Climate Change … and You … and Us

On the left a hand holding smoke stacks spewing fumes. On the right a hand holding wind turbines, both against the background of a strip of grass under a blue, mostly cloudless skiy.

Which way forward for our energy future?

Do you remember the movie An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore? It came out ten years ago. Do you remember how scary the predictions were? Things haven’t gotten better.

I got my Science News Magazine last week and the lead article on this tenth anniversary was titled, “More Truths, Still Inconvenient.” None of the threats Al Gore talked about in the movie have abated.  Most continue to get worse.

The average global temperature continues to rise.  On Wednesday, the Times Union reported we’ve set records for temperature eleven months in a row – a record all of its own.  March was 2.2 degrees warmer than the average temperature for the 20th century, partly due to El Nino.  Still, it has been 99 years since a global cold record has been set.

The effect of these rising temperatures may or may not show up in daily fluctuations in each part of the globe.  They become obvious as glaciers recede.  The Science News update noted that 90% of the world’s glaciers are retreating right now.  Their mass has been decreasing rapidly since the 1970’s.  If you want to see one (so you can tell your grandchildren about it) I wouldn’t wait too long.

Global warming is also dramatically shrinking the Artic sea ice, ironically opening up opportunities for prospectors to look for new oil reserves.  The Antarctic Ice Sheet is carefully watched because it stores an enormous amount of water.  The loss of just a few ice shelves in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could destabilize the whole region.  That destabilization could trigger a chain reaction of melting that could not be stopped.

After Antarctica, the second great reserve of ice is Greenland. It too is melting.  Many scientists who study ice melt in Greenland think it will only take a 3-5 degree rise in surface temperature to cause the whole thing to melt.  If that were to happen, sea level is estimated to rise about twenty four feet.  That would submerge most of Florida.

Scary as that is, what frightens me even more is the acidification of the oceans.  About a third of all the carbon dioxide we put in the air dissolves in the oceans.  That process acidifies the ocean.  It may already be contributing to the bleaching of corals and interfering with baby sea-life creating their shells. (note that spraying sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere to block out the sun and cool the earth will not stop this problem)

Another effect of climate change we’ve had a little breather from here is increases in hurricanes and strong storms.  But other places are suffering even if we currently aren’t.  The downpour in Houston this past week is just one example.  With warmer temperatures, air can hold more water increasing the amount of rain and the severity of storms.

One very unexpected result, over the past ten years, has been the rapid increase in the denial of these observations.  The climate change deniers have taken over the Republican Party and a vast swath of the American public. Their unwillingness to face the reality of climate change has undermined our government’s ability to respond with forward looking, progressive change.

And yet, the pressures for radical change haven’t let up, they only increase.  Not only do they increase, they become urgent as we better understand the terrifying forces we are amplifying by dumping ton upon ton of carbon into our atmosphere.

Last Sunday, our guest speaker at our joint service, the Rev. Fred Small, made a plea for radical hope. I certainly enjoyed and appreciated his message and his powerful presentation. Yet, I struggle mightily with being hopeful about our future.  Remember the 350 challenge? Stop the growth of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million? That limit is now in the rear view mirror as we have surpassed 400 parts per million and zooming up exponentially.

Rev. Small said we are past the point when small personal changes like taking the bus to work, putting solar panels on your roof and recycling soda cans are going to make much of a difference. We need those changes AND big changes that are driven by government policy and corporate practices. We need changes at the level of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to deal with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation. It was adopted in December and signed on Friday. Much as this agreement was celebrated at the time, it doesn’t have binding commitments.

The problem with trying to stop climate change is those changes threaten the foundations of developed civilization itself. Our way of life is built on extractivism. If we are to save developed civilization, we will need to find a way to stop being extractivists and convert to regenerativists.

I’m indebted to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, for her insights into extractivism and its harmful results. I already knew it was a problem. We can’t keep drilling oil wells forever. And it takes more energy to extract the hard-to-get fossil fuels.  At some point you cross the bar when it takes more energy to extract the fossil fuel than you get from burning it and you are done.

Klein points out what really shook everything up was the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in the eighteenth century. That one change, changed everything. Before that time, energy came from renewable sources. The fabric and flour mills were run by water power. Ships crossed the ocean using wind power. Animals hauled cargo and people. There were natural limits to how much power could be harnessed by their technologies.

The steam engine changed that by decoupling the production of power to natural processes.  Engines could provide power by consuming fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are not naturally occurring.  They must be extracted from the ground. They are banked energy stored away over millions and millions of years that can be recovered, until they are used up. But in the eighteenth century, that was a long, long time in the future.

Take a little fuel out of the ground, there isn’t a lot of disruption to the eco-system. Take out a lot and you get the kind of devastation we see in Alberta with tar sands mining: mile upon mile of open pits and toxic tailing lakes in which nothing can live. Fracking risks water and air contamination. Coal and metal strip mining are notoriously destructive. These locations are called sacrifice zones. The privileged willingly sacrifice poor, rural and indigenous people’s land to extract the resource they want in exchange for dollars. And when that resource is gone, they move on to the next sacrifice zone, often leaving a mess for someone else to clean up.

Sadly monocultural farming has been done in this same way for many years. The rows of crops extract nutrients from the soil that must be replaced with chemical fertilizers that are mined from the earth. Caging animals for meat, eggs and milk depends on extractive agriculture and generates toxic concentrated waste that cannot easily be absorbed back into the ecosystem.

Basically, much of our modern way of life is built on extractivism. And a civilization based on extraction cannot be sustainable on a finite planet. To have any hope of decreasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and regulating our climate, we need to renounce extractivism.  We need to return again to renewable sources of energy our ancestors used, the wind, the sun, and the water as our sources of power.

But is this possible? Can a civilization like ours that is so energy intensive stop extracting fossil fuels from the ground?  We’ve seen the folly of turning corn into ethanol that drives up food prices. Damming waterways has all sorts of problems as is seen with salmon runs disturbed. Wind turbines have not been kind to migrating birds in their flyways. Ending extractivism will have far reaching effects. And there are those, like the military, that depend of gasoline and jet fuel to power their machines of destruction that they are very unlikely to want to give up. I don’t expect our military to give up their machine guns and helicopters and go back to bows and arrows and horses any time soon.

But resistance may come from other places.  Resistance to extractivism may come from the sites of extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. Resistance to fracking here in New York State was intense. If the governor hadn’t stopped it, we’d be embroiled in a major battle against drilling with massive civil disobedience and people getting arrested. We’ve seen here how resistance to the natural gas pipeline near Burden Lake as energized fierce opposition. Once the sacrifice zones begin to get close to rich, white people, they wake up and realize they don’t want to pay the price required of living an extractivist lifestyle. One of the reasons China is willing to consider curbing coal burning power plants is the terrible smog choking their cities. Chinese citizens are no longer willing to sacrifice the health of their children for economic growth.

And when enough people mobilize in sustained opposition, that changes everything.

Still, the pressures to keep extracting and keep sacrificing the earth to maintain our status quo are very, very powerful. That force of consumption has been systematized into the publicly held corporation.  The corporation is extractivist to the core. It must extract resources then transform them and sell them at a profit, getting bigger and bigger every year, or decline and die. Shareholders will not accept the shrinking of the value of energy corporations. They cannot write off all the reserves of fossil fuel they use to value their company. This kind of corporate wealth creation system that depends on endless growth cannot thrive in an economic model that prizes sustainability.

I’m sad to say, I don’t know how we’re going to end extractivism. I only know we have no realistic other choice.  I also know many people are enthusiastically exploring all kinds of alternative renewable energy sources and sustainable regenerative farming practices that will be the foundation for a new civilization in the future.

I do know one important component of the change that is very relevant to our congregation. We don’t need to know the solution to climate change. We do need to know what is wrong with the current system and demand an end to unjust and immoral practices.

We already know extractive energy companies have been poisoning the air, water and soil around their wells and all over the world. The Alberta tar sand mining and the drilling in the Niger delta have been horrific environmental catastrophes. Rather than respond to protests and requests for redress, extractive corporations and their police forces have suppressed opposition brutally.

We know if we want to move away from extractivism, we don’t need any more fossil fuel infrastructure. We need to gradually dismantle it as renewable power takes its place. We don’t need to put communities like ours at risk with the bomb trains rolling through the city on a daily basis. We don’t need another natural gas or oil pipeline ever.

If we want countries in less developed parts of the world to keep their carbon underground, we have a moral obligation to offer them support to build a non-fossil fuel based economy. This is a fairness issue because Western nations have been pumping our carbon into the air for hundreds of years. We have already far exceeded our allotment of carbon dioxide pollution.  We have taken away the less developed countries’ opportunity to develop using fossil fuels the way we have. Thus, we are morally obligated to pay developing countries to keep their fossil fuels in the ground, so argues Naomi Klein and leaders in the Southern Hemisphere.

These moral issues are clear and present ways to work to slow down climate change. Yet they will not be enough. Personal changes to reduce our demands for fossil fuels are important too. Yet they will not be enough. Curbing militarism and wars around the planet that are intense consumers of fossil fuels would be very helpful. Yet that will not be enough.

We are dealing with a problem that many of us will not experience the full effects in our lifetimes. We are worrying about a problem that will afflict the children and grandchildren of those who have yet to be born most severely. And preventing a good number of those births would go a long way to mitigating climate change.

What we can be confident of is each part per million of increase in carbon dioxide in the air will make things worse. And one of those increases might trigger a catastrophic event that will make things horribly worse. We just don’t know when or what will happen.

What we can do today is work to interrupt the process of fossil fuel extraction by using moral arguments. As a religious organization, this is one of the powerful tools we have to contribute to the movement toward a sustainable and renewable future.

Let us stop sacrificing people, the earth, and the future of children yet to be born, to the god of endless profit. The time to stop is now. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The tide is rising and so are we. This is where we are called to be.

Closing Song

“The Tide is Rising” by Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter

The tide is rising, and so are we! (3x)
This is where we are called to be, (2x)
Verses: The task is mighty…,  The land is holy…, The storm is raging…
The sun is shining…, The world is ready..

Benediction

Let us close with these sober and inspired words of Martin Luther King in his speech against the Vietnam War in 1967:

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a ‘thing oriented society’ to a ‘person oriented society.’ When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

That mission of a person oriented society is ours too.

Reading
from This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

After slogging through a lot of very depressing chapters, when I finally got to the conclusion, there was this glowing section of text that offers a sliver of hope.  Please savor it with me now:

In December 2012, Brad Werner, a complex systems researcher with pink hair and a serious expression made his way through a throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco… [The title of his talk was] “Is Earth F**ked?”…

Standing at the front of the conference room, the University of California, San Diego professor took the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that rather direct question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations, and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient, and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When a journalist pressed Werner for a clear answer on the “Is Earth f**ked” question, he set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner described it as “resistance”—movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.” Such mass uprisings of people—along the lines of the abolition movement and the civil rights movement—represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.

This, he argued, is clear from history, which tells us that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . how the dominant culture evolved.” It stands to reason, therefore, that “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics.” And that, Werner said, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem.”

Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer.

If that happens, well, It changes everything.

To that I’ll add: That change can be us!

Reflections on Middle East: Not Making It Worse

Recently I’ve been reading many expressions of fear and anxiety in the social media universe. I’ve read reports that Americans are more on edge than they have been since 9/11.  Although the media seems to have become desensitized to having a mass shooting at least once a day, the attack in San Bernardino has touched a nerve.

The site of the attack is what I think is so disturbing.  The target, a social service organization having a Christmas party, has a randomness to it.  A potential next attack could be almost any target.  I read messages expressing a new awareness that if people are in a movie theater, the mall, in a big box outlet or a grocery store, they are in a space that could be a target. We are starting to get a taste of what it is like in many parts of the world where a trip to a public marketplace could mean encountering a suicide bomber and death.

This anxiety is increasing our attention to what is happening in the Middle-East.  ISIS is no longer focused on attacks in just that region. Now that they have attacked the French, they have declared their intention to come after Americans as well.  Suicide bombings and indiscriminant mass violence mean their followers are willing to die for a cause many of us don’t understand or appreciate.

So, what do the people who form the leadership of ISIS really want?  They declare they are creating an Islamic state that will encompass all Muslims worldwide (except Shia Muslims they consider rejecters or “rafida”). To do this, they are planning the overthrow of all the existing governments in the area and establish a “caliphate.”

This isn’t a new idea, one called the Abbasid caliphate existed from 750 to 1258 C.E. Khaled Diab in an op-ed piece in the New York Times described this as a time of relative diversity in the region, as well as dramatic advances in science and mathematics – in sharp contrast to ISIS’ violent fundamentalist version of their own imagination of a caliphate.

Diab thinks the appearance of ISIS is the result of many failures of European diplomacy that started with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago.  These failures cleared the way for the emergence of a nihilistic fundamentalism.  They rejected the sinful ways of the Western unbelievers, and corrupt, oppressive Arab states.  They advocated a return to a vision of a pure Islamic state as outlined by the Prophet himself.

As Muslims have not rallied behind them in the last year, and they have come under heavy military resistance from the West, ISIS has become more radical, and more extreme, further isolating them from the international community … which might explain their increasing focus on end times thinking.

ISIS believes a meadow outside a small village in Dabiq, Syria, will be the site of a decisive battle described in a prophecy attributed to Muhammad.  The prediction they revere describes that meadow as the place Muslims will defeat Rome and trigger the Day of Judgment.  If you can’t defeat your enemy militarily, then, at least you can set up the circumstances for God to be recruited to do the work for you.

Part of me wants to just dismiss this kind of crazy talk.  Why would this insignificant bit of real estate matter that much in the grand scheme of things except to the hapless people who live there?  Sadly, this kind of apocalyptic thinking is hardly unusual in world religions.  It even has a name: eschatology, the description of the end of history when the Day of Judgment comes, the righteous finally triumph over evil, and God evens up all the scores. In these prophecies there is likely to be a place identified where an epic battle takes place and finally brings history to an end.

A few signs in the Quran that the Judgment Day is coming include: the Splitting of the Moon, a time when honesty is lost, when a wicked member of a tribe becomes a ruler, and the sun rises in the West. I expect most of us are aware of Christianity’s version of this that happens after the second coming of Christ.  There is a whole book of the Bible called Revelations that outlines some of the disturbing events that will happen when the four horsemen of the apocalypse appear to begin the battle.  Both Christianity and Islam find their thinking rooted in Jewish tradition.  Jews also wait for the Messiah to come, fight that final battle, set things right again and end all oppression.

Because eschatological thinking can be found in just about every religion, I wonder if it is baked into our genetic code somehow.  When times are tough and injustice and oppression reign, I wonder if it is deep human urge to want to project the resolution to suffering out to some glorious time in the future when the wicked will be punished and the righteous shall be victorious.

I wonder if this kind of thinking got world leaders to a place they would be willing to unanimously commit to the Paris Climate Accord.  This is really a landmark moment in dealing with humanity’s impact on the environment to celebrate.

But dangers still loom ahead as we are already in dangerous territory with the current level of carbon dioxide in the air.  The effects at 400 parts per million may not follow linearly at 450 or 500.  They be far worse or may not be linear at all.  What we can be fairly sure of is things will be different than they are today.  And buying real estate in Florida is a risky long term investment.

We’re even seeing this kind of end-times thinking in the high tech world with talk of a “technological singularity.”  This singularity, that could happen in the lifetime of some younger people here this morning, might happen when intelligent machines develop recursive self-improvement methods, that surpass human intelligence.  Google is on the fast track that direction right now with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana in hot pursuit.  Machine intelligence could then outstrip our intellectual capacity as it continually improves maybe at an exponential rate.  These super-intelligent machines may then decide they don’t need us anymore and eliminate humanity as a troublesome artifact.

So far, Unitarian Universalists haven’t indulged much in eschatological thinking.  We certainly are not going to take the Abrahamic religion’s sacred texts literally.  We are hardly immune to gloom and doom thinking however.  The second half of the twentieth century after the first atom bomb explosion was terrifying.>>>

As the Soviet Union and the United States built more and more nuclear missiles and had B-52s on constant alert, World War Three seemed just around the corner with a full exchange of thousands of these bombs almost inevitable.  Anyone remember the discussion of Nuclear Winter that might result from such an exchange?  (Possible solution to climate change?  Maybe not …).

Thankfully the seventh principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, has become our frame for envisioning the future.  Rather than seeing ourselves dominators and domesticators of nature as our ancestors did when they encountered wilderness, more and more, we see ourselves as moving toward the future as one interdependent part of a healthy ecosystem, without which we cannot survive.

We also have a vision of the world we want to create that is in our Purposes and Principles: The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.  Rather than seeing one civilization triumphing over all the others and being blessed by God with a millennium of peace and prosperity, our vision is of a pluralistic world of diverse people worshipping many different Gods or none at all living together in peace with mutual respect and appreciation sharing in harmony the bounty of our planet without taking more than is sustainable.

I’m happy to report that this same vision can also be found in other religious traditions as well.  There are Evangelical Christians to take seriously being stewards of the Earth.  Liberal Protestant Christians also take sustainability seriously as a goal as we build the Beloved Community on Earth as it is in Heaven. The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change is a rich source of interfaith work. There are many values we share to be found in that document. I would dearly like to make common cause with the Catholics to work on Climate Change as they are a mighty force who might be able to change hearts and minds in places of power around the world.

In the Islamic world we have many potential partners for building a sustainable world. Allah commands human beings to avoid doing mischief and wasting resources. These acts cause degradation of the environment. Muslims believe the privilege to exploit natural resources was given to humanity on a guardianship basis.  This implies the right to use another person’s property, collectively viewed as God’s property, on the promise that it will not be damaged or destroyed… According to the Qur’an, environmental conservation is a religious duty as well as social obligation, and not an optional matter. The exploitation of a particular natural resource is directly related to accountability and maintenance of the resource. (source: http://www.ecomena.org/sustainability-islam/)

Judaism also is a rich source for sustainable thinking and action. Mirele Goldsmith expresses this eloquently, when she writes:

Jews may disagree about the application of Jewish ethical teachings to various problems, but all streams of Judaism hold fast to a few key moral principles; that life is sacred, that every person has dignity and value, and that it is our human task to contribute to the redemption of the world. There is a purpose to Jewish life that goes beyond pursuit of our self-interest as individuals and even as a collective…

Jewish text and teachings implore [them] to:

work toward a sustainable future for all humanity by living out the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedek (justice), derekh eretz(civility and humanity), chesed (mercy and kindness) and others. (both quotes – source: http://jpeoplehood.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/peoplehood14.pdf)

Cultures under stress and experiencing oppression are much more likely to retrench in their eschatology. Without a vision of redressing the grievances of today and finding a better life in the here and now, they are more likely to project hope for resolution of injustice into the future. And that abandonment of a better life today makes people more willing to sacrifice their lives in a ball of fire.

The real enemy is disrespect, marginalization, and hopelessness. So much of Western policy in the last 100 years has created the situation we find ourselves in.  The partitioning of the Middle-East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and then the creation of the state of Israel, laudable and reasonable as it has been to the rest of the world, was imposed on these areas against their will. Many of the problems there have their roots in politics rather than religious differences. Religious extremism can arise as a struggle for meaning and hope where other avenues have been cut off.

What can we do now? We certainly can’t condone ISIS’ extremism that has no respect for universal human rights.  The oppression of minorities and women goes against all that we hold dear in the charter of the United Nations and our vision of world community. The nations of the world are obligated to resist them and assist the development of a more just and tolerant form of governance to replace them in the region.

And that also goes for what is happening in Palestine too. There is a lack of respect and appreciation of human rights in that conflict as well.  While the issues are deep and complicated, the nations of the world cannot accept the status quo there either. Both sides must be driven to continue a peace and resolution process that results in a solution that respects the human rights of all people involved and brings about a solution both sides can live with.  We can’t know what that solution will be, but we can know that the current state of affairs isn’t acceptable either.

Most important of all we need to be clear that we care about the people first, their security and health concerns, and a fundamental respect for their religious values and beliefs. Most of the people in the region, I believe, do have an appreciation that a level of religious tolerance is critical to any solution in the region.

We must energetically support our evolving eco-centric sustainable vision of the world because it will address the security concerns of every nation through a focus on sustainability rather than exploitation.  Just that change of commitment could change everything about the way nations relate to each other, if we see ourselves as part of a whole rather than as a self-interested region. The religious vision we are incubating in our congregation is a vision of how the world might be able to create a viable future.

And, thankfully, it is one way forward that probably will do the least harm, and not make things worse.

On Being Wisely Compassionate

Person holding sign saying Last Saturday, my wife Philomena, our son Andrew and my sister Sue were in the theater district of Manhattan. We were squeezed and jostled by the large crowds on a chilly, late December Saturday afternoon. With the sun, low on the horizon and shining in our eyes, we walked up to Central Park and then back down again, taking in the sights.

In the crush, I remember passing two people asking for money. One was an older man who sat on the cold sidewalk near the street shouting like carnival barker, “Spare change? Need a little help here.” I also remember passing a middle aged woman wearing lots of clothes leaning on the icy stone bricks of a building with a small basket of change next to her. She didn’t look at us or say a word as we passed, I couldn’t tell if she was even awake or not.

I could have stopped and said hello to either of these people and offered them some attention and/or some money. I didn’t. Even though we walked past thousands of people on the streets, I’ve only remembered them, and wondered about their situation. Wondered if I should have paused to offer them at least a little compassion?

I think I was a little more sensitive to these two people because I was mulling over the topic for this service. Religion usually lines up strongly on the side of compassion as a religious obligation, especially for the poor. The Great Commandments to Love God and Neighbor are pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If I were to take Jesus’ counsel found in the Good Samaritan parable, I would gather them both up and take them to an Inn. Jesus spent a lot of time healing and comforting the outcasts.

The Abrahamic faiths all emphasize the compassionate nature of God. Traditionally, Judaism enumerates God’s thirteen attributes of mercy. Some of these qualities, identified in the book of Exodus, are: compassion before and after a person sins, graciousness when in distress, being slow to anger and forgiving of iniquity, transgressions and sins and pardoning the guilty. Allah’s most repeatedly praised quality in Islam is being merciful and compassionate. Every chapter of the Quran except one starts with Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim, in the name of Allah, most merciful and compassionate.

Eastern religions are no less appreciative of compassion. The Buddha’s attendant Ananda asked him, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?” The Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice.”

Because the world religions value compassion so highly, Karen Armstrong used it as the unifier to bring people around the world together creating a Charter For Compassion that I wrote about in my Windows column for January.

Compassion literally means joining with another person’s suffering. There are moments when we are spontaneously moved to action when we encounter someone in pain. When Sigrin Newell fell right over there a couple of weeks ago, people rushed to her aid. When Jacqui Williams fell outside a month ago, she was surrounded with care. If we had a big crisis and our members needed food and clothing, you know there would be an outpouring of support. I expect if our neighbors on West and Bradford Streets were suddenly in trouble because of some disaster, we’d be there for them.

This kind of immediate, heartfelt, emotional response seems both natural and good to us … but ancient Greek and Roman philosophers would not have been so enthusiastic. They would have wanted us to be guided by our reason in our actions rather than by our feelings.

One danger of our compassion being guided by our emotions is in the area of justice, symbolized by a blindfolded woman holding a scale. In a courtroom, the defendant should be convicted or go free based on the evidence not how we feel about the victim or the accused. The defendant may sway us emotionally toward mercy and compassion yet may be clearly guilty and deserve punishment. On the other side, think of the racial bias that leads to the high level of incarceration of people of African descent. Would we want to condone a father or mother taking revenge against those who have harmed a son or daughter? There are good arguments to moderate our compassion with reason.

I had an opportunity to explore this distinction when I briefly served as a chaplain in a Florida hospital as part of a six month pastoral care training. I found it easy to feel compassion for and offer comfort to the patients I visited. Sometimes though, my rational mind interfered. Visiting a severely obese person with congestive heart failure, a heavy smoker with lung cancer or an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver could bring up resistance to feeling compassion. Of course, thin people get heart failure, non-smokers get lung cancer and non-drinkers have liver failure too. What I noticed during my hospital visits was my all too human tendency to judge, interfered with my feelings, limiting my willingness to feel another person’s suffering.

A woman named Mary had a powerful lesson in what opens and closes the heart to compassion. Her teacher was her seven year old son. She writes:

It was a bitter winter in Wiesbaden, a beautiful but rather stuffy city in Germany. Sebastian and I were visiting my mother. On that particular day – just a week before Christmas – darkness had fallen early. I was hurrying through an underpass to catch the bus home. Suddenly I felt Sebastian tug at my coat sleeve. I looked down.

What’s up?”

Mum,” he said, “why didn’t you give that lady any money?”

I looked back and saw a woman sitting on a threadbare blanket, begging.

Oh,” I said, shaking my head, “she would most likely use any money I gave her for drugs or alcohol.”

Let me pause here in telling the story to encourage you to turn inward and examine your own response to this situation. How often have you been in the same situation and had those same thoughts. I confess to having that very thought in New York City last weekend. It is a common defense against giving money to people on the street.

In my research this week, I read a challenge to this defense against compassion from white, anti-racist activist Tim Wise. He makes a habit of always giving people money and questions this assumption as a reason not to give. He points out that if an employer suspected that an employee would be getting drunk on the weekend, that employer wouldn’t choose to withhold the employee’s salary to prevent it. He writes:

to suggest that one is withholding money from homeless people or beggars “for their own good” is a dishonest and preposterous conceit. If you feel that the poor don’t deserve your support because of their presumed moral failings, so be it… If they would just take out your garbage, they might be entitled to your dollar in alms, and the hooch that said dollar might help them obtain. But if they merely beg for it, without first performing some labor, then whether or not they have a drug or alcohol problem, you will be free to presume they have both and refuse to aid them.

Mary’s seven year old son didn’t presume so. Her story continues:

Sebastian took my hand and looked up imploringly.

Only someone who is very unhappy would sit in the cold and beg, don’t you think?”

I blushed. Then I walked back and gave her some money.

Now, I don’t want to make this easy. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the woman. She might be a con artist. Maybe she makes 400 Euros a day sitting there looking miserable. I’ve heard stories about skilled people who do make a lot of money begging and borrowing. And if you don’t believe that, I have a guy from Ethiopia I’d like you to meet who needs help with his ten million dollar inheritance.

While I don’t believe there are simple answers for when and how to be compassionate to another, I do believe wise guidelines for our compassionate response can help. They can help to unite our head and heart when we are moved by another person’s suffering. There are a number of ways our compassion can go wrong and do more harm than good. Those harmful ways are sometimes called “idiot compassion.”

One kind of idiot compassion is rejecting the process of identification with the suffering of another person. In this case, the feeling of compassion arises but makes us uncomfortable and we want to make it go away. My first memory of this kind of feeling was during the Nigerian–Biafran War. Seeing pictures of little dark skinned children with swollen bellies and flies on their faces was very disturbing to look at. I was more identified with the feeling of disgust looking at the picture than feeling connected to the suffering child. My giving of money was less for the food aid and more because I didn’t want to see that picture again.

That same discomfort gets stimulated this time of year when many of us get mailings and see ads featuring children with cleft palates. I don’t know whether the organization promising to fix their birth defect is a good one or not, but it is an example of charity pornography, using images of suffering to stimulate donations. It works to stimulate giving, but often generates more revulsion than compassion.

Another kind of idiot compassion is being moved by the suffering of another and being willing to help, yet offering what isn’t wanted or needed. I remember this from when I cooked breakfast for homeless men sheltered in the Oakland Unitarian Church. Thinking they would like a filling and nutritious breakfast, I made them sausage and eggs. It wasn’t long before we got complaints that the food was too high in saturated fat and we didn’t have any tofu for the vegetarians. This happens at food pantries too. People donate uncommon foods (I might want to donate sardines, for example, to satisfy my idea that they need essential fatty acids) that many clients of the pantry wouldn’t touch. People commonly donate what they want to get rid of rather than what they have learned is needed by these clients.

The last kind of idiot compassion I’ll mention is an unawareness of skillful means of helping. In a sense, awareness itself is the core of wise compassion. When we recognize the object of our compassion, the source of the feeling welling up within us, and use our reason to skillfully choose our response, we are much more likely to be effective in making a positive difference. This is an iterative process that incorporates learning from our mistakes. Just the last couple of days, I have fallen short several times when I could have been more compassionate. My commitment is to witness the results of my actions or inactions and to learn from my successes and failures. In the process, I hope to grow a little wiser and increase my motivation to continually deepen that commitment to being loving and compassionate in word and deed. There isn’t any perfection to be had in wise compassion, but we can become more skillful and more effective.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the troubling presence of a stressful and unsatisfactory component of existence he called dukkha, has always captivated me. Being born sets us up for having sickness, if we’re fortunate, growing old, and certainly dying. Sickness, old age, and death are not desirable. Jesus had his way of saying it, “the poor will always be with you.” We can have moments of freedom from difficulty but there are burdens of being alive that we all must discover how to live with.

And that shared dilemma of dukkha, is itself the deep root that unites us all and serves as the common concern that fuels our compassion. The more we can recognize that common condition and identify feel our shared reactions to it, the deeper will be our capacity for wise compassion.

Ultimately, we don’t have control of the outcome of our compassionate acts. We do have some control however over refining the intention that motivates them. By being wisely compassionate, we can strengthen the social fabric of our worldwide community and connect across boundaries of gender, race, culture, class and ability.

May wise compassion be a vehicle for the holy in me to meet the holy in you. And in that meeting, may our inherent worth and dignity find affirmation in our unity embodying the Spirit of Life that brings us into being.