The Compassion of Jesus Is Our Greatness by Gene Ciarlo

We Americans are inspired by the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .” However, we may not be familiar with the full sonnet, “The New Colossus.” Here it is in its entirety:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The poem is a study in contrasts. It opens with a description of the Colossus of Rhodes, of Greek fame, massive, all-encompassing, embracing everything as it reaches out toward the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas. It appears threatening and hostile, indomitable, and full of awe. Then comes the contrast, the “Mother of Exiles.” Notice the key words: glows, welcome, mild eyes. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” she cries, but with silent lips. Her presence alone speaks. And then the part that we Americans love because it used to define us, it used to remind us who we were: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .” Are these words gone now? Are they just memories of what used to be? As they disappear, so goes much of our pride as a democratic republic.

What have we done to ourselves in order to play the ego-filled game of making America great? Is it about the economy, or protecting our borders regardless of the cost to human dignity? Is it about the best trade deal because we have been cheated all this time? Is it about taking whatever the earth can yield to us in order to produce more and more, bigger and better, at the expense of our environment? “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” Greatness, in some camps, means taking and never giving, laissez-faire capitalism, increasing the reign of wealth-as-power, battling the enemy and never admitting defeat, gloating in how much we can lord over lesser powers, dominating rather than reaching out in a global embrace while still retaining our distinct American identity.

But we are Jesus people, we who proclaim Jesus as Lord. As Christians, our hallmark ought to be compassion. That is why we have respect for life, respect for the unborn, to be sure. But what about our endless wars and battles all over the globe? Where is our moral compass when we are killing each other with impunity, still touting capital punishment, and growing our military for what other purpose than more death and destruction? Time and again national security is proclaimed, an easy out that is often applied willy-nilly in our time. Shouldn’t we be consistent if we are going to proclaim respect for life?

Jesus was compassionate; he had respect for life, especially among the poorest of the poor, the socially rejected and desperate. He was not a warmonger, nor did he relish making enemies and alienating friends. What gospels are the so-called evangelicals, fundamentalists, protectionists, conservatives, America First diehards reading? How selective can one be and still be credible, still call oneself Christian?

I wonder if Jesus ought to be characterized first and foremost as a charismatic figure in history, full of compassion and human warmth and crazy for justice rather than as Savior and Redeemer. When I think of a humanitarian, a person who is wholeheartedly interested in the lives of other people, I think of someone who exudes warmth. The literary forms of the ancient gospels don’t always allow us to feel this warmth in Jesus that would help us to recognize his compassion. Perhaps it is the language and culture in which the gospels were written that fail to convey what we would like them to manifest. Furthermore, each gospel writer had his and her own intentions for recording history. But then look at Jesus’s words and deeds. They will tell you what kind of a person he was. He went around doing good, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, and letting the poorest of the poor and the most desolate among them know that he was living and working—and dying—for them.

There is more compassion and love for people in the events that unfold in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke than I find in the writings of John and Paul. In the latter we are gradually led to see Jesus as the Redeemer, Son of God who came to save us by his death and resurrection. The resurrection theme is particularly meaningful because if Jesus did not rise from the dead then our faith is in vain, says St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:12–19). That is the epitome of the redemption theme and the one that came to be the hallmark of Christianity, elaborated, embellished, and worked on over the decades and centuries after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Let’s draw this hypothesis out further: If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we probably wouldn’t be hearing much about him today. He would have been just another awe-inspiring charismatic wonderworker during the time of the Roman occupancy of Palestine. Were John and Paul, the greatest proponents of Jesus as Savior of humanity, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was God incarnate who became one of us to redeem us from the clutches of Satan and lead us to eternal life, through faith demonstrated by our good works? I think they were zealous enough to capture that myth and carry it out to its fullest extent. If Christianity survives today it is because of the theology of John and Paul.

I want to believe that Jesus, above all, was the compassionate humanitarian, a charismatic Son of God, who showed us what it is like to love one another and to give one’s life, ultimately, for the good of others. How different would our relationship to Jesus, to God, and to one another be if we lived not to be saved from the clutches of evil and eternal death but to give our lives in service to one another? Such a life would point to and promote an entirely different kind of Christianity. Think of how radically different our catechism lessons would be when we taught our faith to young ones at home and in our elementary schools. Think of what the sacraments of baptism and confirmation would look like, how they would be defined and taught, if compassion not redemption was the main theme. What would the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, look like from the point of view of Jesus, the compassionate servant of God’s people?

In the liturgical year, we are presently in the critical period before Easter and the baptism of adults. The Catholic Church, in her wisdom, has revived some of the ancient forms of initiation, so there are stages along the way to the final night when we sing, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” However, perhaps in a different time when the ancient progressive stages could be carried out with an even greater facility, the catechumens might be more inspired by what they are called to do. But in today’s society, and with the frantic pace of our life in 2020, I have to ask if perhaps we should use the old forms merely as guides and try a new catechumenal approach that would be more suited to our time. In truth, the approach I am suggesting—and I say this humbly, since I am no longer a part of the program—would be entirely different, in that the formation leading up to the final baptism and reception of the Eucharist would place a deep involvement with the works of mercy, compassion, and justice at its center.

We as a nation have lost our way in a morass of thoughtless, superficial, adolescent, and sophomoric words and deeds in order to reestablish our place as the greatest among nations. Certain so-called Christians seem to have it all figured out. Somehow entwined in their idea of the gospel is white supremacy, nationalism, isolationism, and a very selfish, self-destructive attitude of superiority. We Christians, most of the people in the United States, need to recognize the Jesus among us as the Compassionate One. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Self-serving power and compassion cannot coexist.

Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication. 

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