Change of Heart: If you’re a senator, you must have compassion for the world

I’m late to the punch on this one, but I was intrigued by the news last month about Republican senator Rob Portman supporting marriage equality and claiming his gay son as the significant reason for his change of heart. He has subsequently been criticized by some saying that the only reason he changed his mind was because he was able to put a face to the issue. And no doubt they are right. An article in Slate commented that since the senator doesn’t have relatives with no health insurance or exposed to the consequences of environmental destruction, he doesn’t care about those things. He argues, “But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally?”

Caryn Riswold at feminismxianity acknowledges the influence of what psychologists call the contact hypothesis, in which people are more likely to be influenced to change their views on a particular issue when face-to-face with another who embodies the other side. Yet she also laments that people can’t show that compassion as part of the human family, rather than just their own family.

There is a problem with this line of analysis that has caused a misreading of the senator’s actions. The problem is that by making clear his change of heart was motivated by personal influence, he pierced the liberal and religious facade that says we should have compassion for everyone and showed his compassion was much more narrow-minded. Note how quickly the Slate article characterized Portman’s move as one from not caring to caring, which is not warranted by his actions, and allows the article to claim he doesn’t “care” about other issues. But the compassion involved in relationships with family and friends is not the same as that with one’s constituents, or others one doesn’t know. To say that I care about, love, or have compassion for the millions of people I will never meet is a largely meaningless statement. The fact is that most of us care more about our families and friends as well. Yet because Portman admitted the personal factor in his shift, his opponents want to exploit it.

Thus, to construe the senator’s positions on a spectrum of caring and not caring is irrelevant and hypocritical. There is a political facade here as well, one more closely tied with a religious one than we would like to admit, that suggests that politicians are motivated by their constituents and make policy based on what is “right” rather than what gets lobbied for the hardest. Although the corrupt politician is the trope of more movies and television shows than I can count, we yet hold to an ideal of governance in the interest of all—that “all” dependent on ones perspective—and are thus consistently confused by the actions of our government.

Riswold pinpoints the religious character of this wishful thinking, in which we envision people in power caring about all the things that we care about. For her it is no doubt based upon a Christian model of all-encompassing love. That model is impossible to achieve, but stands in the way of moderate and incremental change. This model of compassion, if expanded to its logical conclusion by wider and wider concentric circles, will reach a point where it will make nearly every liberal and Christian heart flinch. When expanded to the poor, when expanded to those of other religious traditions, when expanded to opposing nations, when expanded to “terrorists,” the feelings of compassion begin to shrivel and dry up, or become mere rhetoric. This compassion is based on a religious model that is designed to be impossible and require the intervention of a divinity to complete its action. There are of course some who have served as examples to us all and have cited this sort of love as a motivator. But if I was a betting man, I would not continue to play those odds. Why continue to hold to this model?

The point is that none of us act as compassionate as we think we are. But we can much more easily see that in others than ourselves. This absolutely is not a suggestion that we should all be more like Jesus. Rather, it is a suggestion to put more realistic boundaries around our means of motivation to action. I agree with those commentators who regret that we still live in a world where it is the responsibility of minorities to assert their equality. But it has historically always been that world, and it will always be a tiring fight for minorities. But there are also victories. It is an encouragement to me that personal exposure can break through the dogma of politics, as it can for that of religion. I have not felt the identity crisis that is involved in hiding your sexual orientation, or having the courage to share it and experiencing the fallout from it. But if it is anything like the existential crisis of leaving faith, perhaps I can relate. Dogma is impersonal and universal; it cares little for the individual. Individuals, however, personal relationships, can break through and override dogma, and the way to change beliefs is to show people the possibility of another way.


Frustrations: Social Justice

It’s surprising to me looking back now, but the first frustration I had with the church was its seeming lack of consistency regarding what I’ll call social justice. At the time, I would have called it a question of neighborliness. I knew the call to love my neighbor as myself, and began more and more to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” When I read the story of the Good Samaritan now, I’d like to think that the man who asked Jesus the same question was attempting to set boundaries around who could and could not be considered his neighbor. It was clear to me who were my neighbors: those who attended my church, and in the broader sense, those who were Christian.

Contact with potential neighbors, on missions trips and in the local community, revolved around the necessity of conversion. After all, the best thing you could do for a non-Christian, regardless of their situation, was to get them to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. I sincerely believed that would take care of most of the problems one was facing. Looking at it cynically, my missions work and evangelization operated as a kind of bait-and-switch, where you helped an individual with what she thought was her most immediate need in order to work what she needed more: to become Christian. When I was in high school, my church went through a period where we talked about meeting people’s “felt needs.” It was a two-pronged approach: with their needs taken care of, they would be more willing to become Christian, and maybe they would be so impressed by getting a stranger’s help that they would want to learn why they were so helpful. The move out into the community was a step in the right direction, but it produced more good feelings on our part than converts. I remember in high school taking out a homeless guy to get a soda because I felt like God was telling me to. While we were talking, he told me he was Jesus, among other famous people. Since it’s hard to need Jesus if you are already Jesus, my angle was cut off. Mission abort.

It was music that helped me realize the disconnect between our talk and our actions. I became the worship leader at my church, and gravitated more toward songs that talked about serving the poor and needy, as Jesus did. I began to realize that because we were singing all these songs, we (myself included) began to convince ourselves we were actually participating in the actions described. When my family moved from Oregon to California and I got involved with a church there, I became the coordinator for local community involvement in the hopes that we could overcome the gap and do some of the things we were so good at singing about. It worked for me, only because I knew I was responsible for the success or failure of any venture. I got involved with another church organization that provided meals for the homeless once a week. I began going every week to help out, and tried to get our church involved with providing the meal once a month. The 80/20 rule that applies in most churches, 20% of the people doing 80% of the work, was even more exaggerated in my small church community of college students and young professionals, and the same people helped provide the meal that helped with every other function. Being forced to find places to help out in the community was beneficial for me; I continued to work with the homeless organization long after I stopped attending church. More importantly, though, it helped me realize that there was no necessary connection between the words that I sang in a Sunday morning service and the actions I performed the rest of the week, between my theological principles and my care for others.

I realize that my experience is not everyone else’s, and that many Christians do great things in their communities and beyond. But so do many non-Christians. I thought for years that the only reason I was able to love people the way I did and care about the world was because I had a personal relationship with Jesus. Once I realized that not only was I not doing a very good job, but that my performance also was not tied to theological dogma, Christianity ceased to have the urgent significance it once did for making a better world. According to many Christian, it works, and in a comparatively small number of those, others can see the sincerity and results. My claim is not that it is impossible to lead a caring and compassionate life in Christianity. Rather, it is that Christianity is by no stretch of the imagination the ultimate path to compassionate living. On balance, there are more authentic ways to live a thoughtful and caring life.