I recently had a dinner meeting with a friend who is the mother of Rachel, a severely autistic eleven year-old child. A child with severe mental disabilities can completely drain a family’s energy and resources. Yet there are rewards in loving and caring for Rachel. It can certainly make us more appreciative of the inherent dignity and grace in all people.
My friend told me about the especially difficult time Rachael has had at school last year. As she gets bigger and stronger, it’s harder for teachers and case workers to control her when she acts out. She sometimes hits and even bites. So they put a vest on her with handles on the back that they can use to constrain her. They even began using mitts and shields. This further isolated Rachel and only made her act out more.
Being Rachel’s advocate with the school was really hard. My friend told me about the stigma, shame, and guilt associated with being the parent of a mentally disabled child. People relate to you and your child differently than they relate to people with physical disabilities. Physical disabilities more easily evoke compassion whereas severe mental disabilities evoke revulsion. As the mother of such a child, one often feels blamed, as if you are doing something wrong.
The biblical word translated as “mercy” can also be translated as “compassion.” The word compassion literally means “to suffer together” and it includes going out of our way to help others. Such compassion has its source in the heart of God who reaches out even to those who are evil and hateful. Jesus tells us to therefore be compassionate just as God is compassionate (Luke 6: 35-36). This is the heart of the gospel.
The Hebrew word translated as mercy or compassion is a cognate of the word for womb. Catholic ethicist Milburn Thompson writes, “For Jesus, then, God is like a mother who feels for and loves the children of her womb. . . For Jesus, compassion was neither sentimental nor an individual virtue; rather, compassion was political. When compassion led Jesus to touch a leper, heal a woman with constant menstruation, feed the hungry, forgive sinners, or share a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes, it was moving him to challenge the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world. Thus Jesus was engaged in what might be called the ‘politics of compassion,’ in contrast to the ‘politics of purity’ of his social world” (Justice and Peace, 188).
Much of the Jewish social world during the time of Jesus was structured around avoiding contact with anything that would make them religiously unclean. We may not be far removed from a “politics of purity” ourselves. Consider all the church schisms in our history. They generally involve things that violate our sense of purity. Jesus’ politics of compassion, instead, compels us to reach out to and to be advocates for those less fortunate than ourselves and those on the margins of society.