June 21, 2020

“Beyond Shame to Compassion,” Bob Ryder

Luke 19:1-10 Jesus was passing through Jericho, where lived a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax-collector, and wealthy. Zacchaeus was trying to see Jesus as he passed by, but being short in stature he couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view as Jesus’ passed that way. When Jesus came to the spot, he looked up and said, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; I must stay at your house today.’ Zacchaeus did hurry down and was happy to welcome Jesus. Those who saw it criticized Jesus, complaining, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ While they were together, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house. You also are a son of Abraham, for the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.’

Maya Angelou – “Do the best you can with what you know. When you know better, do better.”

The inspiration for my thoughts this morning began with an observation offered by a beloved professor when I was in college. Dr. Dale Wright taught maybe a half dozen of the courses I took in psychology – my undergraduate major. In one of those courses we studied how people acquire and modify attitudes about social issues, and an assignment I recall in particular was on the subject of gender equality. In the paper I wrote for that unit, I expressed what I’ve since realized was an embarrassingly uninformed thought, doubting that there really was a substantial gap between what men and women were paid for similar work. It’s worth noting I wasn’t being cynical or willfully ignorant. I was just uninformed, and the idea seemed so blatantly unfair I couldn’t imagine it was true. I was quite sheltered and naive for 20 years old.

Dr. Wright was an excellent teacher. His classes were always organized and interesting. He gave the kind of lectures nobody wanted to miss, and he was as kind and effective a mentor as he was a talented psychologist and academic. He had a quiet confidence that was never given to ego drama. I trusted him and took him seriously. That’s why I was able to take in the comment he wrote over that foolish sentence in my paper, which simply said, “You’re wrong, Bob.” At the time I had a fragile ego and didn’t take criticism well. But because I knew and trusted him, I understood Dr. Wright was only being instructive and no shame was implied. So rather than becoming defensive, I was curious. I remember my thinking going straight to the topic – “Can that be right?” I stopped by during office hours the next day, where Dr. Wright explained the facts to me in his composed, straight forward, non-judgmental way. He cited statistics. He shared anecdotes from his personal experience with colleagues and family. He explained how friends of mine from that very class friends who were just as qualified as I —  would be applying for the same jobs when we graduated but have a one-third to one-half less chance of being hired because they were women. He explained that if they were hired, they would get $78 for doing the same work for which I’d be paid $100. And from that moment forward I understood. Dr. Wright changed my mind on an important social issue in about 10 minutes.

The learning curve in that story could easily have been derailed by a teacher given to making me feel stupid or inadequate. I wonder how many of my teachers over the years could have gotten through to me so efficiently and effectively. Some I suppose, but I calculate not most. The takeaway for me ever since has been about the obstacles that come with shame. I don’t recall much about theories of social attitude formation we covered in that class, but I do remember the power of learning something uncomfortable from someone who’d earned my trust. It would have been easy for Dr. Wright to reach for humiliation or ridicule. I’d been brow beaten by teachers before and I recall the main effect was that I avoided and disliked the teachers who did so. I don’t remember any examples where I came away feeling better informed with important information for having been embarrassed.

It seems to me a couple related details made the difference. First, Dr. Wright genuinely liked students – not just his students, but students in general. He was in the right line of work, enjoying both his specialty and the people he shared his talent with. Over and above his knowledge, I think he really got a lot of satisfaction helping college students make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. There’s no substitute for that – when someone has authentic compassion for others, it opens hearts and minds of those to whom their compassion is offered. The other gift was that he helped me feel empathy for others – he made it personal. He explained patriarchy in terms that were immediately relevant to my experience. He pointed out the painful real-life consequences for friends with whom I’d be studying and hanging around and eating meals that same day. I thought of each female friend sitting for a job interview knowing she was at a measurable disadvantage to any man interested in the same position. It really bothered me. I suddenly knew something in my gut that had only been a hypothetical the day before – it was an important step growing up.

I wonder if something like that is what we’re meant to take away from the gospel story we heard. Zacchaeus is the tale of someone with privilege experiencing a change of heart. To collect taxes, the Romans recruited Jews to do the work and allowed them to keep whatever extra they could collect over and above the amount owed by law. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, so he had the incentive and the means literally to rob his neighbors with the blessing and protection of Roman authorities. He made his wealth by cheating his fellow Jews with the help of their oppressors. It’s no wonder they took exception to Jesus socializing with him. Well, there’s this gap in the narrative. Jesus notices Zacchaeus in the tree hoping for a glimpse, summons him down, and invites himself to be Zacchaeus’ house-guest. Zacchaeus is flattered. The crowd is scandalized. And in the very next sentence, Zacchaeus is giving half of his wealth to the poor and reimbursing 400% to those he’s cheated. Surely, we’re meant to wonder about their conversation.

Obviously we can’t know because Luke doesn’t tell us anythng. But we can’t suppose Jesus berated him, can we? I imagine Jesus talking to Zacchaeus in a way that tapped into his compassion like Dr. Wright tapped into mine. “Zacchaeus, let me tell you about that family on the east side of the village you collected from last week. They have a daughter named Mara, six years old. She’s clever, like you – you’d like her. She likes to dance. She told me she’s hungry a lot, but she doesn’t like to tell her dad because it makes his sad. She said she feels sad too because her friend died last summer. You collected from their family not long before, and they had to leave their house. Mara told me she met you when you were there.  She offered you a fig, but you wouldn’t take it, and she wondered how she’d made you mad. Zacchaeus, is that who you are? Is that the life you want? You have more money than you need – does it make you happy? Mara is outside. Would you like to talk to her? As I imagine the conversation, I hear Jesus talking with the same tone and cadence with which Dr. Wright spoke to me, knowing Zacchaeus had a better version of himself to offer, helping him tap into a dormant sense of empathy for the neighbors with whom he lived and worked.

The reason this comes to mind for me is that we’re in this crucial moment following the death of George Floyd. The problems of systemic racism are so obvious and so intolerable that they can’t be ignored. I’m convinced that if this moment is going to make the transition to a sustainable movement, it has to be motivated by that same kind of empathy and compassion, rather than by shame. Shame won’t help, us. It won’t help to feel it ourselves, and it won’t help to impose it on others. What will help is to acknowledge the painful truth about disadvantages built into the system that make life so much more difficult and dangerous for our neighbors and empathizing with their suffering. It won’t due to be uninformed. It won’t due to be unmoved.

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can with what you know. When you know better, do better.” The time is come for all of us to know better, and for all of us to do better.

I’ll close with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh…

Thich Nhat Hanh on compassion – Understanding and compassion are very powerful sources of energy. They are the opposite of stupidity and passivity. If you think that compassion is passive, weak, or cowardly, then you don’t know what real understanding or compassion is. If you think you that compassionate people do not resist and challenge injustice, you are wrong. They are warriors, heroes and heroines who have gained many victories. When you act with compassion, with nonviolence, when you act on the basis of non-duality, you have to be very strong. You no longer act out of anger. You do not punish or blame. Compassion grows constantly inside of you and you can succeed in your fight against injustice. Mahatma Gandhi was just one person. He did not have any bombs, any guns, or any political party. He acted on the insight of non-duality, the strength of compassion, not on the basis of anger.

Other human beings are not our enemies. Our enemy is not the other person. Our enemy is the violence, ignorance, and injustice in us and in the other person. When we are armed with compassion and understanding, we fight not against other people, but against the tendency to invade, to dominate, and to exploit. We don’t want to kill others, but we will not let them dominate and exploit us or other people.