Donald Trump’s decision to suspend the US Refugee Admissions Programme for 120 days and to ban Syrian refugees indefinitely has precipitated outrage in the USA and Europe. There have been calls to cancel the President’s planned state visit to the UK, with a petition to that end gathering over a million signatures. Legal challenges to the order have been launched and mass demonstrations have taken place.
Much of the opposition to Mr Trump’s action has been expressed in terms of compassion: America has had a long tradition of compassionately welcoming refugees forced to flee their homeland because of want or oppression. America is a wealthy and powerful nation and, it is said, should be leading the world in a compassionate attitude to those who have lost almost everything. In response, the president has asserted that America ‘will continue to show compassion to those fleeing oppression’, but must also provide security to its citizens.
My purpose in this blogpost is not to comment on the rights and wrongs of the US decision – many others are doing that. I want to highlight a more fundamental question: why should anyone think compassion is a good thing? It is striking that everyone – Christians, liberals, secularists, agnostics and atheists – accepts without question that compassion is a virtuous character trait. No one is arguing against compassion.
Why is this? Why does everyone accept, without argument, that human beings ought in principle to show compassion towards one another? Where did this idea come from? Why would both religious and non-religious people sign up to this, without feeling the need even to articulate arguments in its support? Why would both sides of the political debate want to plead a duty to be compassionate?
It seems that compassion is instinctive to us, a part of our very being as humans. Even when we cannot bring ourselves to show compassion in a particular case, we know that nevertheless compassion, in and of itself, is a good thing. When we see people behave in ways which show no compassion, we instinctively know that something is badly wrong. Even in cases where we feel that other considerations override the possibility of showing compassion in a particular case, we continue to believe that compassion is a virtue to which humans should generally aspire. To be human means to consider compassion a good thing.
It is no coincidence, then, that God tells us in the Bible that compassion is an essential part of his own nature as he has revealed himself to us. When Moses asked God to show him the divine glory, God responded by declaring his ‘name’ before Moses, that is by describing his character. He began, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God’ (Ex. 34:6). Compassion – the mother’s instinct to pick up and comfort her little girl when she falls and cuts her knee, the father’s keen desire to rebuke his teenage son’s wayward behaviour so as to lovingly direct him to a better way of life – this is how the almighty God describes himself to us. It is not all that he says about himself – he is also righteous and punishes sin – but it is significant that it is the first word, after the repetition of his own covenant name, that he uses in his self-revelation.
Where then does the human instinct for compassion originate? In God himself. That should be no surprise. We are not our own creators; we are not the highest point of existence. We are made in the image of God who created us; even in our fallen, sinful condition, we continue to reflect some element of God’s character. For this reason, we know that compassion is a virtue and, sometimes at least, that is a virtue which we want to pursue. We thereby show from whom we originate.
Christians can reflect upon this and, by virtue of the Spirit of God who dwells within them, seek to show true compassion to those around them. We thereby demonstrate the character of Jesus Christ himself, who showed compassion during his life on earth to all who came to him for help.
We can also assist our unbelieving friends and acquaintances to a better understanding of this world, their lives and God, by asking them where they think compassion originates and why it is thought to be such a good thing. Any answer that fails to recognise that compassion comes from God himself will be entirely inadequate.
And finally, we can point everyone to this compassionate God, who has shown humanity supreme compassion by sending his own beloved Son into this world, to die so that sinners like us can find eternal life.