In recent months, it has sometimes been suggested that compassion is inviting problems into our community, that if only we were meaner and less generous, the homeless, criminals and drug addicts would go away. This view is problematic for many reasons.
For one thing, the evidence does not support it. It simply is not true that our generosity and hospitality are attracting more homeless; on the contrary, we already have some of the harshest policies of any town (the downtown ordinances, the sleeping ban, police raids of camps), while two thirds of homeless individuals were housed in the county before becoming homeless.
Likewise, while many tend to conflate homelessness and crime, there is no data to suggest that we would be much safer even if we could make the homeless disappear. As for drug abuse, we’ve waged a War on Drugs for decades, spending billions on police and prisons, making America the world’s largest jailer. Yet for all that harsh, uncompassionate policy, drug use and abuse continue unabated, while cheaper and more-effective treatment programs go underfunded.
Beyond these pragmatic concerns, the devaluing of compassion also pains me on a moral and spiritual level. Compassion is not an impractical ideal, it is the considered wisdom of all the great sages and scriptures of the world.
- The Jewish Torah tells us, “Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
- The Christian Gospels, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
- The Buddhist Dhammapada, “Conquer anger by love, evil by good; conquer the miser with liberality, and the liar with truth.”
- The Chinese Tao-te Ching, “The sage has no mind of his own. He is aware of the needs of others. I am good to people who are good. I am also good to people who are not good.”
- The Sufi poet Rumi, “Listen with ears of tolerance! See through the eyes of compassion! Speak with the language of love”.
- And the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, “When a man sees that the God in himself is the same God in all that is, he hurts not himself by hurting others: then he goes indeed to the highest Path.”
These scriptures are not rules to follow because we think we should, nor is it simply a matter of doing the right thing for the sake of others. Rather, they are reports from the great explorers of the human spirit, who all concur that the most profound joy and peace within oneself naturally coincide with understanding and love for others. The more self-centered we are in our concerns and fears and desires, it turns out, the less happy we are.
Neither is compassion a matter of mere charity. The Jewish prophets, like many sages, went beyond sympathy for the poor to challenge the wealth and opulence of the rich. In that tradition, Martin Luther King Jr. declared:
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
In a society which by design pushes millions into unemployment and foreclosure while funneling billions to bankers and other elites, it’s time we shift from attacking the poor to attacking poverty.