“Who is this that darkens counsel
with words without knowledge?”
The Lord speaking to Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:2)
One of the most broadly respected scholars of religion today, Karen Armstrong, has noted that all of the enduring religions of the world agree on one thing: if your theology or religious practice is leading you to become a more compassionate person, then it is good. But if your theology or religious practice is leading you to become more critical and judgmental of others, or if, God forbid, it is leading you to harm others in the name of your religion, then your theology or religious practice is bad.
Compassion is the litmus test for good theology or religious practice. In a world of increasing division, I want to pay attention to such a remarkable example of unanimity; and I fear that the pervasive reactivity, bluster, and contentiousness among religious people today suggest that there is a lot of bad religion out there right now.
However, I have been proud of our parish community’s ability over the last several years to deal compassionately with social concerns that have ripped apart other religious communities and incited violence throughout the nation. Sexual orientation, marriage equality, racial prejudice, and mass incarceration – these are a few of the social concerns that have torn some faith communities asunder but that have brought together many of our parishioners, and the larger Richmond community, for generous, thoughtful discussion. Using Armstrong’s observation, I think this is a sign that there is good theology and religious practice going on among us.
I suppose it is a dark side of human nature that we can take out our frustrations on entire classes of people whom we do not know or understand. This can give us a sense of superiority and satisfying relief, which can prevent us from doing the difficult work of trying to understand the other’s point of view, the work that compassion requires. In recent years, one tiny, misunderstood group of people has been the object of society’s scorn. They have been the catalyst for costly legislation in states like Maine, North Carolina, and Texas, and they have been a rallying cry for politicians who want to give voters a way to vent their frustrations. I am talking, of course, about people who are transgender.
When a society starts to marginalize people whom we do not know or understand very well, that is when we need faith communities of good theology and good religious practice to step up and lead us in the way of compassion. Of course, compassion is not the same as blanket, easy, unthinking approval. Compassion is derived from words meaning “to suffer with,” and the work of compassion is first of all to seek to know, understand, and sympathize with another, rather than merely judging the other from afar, “darkening counsel with words without knowledge.”
This is why I recommend a very engaging paperback book entitled Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, and I hope we might have a faithful discussion with interested parishioners one Wednesday night at St. Stephen’s before long. Becoming Nicole is a quick read by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Amy Ellis Nutt, and it chronicles the evolution of a conservative American family (mother, father, and two children) as they navigate society and their own feelings with a transgender child. You might not be especially interested in reading about a group of people who make up such a tiny segment of the overall population. But if this book does nothing more than help us to become more thoughtful and less reactive, it will have done us all a great service.
Becoming Nicole engenders compassion, the litmus test of good theology and religious practice—something that our reactive world desperately needs right now, and something, I’m pleased to say, that the people of St. Stephen’s Church are adept at providing.