World Refugee Day: We Are Called to Compassion

Today we observe World Refugee Day, and one might be forgiven for thinking everything that needed to be said about refugees has already been said; every day one hears reports of a tragedy in which refugees either lose their lives or are abused by the more powerful. However, the theme chosen by the United Nations this year is compassion, which is an extraordinary topic to ponder.

While the Golden Rule is often rightly touted as being common to all religions and faiths, one must admit it is setting the bar rather low. Even the most cursory survey of the religious traditions of the world shows the centrality and importance of compassion.

The English word compassion, derived from Latin, means “to feel, indeed, to suffer with.” The religions of the world articulate their beliefs in many, quite different languages, most of which are not even remotely related to English. Nevertheless, all of them present an almost identical challenge to their believers.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for compassion is built off the root “rḥm,” which means “womb.” Repeatedly in the text, God is described as “compassionate (“raḥûm”), gracious, patient and full of love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15).

In the New Testament, Jesus shows compassion to the crowds (Mt 9:36), the blind (Mt 20:34) and others. He also uses compassion or the lack thereof to judge. The master refuses to show compassion to a servant who showed no compassion to a fellow servant (Mt 18:33) and, in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, it is those who showed no compassion who are sent to eternal punishment.

In Islam, one constantly hears what is called the “bismallah”: “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate” (or “raḥîm,”the same root at the Hebrew word). Al Rahim, “the compassionate,” is one of the primary “names” and descriptions of God in Islam.

Indeed, a chapter of the Quran is entitled “Al Rahman.” In Quran 6:12 it states: “He [God] has inscribed compassion [even] for himself.”

As in the New Testament, so, too, in Islam, compassion is enjoined on the believer. One of the sayings, or “ḥadîth,” of Muhammad states: “Be compassionate to the inhabitants of the earth and he who is in heaven will be compassionate to you.”

In Hinduism, compassion, or “kuruṇā” in Sanskrit, is manifested in “ahimsa,” the principle of “no harm.” Ahimsa — non-harm, nonviolence — is extended not only to other human beings, but to all feeling beings. One’s adherence or lack thereof to ahimsadetermines one’s karma and rebirth. The Jain faith observes the principle of ahimsa to the extent that many Jains wear face masks lest they breathe in and kill an insect.

In forms of Buddhism there is the “bodhisattva,”analogous to a saint. The bodhisattva — one of the most important is Avalokiteshvara, often portrayed as female — is one who manifests the compassion of the Buddha by striving for the enlightenment, or salvation, of all humanity.

In this far too brief and superficial survey of the role of compassion in some of the great religious traditions of the world, I hope it is clear how compassion is a central characteristic of most, if not all, religious traditions. It is also the challenge that most religious traditions lay compassion on the believer.

Compassion is not a passive feeling in any of the religions. It is most definitely not the state of a disconnected spectator. Compassion is “suffering with.” And just as anyone who suffers tries to alleviate their own suffering, so, too, the compassionate believer tries to alleviate the suffering of others as if it were their own.

None of the religious traditions professes that compassion is easy. Part of it may come naturally, but the behavior to which compassion calls us is not easy. We read about a boat with 700 refugees capsizing in the night on the Mediterranean Sea. We read of men, women and infants being given a number, packed on a bus for almost 24 hours and sent to a place unknown to them — only to be thrown on the compassion of people whom they do not know and whose language they may not speak. Not one religious tradition accepts indifference to such suffering and cruelty as an even remotely acceptable response.

For nearly a hundred years, the CNEWA family has manifested “the tender compassion of our God” (Lk 1:78) in solidarity with those who are suffering. We have also offered the opportunity for people to share in manifesting that compassion. Overwhelming as it may be and as inevitable as “compassion fatigue and overload” may seem, the compassion to which all faith traditions call us — and not as an option — together with observances such as World Refugee Day, helps us to renew our commitment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

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