Compassion is a word that has lost its resonance in the world. It is rarely mentioned when it comes to war, politics, societal discourse, or even religious theological debate. Yet every religion has it as a core tenant.
Compassion is not optional, but mandatory according to our faith traditions. The land where blood is being spilled on an hourly basis is known as the Holy Land. Three global religions have it as their birthplace as adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were birthed in the region. Believers of each have sacred scriptures teaching compassion for the enemy, stranger, orphan, widow, and other vulnerable members of society.
The Talmudic rabbis listed compassion as a distinguishing mark of being Jewish and is manifested in the way we engage with other human beings. God has been referred to as “the Compassionate (One).”Jewish Voices for Peace, a PCUSA partner, shares that their faith tradition compels them to cultivate compassion in these challenging times as preparation for bold nonviolent action. “Meditation is one tool for cultivating a contemplative practice that can nourish our souls, keep our hearts open, and ground us as we take bold action." Isaiah 1:17 reads, “Learn to do well; seek justice; relieve the oppressed; judge the fatherless; plead for the widow.”
According to IslamiCity, “Compassion represents the true spirit of Islam and compassion is far more vital to Islamic teachings than anything else.” In Islam, Allah (God) is the “Compassionate and Merciful.” Islam demands the defense of the weak and vulnerable as found throughout the Quran. Compassion is one of the four most regarded words in its pages. Al Quran 4:37: “…(S)how kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess.”
For Christians, Jesus’ most challenging teachings demand compassion even in the case of previous grievance. He unapologetically charged followers to resist violence, forgive those who injure, and to respond to violence with acts of courageous reconciliation. Matthew 5:38-47: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”
These teachings challenge us to live and think differently. Now is the time when believers need to depend upon God’s guidance and look for another way to resolve our differences. Our responses to conflict are not to be typical or even considered to be normal as they are from a divine source. We must stand for compassion, even in times of war.
Our efforts to defeat our enemies cannot shield us from the unimaginable tragedy war leaves in its wake and the fact that it involves human beings killing one another in the most cruel and painful manner conceived. War is cruelty at its highest. Writer and veteran Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1946, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” We have sanitized our language to remove the brutality of war. When civilians are killed, children, women, men, the elderly, those physically and mentally disabled, we refer to it as “collateral damage.” Torture is “enhanced interrogation.” When a soldier is unintentionally killed by one of his own, it is “friendly fire.” Military invasions are called “Operations” and given non-threatening names such as “Desert Storm,” “Enduring Freedom,” and even, “Wrath of God.” No matter how we dress it up, war only leads to death, hatred, and misery. Even the side that wins loses a part of that which makes each of us fully human, the ability to forgive.
In the 21st century, people of faith must ask ourselves a central question: “Where is our compassion towards children who are suffering immense emotional, psychological, and physical pain?” Children are naturally inclined to see the world through a lens of compassion. As the war between Hamas and Israel unfolded Ramallah Friends School in Palestine asked students to share prayers for the world. Listen to their voices of compassion:
From a 2nd Grader: “I wish I could share my flashlight with people in Gaza, so they can see when the power goes out. I wish I could give everyone in Gaza a mattress to sleep on. I wish I could give everyone in Gaza water that is clean for drinking and enough food for everyone to eat. I pray kids will be safe in Gaza.”
From a 5th Grader: “Our weapon is education and the secret to ending violence is nonviolence. My prayer is that the war ends by nonviolence, everyone lives in peace and no one is under occupation anymore. I pray that this war will end by nonviolence because violence never solves anything.”
War is not the answer as only compassionate diplomacy makes for lasting peace. CNN’s reporter Athena Jones interviewed several Jewish students from the Bronx, NY, to talk about the war. High schooler Noah Ives-Kurtzer commented, “Israel has lost. The innocent civilians in Gaza have lost. Nobody can win a war like this. And so, what does the end look like? It looks like lost.” (CNN, 11/1/23).
A compassionate ceasefire is our only hope for peace and reconciliation. It is the only hope for the children.