Overheard on a Facebook conversation last week: “There is really not much difference between compassion and pity when it comes to being on the receiving end of it.” This thought gave me pause as I consider compassion to be a central tenet of biblical justice, and yet, I experience this to be true. We use the fancy spiritual term of “compassion” when the gist of the sentiment is, indeed, pity.
The above conversation rose out of a discussion on the viral story of Pope Francis kissing the disfigured man. The media reporting the story highlights the compassion of the Pope, how his actions are pushing outside the box of the papacy, and how revolutionary his love was. Other than a brief medical description of the disfigured man’s disease, there is no additional information on who he is, where he lives, or whether he has a family. We are not even given his name. The buzz generated by this story arises out of an awed respect for someone who could even consider touching such a pitiful, nameless person. I can’t help but wonder how this man feels to have the world captivated by somebody showing love to himself. It seems to me his deformity has been made into a public spectacle.
The recent devastating storm in the Philippines is another example of how the media thrives on sensationalizing suffering because it taps powerfully into our human capacity for pity. In order to feed the 24-hour news cycle, networks display horrific images and sob stories from tragedy so viewers can continually feed their appetite for pity.
The word, pity, carries negative connotations precisely because it conveys a sense of superiority. One pities those who are “other.” We pity the people who we have deemed to lack something, who are not whole, unlike ourselves. We pity those beneath us. In exercising compassion, then, we often fall into the trap of leveraging power as those who ‘have’ towards the ‘have-nots.’ The result is to help in some very unhelpful ways.
How then, do we pursue justice, if the definition of justice is to lift people out of poverty and oppression? If compassion is reduced to pity, can there be true efforts toward authentic change? Is it possible to care for the marginalized without the condescension of pity?
The best response to the above question I learned from Stephen Bauman, the CEO of World Relief, who taught me about friendship as justice. We pity strangers. The nameless statistic from the news, the sad image in magazines, the people far away. We don’t pity our friends. When bad things happen to my close friends, I don’t feel pity — I enter into their pain. I know their story, their history, their personality, so that I am not engaging their pain from a place of superiority, but one of solidarity. There is a recognition of mutual brokenness. My friends and I have shared time over coffee and spilled all the deep, dark secrets. There’s no pretense of having it altogether — there is only the vulnerable trust of carrying the burden of the other knowing they would do the same for you. Frederich Buechner says, “What is friendship, when all’s said and done, but the giving and taking of wounds?”
Friends also make the best advocates because they can’t help but push to make things right. When you have a friend in the margins, you fight with all you have to bring them benefits. Friendship erodes status, equalizes power, finds common ground, and demands mutual respect. Friendship is not particularly exciting or glamorous, but is the source of true compassion and lasting justice.
Friends don’t give handouts — knowing resources are only meaningful when shared. Friends don’t help without asking first what is needed. Friends don’t leave when the going gets tough, but perseveres until every option is exhausted, and stays to the end when all hope is gone. Friends don’t need the spotlight of the media, just the gently whispered message of hope. Friends don’t pity; they love.
Justice work, at its best, is as simple as making a friend.
Cindy Brandt blogs at cindybrandt.wordpress.com and serves on the board of One Day's Wages, an organization fighting extreme global poverty. She studied Bible/Theology at Wheaton College and holds a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Seminary.