An Epidemic of Compassion

By Dan Clendenin

Last week I read a book that reminded me of the dreadful consequences of some infectious diseases. In Alta California (2019), Nick Neely describes how he retraced the 650-mile expedition led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá from San Diego to his “discovery” of San Francisco Bay. As today’s California school children know, along the route Portolá established twenty-one Catholic missions to resupply his team of sixty-three men and fifty mules.

Portolá’s 1769 expedition was Spain’s third exploration of the California coast. The first European to navigate the west coast and set foot on land was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, who is commemorated by a national monument overlooking San Diego Bay, followed by Sebastian Vizcaíno in 1602. I’m always amazed to consider how the Spanish Empire was crawling our west coast almost 500 years ago.

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The Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411).

In Portolá’s day, some 300,000 Native Americans lived in today’s California, and a major theme of Neely’s book is the extermination of 95% of these indigenous peoples due to the infectious diseases that the “civilized” Europeans brought to the “heathen” Indians — measles, smallpox, chickenpox, cholera, malaria, scarlet fever, typhoid, tuberculosis, and more. Whatever good these missions did, they were a catastrophe for the indigenous peoples back then.

As I write, more than a million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in over 200 countries, resulting in over 50,000 deaths. Some experts predict that things will get much worse. We’re hearing virtually nothing about Africa, where reliable data and effective mitigation will be difficult. The deadliest pandemic in human history was the 14th-century Black Death that killed 75–200 million people, some 30–60% of Europe’s population. The “Spanish Flu” pandemic in 1918 infected 500 million people, a quarter of the world’s population at the time, and killed 17 to 50 million people.

We need to grasp the ramifications of the mind-boggling numbers of COVID-19. The economic, political, and social consequences of this pandemic will be catastrophic. Walking around my town, I imagine that some businesses will never reopen. I’m so grateful for the dedicated people on the front lines of medicine, science, media, and government who are battling COVID-19 on our behalf.

And let’s remember how behind every anonymous statistic there’s a personal story. These days I’ve been remembering how my brother contracted the polio virus in 1957, and spent six months in an iron lung as a teenager. My sister remembers climbing a sloping palm tree outside the hospital in order to wave to each other when the nurses pulled him over to the window. My mother was thirty-five at the time, she had five children, the hospitalization was in Florida even though they lived in Ohio, and now her first born child was disabled for life.

Christians also have a role to play in the COVID-19 crisis, for as a community of God we are called to reflect the character of God.

When boisterous crowds were still following Jesus at the end of a long day, the disciples wanted to “send them away.” It’s a painfully revealing detail. Jesus, on the other hand, “felt compassion for them.” As the Sent One of God, Jesus was a man of compassion. That’s only natural, for God himself “is full of compassion” (James 5:11).

I still remember learning the Greek word for “compassion” in seminary thirty-five years ago, perhaps because it was fun to pronounce — splangchnizomai. The word group occurs about twenty-five times in the New Testament. The noun form refers to the bowels, lungs, heart, kidneys, or liver, which in ancient days were thought to be the seat of our human emotions. Even today, for example, we say that we feel something “in our gut” or “from the heart.”

To have com–passion, to “suffer together” or to have sympathy, to “open your heart” to someone, isn’t just a fuzzy feeling. In the New Testament, compassion is the divine response to human suffering.

In Matthew 14 Jesus “had compassion on them,” and then healed the sick and fed the hungry. Other occurrences of this word describe how Jesus “had compassion” for the scared father of the sick son, the two blind men, and the widow of Nain. The master who forgives the debt of his slave, the waiting father of the prodigal son, and, most famously, the good Samaritan, all of these people “had compassion.”

In 2016, when my wife and I walked the “Way” of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy, every morning before we set off we would recite his so-called Peace Prayer. I don’t know what became of it, but for the longest time this prayer sat on our window sill above the kitchen sink.

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Plague victims being blessed, late 14th-century manuscript by James le Palmer.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.

We don’t know the author of this classic prayer, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that it was even ascribed to Saint Francis. But it certainly evokes his longing to be a person of compassion, healing, and redemption in our fallen world.

I’ve always liked the suggestion of Marcus Borg that Jesus turned the Jewish purity system with its “sharp social boundaries” on its head. Back then, if you had an infectious disease, or some deformity, you could be considered “dirty” or “impure,” and so ostracized from the community. Foods were either “clean” or “unclean.” That’s why it’s so shocking that when a man with the contagious disease of leprosy knelt down before him, the gospel says that “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.”

In place of this purity system, Jesus substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code. In place of “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), says Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36).

The little epistle of 1 John 3:17 thus challenges us during this COVID-19 pandemic. How can we claim that the love of God abides in us if we behold our neighbor in need and “close our heart” to him, refuse to help, and fail to act with compassion? Rather, God calls his community to reflect his character, and to spread an epidemic of compassion.

Dan Clendenin:

Image credits: (1, 2)

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