John Ryder explores the demands of compassion

A friend recently sent us a card to let us know that her eldest son had just died at the age of twenty-three. Peter, for that was his name, was stunted, deformed and with no control over his muscles. He had never spoken, and for the last twelve years or so he hadn’t even been able to swallow by himself. He had experienced, and caused, a lot of pain, but also a lot of love.

His parents were devout Christians. They had searched and prayed and questioned for the reason why God had allowed this to happen, and I believe they had found an answer. But as with all the deeper questions of life, it was not one that could be communicated easily, especially not to those outside of the household of faith.

Moral action

To those who were genuine seekers I am sure they would have been pleased to speak. But the pain they experienced for Peter was compounded by the questions and (overheard) comments of many who regarded themselves as friends. Why hadn’t she had an abortion? If this problem was only discovered after birth, why hadn’t they allowed him to die? Was the mother’s faith not strong enough for her prayers to be answered? And these hurt all the more when they were asked by her fellow Christians.

With but little understanding of what they had been through, as Peter was already ten or eleven by the time I met the family, I still remember very clearly sitting in Peter’s room with his mother, and holding him in my arms, and knowing in my heart that she had been right in keeping him alive, whatever the questions that were left unanswered.

In morality there are only absolute rights and wrongs, but in applying those rules to life there are many grey areas. For those who abort the child they are carrying because the timing is inconvenient or the gender wrong – or even for the more serious reason of a cleft palate – our friend’s behaviour must be difficult to understand, it might even seem absurd.

At the other end of the spectrum, those who are battling to find food to feed those already born, who worry about being able to bring a child born in perfect health to adulthood, would find our friend’s behaviour equally difficult to understand, and almost certainly absurd.

To abort a healthy foetus is always wrong. I have heard of no circumstance where it could be acceptable. But in our imperfect world a mother who decides to abort a seriously deformed foetus for the sake of her other children makes a decision I think we would all find difficult, if not impossible, to condemn. But our conscience and that of the Church assures us that our friend, in keeping, loving, and caring for her child had been able to choose the better path.

Limiting compassion

The ultimate questions of life can never be answered completely to the satisfaction of our human intellect, for they are beyond our understanding, yet a heart and soul in touch with God can tell us the answer why God allowed such a child to be formed, for it is not that different to the answer why he allowed his own Son to be crucified. They both teach us the meaning of love as God understands it.

Our desire should constantly be to deepen our relationship with God. If instead of nurturing this desire we become satisfied with where we are, we are actually drifting away from him. Spiritually we cannot stand still.

And, as we believe God is Love, integral to our spirituality is the breadth and depth of our compassion. If we are not ever seeking to extend the boundaries, they will shrink. If we are not ever trying to have compassion for groups which hitherto were outside our concerns, and to love them more, we will begin to exclude more, and love less.

Both Hitler and Stalin started from the narrow but unfortunately popular position that there are only certain groups of humans who are entitled to be treated with respect. They then defined those groups who in their eyes were less than human, Jews and Gypsies, aristocrats and capitalists. These groups could be exploited, experimented on, exterminated. And new groups could be added to that list at any time.

Expanding boundaries

It took a while for the horrendous consequences of this attitude to become clear to the people in the street, but even when they did, the majority, even the Church, refused to acknowledge the suffering, and remained silent.

Modern secular society has been doing the same for decades. Their starting point has not been race or socio-economic class, but unwanted embryos. Slowly added were (in some cases) the Third World poor, and increasingly now the inconveniently aged or ill. And their arguments are not dissimilar to those of Hitler. The embryo is not yet fully human, so can be exploited, experimented on, exterminated for the benefit of those who are. This is now being openly extended to the senile, the terminally ill. And one is beginning to hear rumblings that the plight of the poorer nations is their own concern. And the majority of our nation and our church refuse to acknowledge the suffering and say little or remain silent.

Except perhaps on the plight of the poor. But then when abortion on demand was first legalized there was some opposition from the Church, and this has now all but disappeared. So one cannot help wonder how long our church’s championing of the poor will last, especially when the church in the Third World criticizes ours for the laxity of its standards in sexual morality.

We must always be trying to expand the boundaries of our compassion. Not only to include those people who touch our tender spots, but to include people of every race, culture, language or age, whatever their level of usefulness or need of care, and while never condoning sin, including even those who have become outcasts through sin.

God’s compassion

As Christians our aim must be to alter our attitudes and lifestyle, and those of our church and society until all of God’s creation is included within our compassion, as he understands compassion, for we know his whole creation is loved by him, and we must become like him.

For the Christian (or Jew or Muslim) there can be no such thing as rights, that concept so loved, used and abused in the liberal west, whether they be human rights, gay rights or any other rights. For the believer God is the only one in the universe with rights. The rest of us can only hope to be treated as we treat the least of our acquaintance. And that must surely include the unborn, the disabled, the dying. For in the end we all have to rely on the compassion of God.

John Ryder is Priest-in-charge of Wroxall.

Our desire should constantly be to deepen our relationship with God.

as we believe God is Love, integral to our spirituality is the breadth and depth of our compassion.

As Christians our aim must be to alter our attitudes and lifestyle