Vitalising idea 2: compassion…

What is the highest form of human expression?

Great art? The soldier who self sacrifices for his fellow fighters? Grand scientific or techincal achievements? Space travel? Our god-like ability to make machines that think?

Or could it be something called love? Could active acts of compassion at all levels of human society show the very best of what we are?

What I mean by ‘all levels’ is important here – from the lovely good neighbour who cared for my aging and difficult mother in her last years, through to the benefits system that fed her and the health care system that treated her. Within all these things we see a skew towards grace and goodness.

From whatever part of the religious/political/social spectrum you come from, I am sure most of you would agree with this, even if followed by a lot of clarification. Perhaps the devil is in the detail?

Or perhaps not. Perhaps it really is as simple as letting compassion come first, then working out the details from there, then looking back at those details through the lens of compassion in order to make sure we got things right. Then repeating this over and over again.

What would a government who tried to do this look like? Would it be totally impractical? What compromises would it have to make? What would it be forced to let go of?

Photo by Noor Aldin Alwan on

Here in the UK, the news is full of efforts by the governing Conservative party to manage the number of refugees that arrive from Europe in small boats, having made perilous journeys firstly across Europe from the war zones of the middle east and northern Africa, then onto the cold waters of the English Channel, the busiest shipping lane in the world.

What principles should guide our response to the realities of this situation?

I can be pretty categorical in saying that, no matter how hard the government tries to dress their response up as ‘cruelty to be kind’, it does not have compassion as a guiding principle.

I could say so much more about this – the ‘hostile environment’, the slowness of the system, the fear mongering, the constant use of the term ‘illegal’ when all other routes have been closed, the deliberate downgrading of accommodation used to detain people within (because hotels are seen as too cushy), the racism inherent in welcoming white Ukrainians whilst rejecting brown Syrians and Black Eritreans etc. etc.

The point here though is that actions like this are justifiable precisely because other things have been prioritised above compassion.

The narrative then used to describe the ‘migrant crisis’ is then viewed through a different set of principles – ones which serve better to keep those who are comfortable free from and disturbance of that comfort, and ones that make use of the baser human emotions (fear of the outsider, fear of losing what is ‘ours’) to keep or gain political power in a system in which small shifts in public opinion have huge reward for our two main political parties.

Obtaining or keeping power is more important than compassion. Middle class ‘prosperity’ is more important than compassion.

Oddly, we then see a scramble to make this lack of compassion look like… compassion.

Our government has tried to tell us that…

  • if we do not treat refugees badly, then we will encourage more to come, and this will place vulnerable people at risk
  • the real issue is the ‘criminal gangs of traffickers’ who are making money from the refugees
  • they are not real refugees, they are ‘economic migrants’ coming here for a ‘better life’
  • we can not take everyone- there is not enough room/acommodation/beds in the NHS, therefore we have to have a ‘fair system’ (even when we have anything but)
  • Our borders have to be secure because of the criminals/rapists/terrorists that otherwise will sneak in through the back door
Argyll and Bute Psychiatric hospital, now mostly demolished.

Compassion is never perfect. It will lead us to make all sorts of mistakes. Consider the legacy of the Victorian Asylums, built at least in part with compassion in mind. It turns out that they did so much damage to the human spirit that we had to look back at them with compassion and compassionately replace them with something better. (There is a valid debate as to whether or not we have fully achieved this, but at least we can agree that the Asylums failed!)

As I said, perhaps it is as simple as letting compassion come first, then working out the details from there, then looking back at those details through the lens of compassion in order to make sure we got things right. Then repeating this over and over again.

Compassion is also a hard sell. It will almost certainly have require personal and political compromise and sacrifice. It requires bravery – perhaps of the sort that Angela Merkel displayed in the way she led her country towards compassion for the millions of refugees Germany took in during the heights of the Syrian civil war.

Merkel, from a totally different part of the political spectrum that I am most comfortable with, took a huge political gamble because it felt like the right thing to do. I applaud her for it, and I think history will do so to.

Perhaps you may legitimately point of the impracticality of what I am suggesting. Merkel aside, not many people have been able to carry this kind of committment into politics, or rather it does not seem to have survived long within a political context. Merkel spent political capital she had already been able to accumulate. Corbyn was never allowed that opportunity.

You may be right, but I still reserve the right to measure any government (or government in waiting, such as Starmer’s Labour party) against this principle.

How can anyone who has been animated by the stories of Jesus do anything else?

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