I’m reading some Russian classics this summer, and was recently reminded of this quote, one of my favorites. Our friend Fyoder has put his finger on a great deception. Many of us have romantic notions about our love for humanity. We grieve over what we see in the world – Palestinians and Israelis in conflict, earthquake victims remaining homeless in Haiti, families suffering great loss because of an oil spill, soldiers traumatized by the horrors of war. All of it is tragic, and our hearts are full of sympathy and deep emotion, when we think of the tragic condition of humanity.
This kind of sentimentalism, though, is deceptive. It can trick us into thinking that we really care, but the real care, if we consider the scriptures carefully, is only manifested to the extent that we manifest compassion. The word means, “to suffer with” and throughout the Bible the message is the same: until we identify with the downtrodden through action and solidarity, our light remains hidden. Here’s how Isaiah puts it:
“Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed gofree And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring thehomeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer” Isaiah 58:6-9
1. Action, not sympathy and sentiment, is our calling. Dostoevsky’s point is that it’s easy to confuse sentiment when we listen to NPR, with real action. But sentiment is to action, what watching sport is to playing it. Watching the world cup while wearing a soccer jersey makes me feel athletic, even as I sit and stuff my face with chips as I critique the passes, the officiating, and the annoying incessant horns. In truth, I can’t play soccer at all. The popularity of sport, though, resides our vicarious identification.
2. Our light will only shine to the extent that we respond to the needs around us. This is the overwhelming declaration of what it means to be the people of God. It’s taught in Genesis 12, where we’re blessed to be a blessing. It’s reiterated throughout the prophets, including this clear passage in Isaiah 58. Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 5 when he calls us the “light of the world.” James says that true religion resides precisely in this realm of showing demonstrable love towards others.
3. Isaiah declares, counter-intuitively, that our care of “the least of these” will result, not in their recovery, but in our own. God is making it clear that making the justice and generosity of God visible in this world isn’t optional. We won’t be able to recover our fullest humanness until we’re people who are pouring out blessing, and this only happens by making space in our lives for those with visible needs.
When we encounter poverty and injustice, we might feel sentimental, and comfort ourselves into believing that our emotions mean we care. But the gap between sentimentalism and action is a grand canyon, and it’s only on the action side of that canyon that light is shining, and our own transformation is occurring.