The Promise of Justice, Equity and Compassion

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on August 9th, 2009. It explores the practicalness of compassion.

Who needs compassion anyway? Its a virtue that asks us to make our lives a little bit more difficult, a little more complicated without any obvious tangible benefit. It rarely seems to ask it of us either when times are easy. Why should we share in the suffering of others? Give a little more of yourself even when it seems you have less to give. Why should we even feel the compunction to do so? Our second principle isn’t just asking us to do something, it’s asking us to feel like we ought to be doing it.

Our words for all ages this morning explores that very question. A rewriting of traditional Hindu texts, we learn of a king who has it all. “There once was a king who thought that everyone should always do exactly what he said and that he didn’t have to care about anyone else. Even the people of his kingdom. What did he care? They existed only to serve his needs – or so he thought.”

Hoarding all the wealth of the people, he closes the coin away and along with it, the prosperity of his kingdom. With its lack of use, schools, hospitals, home and hearth all suffer. The king certainly has all material goods he wishes, the largest army and the most grandiose palaces, but even he can’t use it all. It lays fallow, and so does his kingdom; so does the hope for something more.

Like last week, our story revolves around the actions of a trickster figure; this time Lord Krishna. The wider stories of Krishna appear across a broad range of Hindu theological and philosophical traditions. He appears in these stories in various guises: as prankster, model lover, god-child, divine hero or the Supreme Being. In our story this morning he may be divine, but he is also hero of a sort and certainly a prankster.

In a brilliant play, he feeds the voracious king yet another gift; this time the largest hunting dog the king has ever seen. Only the dog has the propensity for food as the king does for wealth. When asked to take the gift back, Krishna refuses. “I can’t. He’s not my dog…. Besides, I’ve been sent here by those who are greater and far more powerful than you. You’re stuck with it.”

Essentially, this is your situation, your problem and you need to live in it. There’s no one else who’s going to live it for you. This hunting dog is a giant sized emblem of anything we turn into a problem in our minds. There are actual issues going on around him, like hungry people, poor schools, and raging wars, but the king is focused on the “problem” he’s created for himself – one giant, loud, hungry dog. How often are we that king in our own lives? Instead of acting to resolve the pain in and around us, we fixate on thinking about issues that we’ve generated for ourselves. In that way, we might all be able to relate to the character of the king in the story. His actions are very normal human things to do; and probably a little insane.

I feel that the giant hunting dog in this story though, is the practical answer to the questions I posed earlier that asked why we should share in the suffering of others. I say “practical” while promising to get to the spiritual and moral answers shortly. If we understand compassion to mean “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” then showing compassion is simply outwardly recognizing the inward truth. Whether we are aware of it or not, we suffer along with the suffering of people around us. The king had all he could ask for, but he also had that dog – which the story tells us he at first also coveted. Along with his appetite for more, the king picked up the symbol for that appetite as well. A hunting dog that could not be satiated so long as the king continued to need more.

The king’s opulence, although seemingly pleasant, left him closed off from genuine human contact, and did nothing to cease his craving. Like his people subjected to his rule, he was ultimately trapped by his needs. And ironically, left with no one to be compassionate toward him either. He created and perpetuated a reality for his kingdom that matched his own psychological disfunction. Practically speaking, living without compassion for others obscured the king from realizing his own addictions. In his case, the practical solution was to rectify his voracious and hoarding habits. Likewise, his hunting dog would do the same.

But that solution was difficult to come to. “He called in all of his advisors and councilors and asked them what could be done. They tried to think of something but because of the racket from the dog’s barking they couldn’t think.”

Although it’s a bit of an unkind barb in the story, I can’t help but think it’s so true of our worldly leaders who cut funding for schools, health care and affordable housing while raising spending for military and offer support for big bonuses divorced of actual productivity or competency. Their hunger for power and wealth makes it so that they can’t think straight. In these cases, compassion helps us to think straight. Practically, it helps us to see the world more clearly so that our actions reflect what is actually going.

That’s a practical or utilitarian argument. Compassion bends us toward facing reality.

To better see the moral arguments we can take a look at the other aspects of our second principle. We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations (and some of us would say ‘all our relations.’) Our reading for this morning speaks of the singularity of these three. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face. And the name of that Spirit is Life. Justice, equity and compassion. Different names for the same thing.”

Different names for the same thing… From our past examples, we already see how compassion reflects the reality of life. In our story this morning, equity is easily the outcome of compassion. The solution to the problem of lack of compassion is equity – allowing folks their fair share. All may not have the same, and we’re all born with differing talents, but this story suggests that severely limiting access to basic human and social needs harms all – not just those so limited.

This notion of affecting all relates morally to notions of justice or what is often religiously understood as moral righteousness. That term, righteousness, comes up often in english translations of the Hebrew scriptures. However, how we understand the term differs today than it did in biblical days. Another word, solidarity, would be more helpful to our modern sensibilities. Biblical “righteousness”, particularly in texts that refer to right living, really refers to religious teachings that call for a deeper living into community. These scriptures are a series of stories that, among many other lessons and messages, also teach us to be a people. Solidarity, righteousness or justice, are words that call us to consider ourselves in light of others. They fashion us into more than a singular consciousness, but help us to recognize that we are part of something more. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face…. May my senses awaken to the touch of that Spirit.”

There’s also a moral sense of responsibility in both our story and our second principle. Practically speaking, only the king could resolve the problem of the hunting dog. But the story tells us that Krishna was sent by those far more powerful than the king to deliver that dog. Whatever we see those forces as, the story tells us that something beyond the king has put this responsibility squarely on his shoulders to bare. Whether this be the demands of the gods, or the implicit expectation of that breath of Life that blows across us, the onus is on the king – the onus is on us.

Our second principle calls for the same thing. We have “covenanted to affirm and promote…”. In other words, we have committed ourselves as a religious people to live into justice, equity and compassion. Will our actions match our words and our promises? We may not all see the same things as the right solution to a given situation, but we are freely covenanting to accept responsibility to live in solidarity; to seek right behavior in response to our human relations. When the giant, loud, hungry dog — which is what we have coveted all along — comes our way, we covenant to take on our fair share of the clean up. It makes sense to do so as it relates to how the world works, and it matches are agreed upon commitments – even though it is often so very tough to do.

Krishna’s reference to those far greater and more powerful than the king hints at a spiritual component. The gods or the Supreme Being is likely what Krishna is referring to within Hindu tradition. It’s also a marker for the reality that the world is not about only us. That’s the fulcrum point to spiritual action. Even when it seems like what’s happening in the world is all about us; it’s not. We may be involved, but we’re never in the spotlight – accept only in our own mind. And when our mind tells us that, it’s a lie.

So if opening up to the “beyond-me” is the spiritual trajectory what’s the spiritual course of action or next step. Our reading this morning offers a spiritual argument as well. The resolution to the story of “The Dog and the Heartless King” is, “…when that day came, the dog stopped barking and lay down quietly at the king’s feet. Everyone was happy and at peace with themselves and with their neighbors.” I love it that the story tells us that everyone was happy and at peace with themselves first… then with their neighbors. So often we seek to remedy internal disquiet by projecting it out onto the world around us. In those fantasies we need to fix others first. Knowing that we can’t really fix anyone else – we don’t have the power to ever do so; aren’t we just delaying real change? We’ll never get to changing our actions if we forever wait for others to do so first.

So maybe a little bit of showing compassion starts with showing compassion to ourselves first. It’s a progression from last week’s sermon on our first principle; particularly in how it relates to self-worth. Compassion can be a remedy for lack of self-worth. Again, if we ought to show it to others, we ought to show it to ourselves. In fact, our story suggests that all world solutions originate from self-transformation. Our weekly e-news that goes out on Thursdays ended aptly with a quote from the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

For me, justice, equity and compassion are expressions of love. My personal theology is love-centered; that is to say God-centered. I find the Sacred in expressions of love; and those expressions lead me toward the divine. They help me to be more present. Christian theologian Carter Heyward writes that, “Love is a choice – not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity – a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life…” She’s got it right. Love, that which I would call the promise of justice, equity and compassion, return us to being human. They situate us as a people. We’re not widgets or cogs to further production; we’re not inherently flawed or evil and thereby destined to worsen the quality of life of those around us; and most importantly – we’re not alone.

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