The Gospel of Universal Compassion – Baptist News Global



A Hybrid God

An 82-year-old man is attacked by a fanatic wielding a hammer and political celebrities snicker and giggle. Nancy Pelosi has been demonized by the conservative movement so viciously and for so long that hyper-supporters like Donald Trump Jr., Kari Lake, Charlie Kirk and Steve Bannon are using the attack on Paul Pelosi as more grist for the political mill .

In 2015, we were shocked by the white gospel embrace of a debauched con artist. Perhaps, we surmised, pious people were simply holding their noses in the hope that Donald Trump would stand up for their core issues. There was some persuasive power in this explanation. But it soon became clear that millions of white evangelicals were invigorated, even thrilled, by Trump’s eviscerating rhetoric.

Alan Bean

How is it possible ? Didn’t white American evangelicals celebrate “the biblical worldview”? And doesn’t the Bible teach us to bless, pray and forgive our enemies?

Yes and no. Psalm 103 insists that “the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is on all that he has done”. We are assured that God knows well our weaknesses and faults. “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.

On the other hand, consider the opening verses of Nahum: “A jealous and vengeful God is the Lord, the Lord is vengeful and wrathful; the Lord takes revenge on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.

“In the final version of our theology, God’s friends receive compassion while God’s enemies count with anger.”

Incorporate these passages into a “biblical worldview” and God appears as an unstable mixture of anger and compassion. In the final version of our theology, God’s friends receive compassion while God’s enemies count with anger.

Jesus and the God of Universal Compassion

Jesus rejected this hybrid deity. “You have heard,” he said to the multitudes, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.

Compassion must be without reserve, says Jesus, for God’s compassion is without limit. God is boundless sympathy.

This teaching has proven controversial. Since some people are clearly more deserving of divine mercy than others, universal compassion seems inherently unfair. Many of the parables that Jesus unleashed in the world respond to this complaint. Those who work in the vineyard from dawn to dusk receive the same pay as those who show up at closing time. The prodigal son is forgiven, even celebrated, while his picky brother’s faithfulness feels ignored.

Universal compassion was the cornerstone of the heavenly-earthly kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. The wrath of God, says Jesus, falls on child abusers, prisoners, slaves, widows and the landless. The parable of the sheep and goats, like the story of Lazarus and Dives, describes the fate of those who withhold compassion.

Why the Church Called Compassion

There are countless reasons why universal compassion has been set aside, but I will mention just three.

First, he did not preach. A message “preaches” as it sends ripples of excitement through an audience. Universal compassion does not do that. A message centered on condemnation and promises of divine vengeance does.

Second, it produced anxiety. We inhabit a world overflowing with dangerous people who wish us harm. We need sword-wielding allies like Emperor Constantine or, nowadays, Donald Trump.

Third, the spread of Christianity was almost always preceded by military conquest. Militant expressions of Christianity suited the context; universal compassion (to put it mildly) did not.

“As a rule, the clear teaching of Jesus has suffered the death of a thousand qualifications.”

The radical love of Jesus has always been an ingredient in Christian stew. The doctrine of universal compassion has exercised a lifting influence in every branch of the church in every age. The concept is too closely tied to Jesus to be completely extinguished; but it has always operated at the margin. As a rule, the clear teaching of Jesus has suffered the death of a thousand qualifications.

Theological Objections to Universal Salvation

First, universal compassion leads logically to belief in universal salvation. We have always preferred an end times scenario in which we are rewarded by heaven while they or they can just go to hell. However, if “every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord,” we have to reckon with a radically depopulated hell.

Second, doesn’t universal compassion eliminate the very biblical concept of divine vengeance?

Third, talking about universal compassion frustrates the biblical passion for justice.

The best answer to these objections is provided by the “burning coals” passage in Romans 12: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but give way to the wrath of God; for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.’ No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap hot coals on their heads.

God’s vengeance is the product of radical forgiveness. The oppressed of the world receive compassion as a healing balm. The oppressors experience unmerited grace as an insult, as divine vengeance.

“Powerful people have little use for the suite of virtues we call compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.”

Powerful people have little use for the suite of virtues we call compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. They can dispense these gifts, like a prince throwing pennies to the populace; but they are never the recipients. Compassion turns the tables, and it stings like fire.

Followers of Jesus cannot be culture warriors

We cannot accept the fundamental message of Jesus without rethinking Christian theology and Church history from the ground up. Our house of faith must be razed to the rafters. We may even discover that some of the rafters need to be discarded. We need to unplug our ears and open our eyes to radical ideas. The church militant must give way to the penitent church.

Following Jesus requires letting go of the warrior spirit. Moral and political debates today hinge on the acceptance or rejection of radical compassion. Culture warriors, whatever their ideology, aspire to the defeat, even the annihilation, of the opposing side.

In an America that is rapidly splitting into two armed camps, each working to erase the other, true Christian piety is hard to find, even to understand.

“Conservative culture warriors have declared war on universal compassion.”

Conservative culture warriors have declared war on universal compassion. They consider it a sin. Their political strategy is based on provoking fights and inciting outrage. The strategy is to stoke fear of the other: immigrants, people of color, feminists, the LGBTQ community, non-Christians, atheists, agnostics and, of course, mainstream providers of information and entertainment. Compassion has become a dirty word associated with weakness and an accomplice to failure.

Recoiling in horror, progressive culture warriors cast nightmarish visions of what America would look like under Christian nationalism, theocracy, misogynistic patriarchy and fascist autocracy.

In both cases, the political struggle (secular and ecclesiastical) is conceived as a zero-sum, win-win fight. If the other side survives, we are told, America is doomed.

Only Jesus can save us

Those who no longer want to study war cannot guarantee that the enemy will follow. Spiritual disarmament is almost always one-sided. This is true for conservatives, progressives, and those who feel alienated from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

But the path to compassion has never been easy. In fact, it is impossible. I’ve never been able to pull it off, and I doubt you have either. I am charmed by the great idea that Jesus bequeathed to the world until Rachel Maddow reported the latest outrage of Marjorie Taylor Greene. So all bets are off.

We are wired for revenge; that’s why revenge movies are so popular. Compassion comes naturally when we see a newborn or when a close friend is diagnosed with cancer. But ask us to love and forgive people we perceive as an existential threat, and we seek more promising remedies.

And yet my failed attempts to love and forgive everyone have been transformative failures. Just trying makes me a better person.

Compassionate Communities

Cruelty is a team sport. We feed on the rage of the tribe. Fortunately, community can also function as a stimulus for compassion. When our sermons, hymns, prayers, and public witness reflect the radical love and forgiveness of Jesus, miracles happen. The first generations of the Christian movement understood this. Then the basic teaching of Jesus was relegated to the margins and his marvelous power was wasted.

If we are willing to believe Jesus; whether we are willing to undertake a ruthless re-examination of our tangled history and compromised theology; if we are ready to renounce partisan hatred; and if we are willing to center our worship and mission on the universal compassion of Jesus, the tongues of fire will dance again.

Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members advocating for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

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