by M. Doretta Cornell, RDC
Recent news reports give us ample exercise in compassion: the Afghani community mourning the loss of 16 people shot by a U.S. soldier; stunned French families weeping where the five men and three children were shot.
Our hearts easily reach out to these people who suffer such terrible loss.
But a commitment to living compassionately demands something more of us: How can we extend compassion to those who cause such tragedy? What does it mean to have compassion for someone who has committed an act of violence?
Where does compassion end?
First of all, compassion, like forgiveness, is not founded on denying reality, especially the reality of violence. Sister Helen Prejean, best known as the author of Dead Man Walking, tells of a moment in her ministry to a man on death row. As the date for his execution approached, the man grew more and more despairing and self-hating, recognizing the horror of what he had done and identifying himself solely with that one action.
A turning point came when Sr. Helen reminded him that he was a child of God, regardless of what he had done.
The man was transfixed – he had never imagined such compassion.
The challenge for us, of course, is to find in our own hearts compassion for those who have caused the harm – not dismissing the wrong they have done or ignoring the suffering they have brought on others, but recognizing within the offending person a deeper identity: human person, created in the image of God.
Perhaps even more difficult: to recognize this person as a human being, like me.
In my first years of teaching, in the early 1970s, our high school launched a drug prevention program. To introduce the new program, we brought a panel of speakers to a parents' meeting: an expert from a new rehab program, the Sister on the faculty who would coordinate the program, and a young woman in a gray blazer and maroon skirt like those of the school uniform.
When the young woman introduced herself as the sister of one of our students and as a drug addict, the parents reacted explosively. This girl looked like their daughters! She couldn't be a drug addict! How could we deceive them so cruelly!
Of course, that was the point: drug addicts began as children or teenagers just like their own. They were not some other species or from some horribly depraved society. They came from among us. The same is true for those who commit acts of violence.
Perhaps our denial of our own capacity for violence and evil keeps us from wanting to recognize the humanity of persons who act in violent ways. To acknowledge this capacity in ourselves is not wallowing in artificial guilt—but recognizing the multiple layers of our own motivations and responses, the choices we make based on our beliefs and our desire to be a certain kind of person.
My own desire is to live compassionately, to imitate our compassionate God by responding to everyone with compassion, to undermine violence rather than reinforcing it by my own violent actions.
Compassion, then, is a choice: we can steep ourselves in the compassion of God for us and, in turn, allow that to color our responses to others.
This is not alway a naive or easy choice.
We have often seen the shock and grief of families when one of their members commits an act of violence. The person they knew is suddenly revealed as having a capacity hitherto unguessed. What pain this loss must be! How deep, too, must be the sorrow of God for the beloved child who has rejected his or her identity as an image of the divine to choose violence!
Can we open our hearts to share the sorrow God must feel for the victims of violence, as well as for God's children who have caused that violence?