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Why Compassion Is Divisive
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Why Compassion Is Divisive

In the age of cancel culture, mercy makes enemies.

There’s a damaging misconception that’s hidden within a common critique of Christianity. The critique is one that’s consistently articulated against Christian culture. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “I believe in the teachings of Christ, but you on the other side of the world do not, I read the Bible faithfully and see little in Christendom that those who profess faith pretend to see.”

The distinction between Christendom and Christ—the differences between the culture and institutions of the faith and the teachings of the savior himself—have been eloquently argued for generations. I’ve been influenced by Søren Kierkegaard’s searing Attack on Christendom, which dates back to the mid-19th century, and even that is a recent critique by the standards of an ancient faith. 

The gap between Christendom and Christ is sometimes vast, always grievous, and will persist to some degree throughout the entire life of the church. Fallen people will never be truly “like Christ” so long as we inhabit this earth. But hidden within that truth is a misconception—one that’s often extrapolated from a different Gandhi quote, “I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.” 

I’ve heard a version of this comment my entire life. We like Jesus, but we don’t like you. Why? Because you’re not like him. Setting aside the obvious fact that I’ll never be all that much like Christ, is it really true that Christianity would be more popular if its followers were more like Christ? 

I’d say no, because that experiment has been tried. No one was more “like Jesus” than Jesus himself. And while there were moments when the crowd celebrated him, it ultimately called for his head. Believers and nonbelievers alike rejected him, and the longer I live, the more I understand that they condemned him for the very virtues we now most say we admire, for virtues Christians ourselves often lack.

That brings me to one of those virtues—compassion. We say we want it. We say we need it. We admire it in Jesus, but the sad reality is that it was divisive then, and it is divisive now. It’s a virtue that contradicts hate, but our hateful time and hateful culture cannot abide it. It’s also a virtue that contradicts pride, but our prideful time and prideful culture will not permit it. Let’s look at each truth in turn.

First, compassion contradicts hate, and the hateful will not tolerate it. The ethos of our modern political culture can be summed up in a single sentence: “Do unto others more than they have done unto us.” This is the essence of cancel culture, for example. Are we bothered (or even hurt) by someone else’s speech? Then they should suffer not just public shame but economic catastrophe for what they’ve done. The punishment exceeds the crime.

At the extreme levels, this leads to shocking amounts of schadenfreude at the suffering and even the deaths of our enemies. A broken man commits suicide? Fill the internet with stories of his worst days and worst moments. An anti-vaxxer dies alone and afraid in his hospital bed? Post about Darwin or tweet thoughts that begin, “It’s sad, but …” 

In this environment, compassion for your opponents or enemies can actually make people angry. How can you “fight fire with fire” if you insist on granting them mercy for their mistakes, even when they might never be merciful to you? How can you live by the principle “f— around and find out” if you insist on defending others’ rights, even when you strongly disagree with their speech? 

This is the heart of the claim that compassion represents a form of unilateral disarmament. Compassion represents a tangible way of loving your enemies, and it precisely models Christ’s example. When a mob seized him—and one of his disciples drew his sword and cut off a man’s ear—Christ healed the ear and went peacefully with the mob.

When he was dying on the cross, unjustly executed by an imperial oppressor, among his last words was a plea for his killers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.” 

We love those stories 2,000 years removed from Roman rule, but do we value compassion now when it’s displayed towards the people we believe oppress us? The available evidence suggests no. The available evidence suggests that a culture that seeks vengeance despises compassion as weakness.

Second, Compassion contradicts pride, and the prideful will not permit it. There is only one kind of compassion that everyone seems to like—compassion for ourselves when we know that we know we’re guilty of sin. Then we crave it. We’re desperate for it. But Christ extends compassion before we know we’re wrong. Then it can feel insulting. The very idea that we need grace can puncture our sense of superiority. 

One of the more mysterious passages of scripture is found in the book of Galatians, where the Apostle Paul refers to something he calls the “offense of the cross.” What’s offensive about the cross? Yes, it’s offensive that Christ was killed, but that’s not what Paul is referring to. He’s referring to the purpose of Christ’s death, for the atonement and remission of sin. Of my sin.

Charles Spurgeon, the legendary English pastor and theologian, put it plainly. The cross, he said, “is opposed to all [our] notions of human ability. The man who is relying for salvation on his own strength, does not like the doctrine of the cross.” Spurgeon continued: 

But there is another offence, which is a very sore one, and the world has never forgiven the cross that “offence” yet, it will not recognize any distinctions between mankind. The cross makes moral and immoral persons go to heaven by the same road; the cross makes rich and poor enter heaven by the same door; the cross makes the philosopher and peasant walk on the same highway of holiness; the cross procures the same crown for the poor creature with one talent that the man with ten talents shall receive. 

The cross, in other words, reminds us of our flaws.

To make this all more concrete, let’s hearken back to what is perhaps the most Christlike Christian political in modern American history—the Civil Rights Movement and its philosophy of nonviolence. In a 2004 interview, the late civil rights leader John Lewis described the movement’s approach:

During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love—the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. That’s not anything any Constitution say anything about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.

A movement rooted in love and forgiveness infuriated opponents who believed they were in the right. They unleashed hoses and dogs and worse on peaceful protest. But King’s branch of the civil rights movement didn’t just anger enemies. It could frustrate allies also, those with more violent impulses—those who did not want to forgive. 

Last month I wrote that I’ve been reading through scripture with a central fact in mind—every single syllable of the New Testament was written during a time of far worse disease, oppression, and danger than we endure today. The people of God suffered under imperial rule but lived under the firm belief that a messiah would take back the land from a godless empire. 

Yet many of the religious leaders of the time were hardly liberators. They were oppressed by the Romans and oppressors of their own people. Or, as Jesus said in Matthew 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

Christ’s compassion thus contradicted the religious leadership in two ways, both summed up in one of the most famous sentences of scripture: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” Christ extends grace both to the oppressor (the tax collector, an agent of Roman rule) and the oppressed (the sinner, shunned by the Pharisee class).

The culture often claims it wants Christians to be like Christ, but does it really? The spirit of the age is better described by a famous quote by a Peruvian general and president named Óscar Benavides: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.” Christ responds with, “For my friends, mercy; for my enemies, mercy.” 

And what is our answer? “I don’t need it, and they mustn’t have it.” The world may say that it likes Christ and merely rejects the church, but I suspect that if Christ were walking among us now, much of the world and even many in the church would reject him again, for the same reasons believers and unbelievers did before. His compassion rebukes our hate and our pride. 

One more thing … 

Speaking of hate and pride, Curtis and I spent this week’s Good Faith podcast talking about something we called the “partisan mind.” There’s a difference between voting on a partisan basis or even running for a partisan office and possessing a partisan identity. 

How do you diagnose the partisan mind? How does it hurt you and your neighbors? Listen for our answers and please send us your thoughts as well. 

One last thing …

Last week I told you I was obsessed with Kristene DiMarco’s new album, The Field, and I still am. I said it was subversive in delightful ways, and so it is with this song, which in two short minutes takes aim at any number of distractions from the Gospel. It’s excellent and upbeat. Enjoy!

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David French

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.