A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 5

We began this series with Psalm 137, so let us return there and read those words anew.
By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept
     when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth,
     saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
     how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!"
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back
     what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
The Psalm expresses the Israelite anguish during the Babylonian captivity, and ends with a bitter vision of violent recrimination.

Giving vent to pain does not heal the wound; it only expresses the pain. So the story-tellers among that oppressed people brought forth from the imaginations of their better selves another sort of story, a salve for smoldering hatred -- a story that called the people not to pay back violence and death, but to pay forward compassion -- a story not of pain that makes more pain, but a story of hospitality that engenders healing and wholeness. Compassion to strangers is the way that we encounter the holy. That's the story the Israelites in their captivity put into the foundation of the narrative that defines the Jewish people, hence the Christians, hence the Moslems – and us.

Yes, Jews, Christians, and Moslems, are still fighting – though modern warfare kills a smaller percent of us than early human warfare did. Religion’s ancient use for war runs deep and is not easily replaced by its new use for peace across tribal lines. Religion hasn’t finished outgrowing and transcending its original tribal function.

But it’s getting there.

The Israelite story-tellers, in the midst of their captivity, homelessness, and pain, found a way to remember others’ pain, too. Somehow they found a way to make stories to move their hearts from pain toward compassion, to care for the stranger. What they illustrated in their story of Abraham's hospitality to visiting strangers, they codified in principle, for Deuteronomy was also substantially created in Babylonian captivity:
“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut 10:19)
The stories that emerged in the Babylonian captivity have not ended the violence that oppresses our planet. Those stories do show us what is possible. The violence can be ended.

Our spiritual hardware is built into us. It's what we have and what we are. It was made as a sword -- a device to bind us together for cohesive war fighting. It's up to us to beat that sword into a plowshare, cultivate fields of care, and sew the nourishing knowledge that we are one. It is up to us to find the ways to connect, to cultivate compassion for enemies, to train ourselves in nonviolence, to recognize that violence is any thought, word, or deed that treats a being like an object or diminishes a being’s sense of value or security. Thus we stand in the Abrahamic tradition of hope and possibility, stand with the radical vision of some captive Israelite story-tellers.

What they dreamed be ours to do.

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This is part 5 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Previous: Part 4.
Beginning: Part 1.

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