ I guess the meaning of being a practicing Catholic is that I keep trying.”
Some questions from the audience echoed my thoughts: Worldwide poverty is so enormous, how can we even start to solve it? How can I have compassion for refugees when I’m afraid there are terrorists among them and that the wave of needy immigrants will submerge our quality of life that seems more tenuous every year.
Karma said “fear is at the base” of the reluctance to put belief into action. “We are all immigrants … compassion and loving kindness are our greatest attributes. One big reason for compassion is the survival and continuation of the species” meaning humanity as we know it. “We need to create an ethic of compassion … religions of the world need to work together.”
Schaktman said “Before we can fix the world, we have to fix ourselves” and not let inertia or cynicism stop us from tackling “tasks that seem so overwhelming.”
“You are fearful … and we are not obligated to endanger ourselves,” said Schaktman.
“You have an obligation to question and analyze. I think you will find out your fears are not justified.”
The rabbi said the Jewish teaching is that “It’s not your duty to finish the work. Nor may you desist from it. You cannot lay back.”
I considered that the most profound, and heartening, thought I carried away from the seminar. It’s not all on me. I won’t own the whole problem if I decide to commit. Stop meditating on mercy and take a first step.
There’s a primer on living out the corporal works of mercy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website: www.usccb.org/beliefs. Honestly, I was surprised at how practical and down-to-earth the ideas are. You’ll carry them in your head when you turn on the faucet, order a latte or shop for snacks.
David Coleman, Chaminade dean of humanities and fine arts, read Pope Francis’ prayer for our earth to kick off the conference. It’s available in holy card form now. Some buzz words in his prayer and his book have incited the wrath of some politicians and mega-businessmen. I’ve seen some of those stories but haven’t clipped them.
Here it is, a prayer for our earth:
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may embrace life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it. That we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey toward your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.