There has been an intense debate going on in the media in Norway over the last few months. I have followed it with great interest. The richest nation in the world, the country with the highest standard of living anywhere, the cold, oil-rich territory way up in the north of the world is being invaded by….poor people. Beggars have heard of this place and they are coming here to look for a great fortune in begging on the streets. And the Norwegians don’t know what to do. We are not used to this. We are only used to seeing poor people on TV. They should not be on our streets.
So politicians have made it an issue to discuss and a way to win votes. Sadly, the ones who get the most votes these days are the ones who say: Send them back where they came from. Don’t allow them to cross our borders! Make begging illegal. Don’t allow them to play their stupid songs on our street corners, they don’t even know more than two songs. And the last thing: Prohibit sleeping outside!
The newspapers are full of people’s opinions on the question. Many try to convince us that these are not actually poor people, and the money we give them will most likely not end up with the beggar anyhow. It will more likely go to support nasty criminals. Others are surprisingly tolerant. Some even dare say that the poor are people just like you and me.
I have observed and learned. I have been appalled by the attitudes. These people have been called things like “They,” “Lazy,” “Criminals,” “The ones who will steal our wealth,” “Thieves,” “Dirty,” “Dishonest,” “Liars,” and the list goes on. I have never heard anybody refer to them as “Neighbors.”
So I was so happy when some of the leaders of the Norwegian Church suddenly one day decided to say: Enough is enough. And they packed their sleeping bags and went to one of the public parks in Oslo to sleep outside with the beggars. They thought that when politicians decided that the poor could sleep outside in our parks, but didn’t give them any other alternatives either, then they, the followers of Jesus, would show them what they thought Jesus would have done. They were going to sleep with the down-and-out.
This grabbed the interest of the media and many others. And, of course, has been followed by discussions about whether or not it is right that Christian leaders are taking stand in an issue that is so “political.” This question has been asked not just by the secular media, but by other Christians.
I want to point my finger and say: If this is not what we as Christians should do, then what is it? If we are not going to stand up for the very most vulnerable in our society, if we are not going to speak up against unrighteousness, then who will? If Christian leaders just become paper pushers, sitting with their robes, their theology books and their policies inside climate controlled offices, then where have we gone? Then where is Jesus?
The word Compassion came into my mind today. I looked up its definition: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Then I decide to look up the verses about compassion and social action in the Bible, hoping to find a couple. Instead I found so many that I decided not to quote them all here, but here and here is a link to get you going. If there ever was a question of whether or not Christians should take active part in social action, this list ought to answer the question.
There is a lady who writes books that are good. (Not all of it is great, I daresay, but she is worth looking into.) Her name is Pema Chodron and this is something she said about compassion, in her book, The Places That Scare You:
“When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of our pain. Compassion practice is daring.It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us.”
Could it be that people’s lack of compassion, in Norway, and elsewhere, is fear? Could it be that we try to come up with reasons for not helping the poor beggars we see on our streets because we are actually afraid of what is going to happen to US if we get involved with THEM?
The word compassion, I learned, comes from the Latin words, pati and cum which means to suffer with. So, our first response when we see suffering is to want to protect ourselves, we look for someone or something to blame. To suffer with the lowliest of the lowly, could be painful. Better look for a good reason to not get involved.
Pema Chodron continues with this passage, which I love:
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
The priests who dared to go outside to sleep with the homeless, the poor, the beggars, the illegal immigrants had realized this: They were among equals. They are my heroes.
He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and compassionate.