Compassion arises as a direct and appropriate response to suffering. Now, there is no shortage of human suffering in our world. Then why isn’t there more compassion?

Dear Members and Friends,

Either the United States will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.           

-W.E.B. Du Bois, 20th century historian

By now you have undoubtedly heard the many stories recounting the horror that took place on February 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  You have also, I hope, heard the amazing stories that are taking place in the wake of that shooting, as the students, especially, have risen up to demand that the adults of the nation, those who should be taking care of providing for the safety and security of our children, and all of us, take real action to make sure such events stop happening.

There are other stories that you may not have heard that are equally powerful from other similar events that illustrate an important component of our common life that is also necessary as we seek to build a better future together.

In 2006, Jencie Fagan, a Nevada gym teacher, risked her own life to stop a 14-year-old boy who came to school with a handgun.  After firing three shots which struck two children injuring them, Jencie calmly approached the boy, waking right up to face him and his gun.  After talking with him for a while, she persuaded him to drop his gun.  This is where the courage of the warrior would have stopped with an undeniably brave act, and one that almost certainly saved lives.

But Jencie demonstrated the courage of the strong heart when she then surprised everyone by hugging the shooter.  She reassured the young boy that she would not leave him alone.  She would accompany him to the station and throughout his legal process to make sure that he was safe and to ensure that the police didn’t hurt him.  Later, when asked why she had acted so compassionately toward the shooter, Jencie, who is a mother herself, replied, “I think anybody else would have done it.  I look at the students as if they’re my own.” 

Another shooting incident happened at Taft Union High School outside Bakersfield, California.  One student was shot and is in critical condition.  But a 40-year-old teacher named Ryan Heber stood in the classroom face-to-face with his 16-year-old student, who was holding a shotgun.  Ryan had no idea whether the student – whose pockets were filled with ammunition – would put the gun down or pull the trigger.  Eventually, the teen released the gun, and police took him into custody.  The teacher’s father, David Heber, was interviewed after this incident.  This is what he said about his son, Ryan.  “Because he knows the boy and the boy knows him … I attribute that to why the boy talked to and listened to my son.  It’s all about kindness.  It’s all about my son being kind and caring about his students.”

 “Because he knows the boy and the boy knows him.”

Legislation for gun control (as I advocated for strongly in this space last week) and better mental health services are absolutely essential.  We need to provide support rather than stigmatizing and further isolating those at risk for dangerous behavior.  People are foolish if they believe that these measures are not necessary.  But, so is fearless compassion a necessity.  So is knowing our neighbors and our neighbor’s kids and how they are hurting and why they are hurting.

Compassion arises as a direct and appropriate response to suffering.  Now, there is no shortage of human suffering in our world.  Then why isn’t there more compassion?  Perhaps because we rarely allow ourselves to actually face the suffering directly.   To a great extent we spend a large portion of our day consumed with activities that are attempts to protect ourselves from discomfort, pain, and suffering.  Compassion has a direct and integral relationship with suffering.  No contact with our suffering leads to not much compassion in our hearts.  The willingness to face suffering can give rise to compassion.

The Season of Lent is a time when we are reminded of the suffering, the Passion, of Jesus.  When we look at that suffering, what we begin to see is that Jesus was not only courageous in facing that suffering, but that he was also filled with tremendous compassion for people and their suffering.  Jesus was always available to people and he was always building relationships with people.  Jesus lived a life of covenant, of commitment to relationship, with God and with other people.

As followers of Jesus, ours is a faith built on covenant: agreement to be in relationships that last and are meaningful.  From the covenant God created with Abraham, renewed through Moses, and solidified through King David, the people of God have always been in a special relationship with God.  Because of that relationship with God we also understand that we are to build special relationships with one another.  We need each other and that is ever more evident as the basic covenants in our society have broken down.

When we don’t know our neighbors, we are not in relationship with them and we are not in covenant with them.  When we are not in covenant with one another in our nation, we cannot rationally, compassionately, with common sense, discuss realistic solutions to the great problems which confront us.  We need to rebuild our relationships with our neighbors; with our governmental leaders; and they with one another and with us.  Because rather than arming everyone with their own weapons, the only real solution that will solve this crisis is contained in the statement of that teacher’s father:

“Because he knows the boy and the boy knows him.”

See you in church.

R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida