Monday, September 22, 2008

Anger and Compassion

This summer on leaving Israel/Palestine, Justin and I were given the special treatment by the Israeli airport security. The reason: they found out that Justin had taught in a Palestinian school three years earlier. It didn’t matter that this time we had come for a well publicized international Anglican conference that had been personally welcomed and sponsored by the Israeli minister of tourism (and that I had a badge to prove it). After this special branch of the Israeli military took every item out of my bags they then escorted me to a dark and dingy back room where I was given a very intimate pat down. Lastly, I was personally escorted to my gate by the same security guy. I was furious. A plethora of not so nice words describing these soldiers threatened to explode from my mouth.

For those working for peace and justice, anger is a common companion. Anger results from seeing the ugly face of injustice that causes suffering to others: a child dying in Gaza because he isn’t allowed to enter Israel to receive the necessary medical care, an old man denied entry to Israel for his Ramadan prayers. Our anger can become directed towards those that are perpetrating this injustice. “How dare those racist soldiers do this to me? Do they have no heart underneath that uniform?” (Think, for example, of all the bumper stickers you have seen railing on Bush.)

Quickly this “righteous” anger can turn us into the very same thing we hate. We begin to generalize and become racist ourselves. They become the “oppressors”, a nameless generalization. We see ourselves as the ones in the right, fighting the cause of justice, and we distance ourselves from “them.” “It’s all those racist, oppressive Jews out there who are the problem.”

This is clearly not the way of Christ, but what is the alternative? Compassion, a true seeing of the other. Nouwen in his The Way of the Heart (p.38) states that “the compassionate person is so aware of the suffering of others that it is not even possible for him or her to dwell on their sins.” With compassion one is able to see the pain that is the root of sin in the lives of others. Furthermore, I would add that the compassionate person is so aware of his or her own sins that it is not possible to dwell on the sins of others.

In my example above, compassion begins when I am able to see the fear in the eyes of airport security soldiers, the insecurity that lies behind the M16 in their hands. Compassion helps me to realize that they have been taught to fear from an early age; maybe even they have had family members hurt in the conflict, deepening their hurt and fear. Compassion also allows me to see my own fears and insecurities, my own tendency to distance myself from others, to stereotype.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese peace activist and spiritual teacher, makes a similar point in his beautiful poem below.

Call Me by My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

(For Han’s explanation of this poem see:

Prayer Requests:

-Please pray for Matt and me as we seek to minister to our neighbors in our community incarnationally. Pray especially for the children who are over at our apartment every day.

-Please pray for a partner in ministry, as I plan on returning to Israel/Palestine.