Tag Archives: compassion

Making compassion (and prayer) personal and the faithfulness of God

Three years ago yesterday I blogged about the 284 Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. I was challenged by the way we often respond/react to things when they touch our own lives directly but find it harder to show compassion for situations that we can’t relate to.

And I was moved and inspired by another blogger’s idea to choose one of the kidnapped girls and pray for her by name. I chose Mairama Yahaya. I have tried to remember her and pray for her as often as I can, but it has been three long and busy years. I have not been as faithful in my prayers as I would have liked to be.

Yesterday, the Nigerian government released the names of 82 girls who have been freed. Mairama’s name is number 10 on the list. God has been faithful in remembering her. He has heard and answered the prayers of her family, friends, and strangers around the world. I am overwhelmed by his faithfulness.

But three years is a long time. My prayers for Mairama must continue as she walks the difficult road ahead of her, as she recovers and re-enters and is reunited with a life she likely thought gone forever.

Mairama doesn’t know me, although I trust we will meet one day when all things are made new, but she has taught me much about God’s compassion and faithfulness, and the challenge they are to my own apathy and faithlessness.

And as I look around at all that is happening in the world today, in Syria, in Yemen, in South Sudan, and in many other places, I am again challenged to consider how I can overcome the apathy and selfishness of my own culture, and find ways to connect to people who are not like me and yet are just like me.

My God is a big and faithful God. Three years from today, who knows what influence our prayers (and actions) might have had in the lives of people who desperately need our compassion if we will start today?

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How do we decide what to care about?

This world we are living can be a heart-breaking place. As I write this, thousands are dead after an earthquake in Nepal and many, many more face health and housing crises in the aftermath. Just last week, 28 Ethiopian Christians were cruelly murdered for no reason other than their faith. According to the UN, there are now 4 million registered Syrian refugees who have fled from the persecution and destruction wreaked by ISIS.

Like many other Australians, I was horrified this morning to hear of the brutal executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are people I know personally who knew them personally and my heart is heavy for them – I can’t even begin to imagine what their families are feeling.

But I was also horrified that I only learned the plight of Mary Jane Veloso the day before she was to be executed. Why have I not been hearing her story for months?

Similarly, while I rejoiced this morning with the news that 293 women and girls have been rescued by the Nigerian military from their appalling captivity to Boko Haram, the fact that none of these are the girls kidnapped from Chibok over a year ago reminds me that there are many more stories of suffering happening in that place than the one I have heard about.

Which leads me to these questions: How do we decide what to care about? In a world with so much suffering and injustice, how and why do some situations become known and provoke massive outpourings of response, while others go unheeded? Who decides, and is it okay to let someone else decide for us?

I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but that’s okay. My goal here is simply to do some thinking out loud.

Certainly the media can be an easy target, as “they” appear to choose which stories we hear and which we don’t and we can’t always be sure what their motives are. I do wonder, however, if a big part of their agenda is presenting us with the stories they think we want to hear. Which puts the question back on us and our self-interest .

Social media can be seen as playing a helpful role in allowing people to have more of a voice and to probe beyond what those with seemingly big corporate agendas are telling us. Certainly the fact that I have a handful of friends on facebook who live in Nepal has helped me feel like I have slightly more insight into the realities of what is happening on the ground there.

And yet it is often difficult to understand why some stories go viral and so many others don’t. Why do we collectively choose to care about some things more than others?

Social media also seems to feed into a kind of “Compassion Fatigue” – where we are so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suffering in the world that we just want to crawl under the covers and watch videos of cats. It also seems to lead us towards setting up Compassion as a Zero Sum Game – where we assume that by caring about one thing someone is by default not caring about something else, and we then attack them for that perceived lack of compassion.

Two passages from the Bible are challenging me about these questions today.

The first is in Deuteronomy 15, where Moses is explaining to the people of Israel how they are to put into practice the call to respond to the poor and needy. One of the things I love about biblical Hebrew is how abstract concepts are often spoken about by grounding them in physical, concrete, realities. So when he speaks about being compassionate and generous, he literally talks about what you “see with your eyes” and what you can “reach with your hand.” To me, this suggests that the call to respond to the poor and needy is in some way contingent upon us and our situation. If we see injustice, if we can reach out to suffering, then we are called to do so. Once we have become aware, and we know that it is in our ability to act, to turn away is in and of itself an act of injustice.

The challenge we face in our global, interconnected world is that we have the ability to see injustice and need in so many places, and we have the ability in our hands to make a difference in so many ways. We have readily accepted the privilege of knowledge and information and connection that technology has brought us, but I’m not sure we have so readily accepted the challenge.

The second passage is the very well known story Jesus tells in Luke 10. The parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story in response to a man asking a question not that dissimilar from the ones I am asking today. “Who is my neighbour?” “Who am I to care about?” And Jesus’ answer is quite confronting. Your neighbour might just be the last person you expect, the person so unlike you, the person who hates you, the person who has no connection to you at all and no ability to repay you for your kindness.

As I continue to scroll through my facebook or twitter feed, as I click on the links people send me, as I engage with the stories of what is happening in our world, what does it look like for me to respond to these my neighbours, whether their story is viral or hardly known? What can I do today with the images I have seen with my own eyes and the resources I have in my own hand to show compassion and justice?

A Tale of Two Disappearances: Should it matter if they could have been us?

Over 200 people disappear in the middle of the night. How does the world respond? It seems that it depends. If the 239 people are tourists and business people on an aeroplane, the response is blanket media coverage for days on end, and millions of dollars and international cooperation in organising a weeks-long search, even though it has been clear for most of that time that there will be no survivors.

If, on the other hand, the 284 people are teenage girls from an African Muslim nation, it seems that it takes weeks for most of the world to even hear about their plight, desperate persistence by their families, and the beginnings of an outcry on social media before the mainstream media and governments even begin to mention the disappearance, even though it is very clear that these girls are very much alive and are being bought and sold as chattel.

I’ve been sickened and heartbroken over the news of the horrific kidnapping of nearly 300 16-18 year old girls from their school in Nigeria in April. It’s incredibly difficult to know how to respond. And like many others, I have found it difficult not to compare the response to this event to the response to the disappearance of flight MH370 in March.

The difference in news coverage has been striking. Our Australian Prime Minister has made numerous public statements about his dedication to the search for the wreckage of MH370, yet as far as I can see has made no public comment about the kidnapping and trafficking of these children in Nigeria. But I don’t just want to blame the government and the media. Often times they are simply focusing on what they think we want to hear about and/or care about.

And this raises for me some very tough questions about what we consider important and why. About whose lives are valuable and why.

Is it because these victims are black, or because they are female, or because they live in a Muslim country, that their story has not been treated as prominently? Perhaps. But I wonder if there is something else at work – something that lies within not just our governments, and our media, but in each of us.

I wonder if it boils down to this: “It could have been me.”

When we hear of a plane disappearing, most of us immediately think of our own air travel. It’s a part of our everyday experience, something we rely on and assume we can do freely without fear. We know there were four Australians on MH370, and so we relate to them because in many ways, they could have been us, or our family members. Perhaps it makes us that little bit fearful next time we board a plane, reminded of our own mortality and the risks inherent in our comfortable Western lives.

But militants kidnapping children because they are attending school? That is so far outside our experience, and so unlikely to ever happen to us or anyone we know, that we don’t have to worry about it. We can’t relate.

It seems to me that often we care more about people who are like us. And I wonder if it’s not necessarily because they are like us, but because subconsciously we think they could be us? So our compassion is in some ways selfish, because it is about our own fear, or our fear for our own children, rather than for the other person.

I’ve heard it said that 100,000 deaths in a remote third-world country = 1,000 deaths in a place you’ve heard of = 100 deaths in a country you’ve been to = 10 deaths in your own country = 1 death in your own neighbourhood. Is it simply about proximity, or is it that it’s “too close to home” meaning something like “that was very nearly me”?

A few years ago I was at a Women’s Retreat. Our guest speaker had recently returned from working in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. She told story after story about children dying of malnutrition and starvation, of preventable diseases and lack of access to basic sanitation. Then, just before lunchtime, someone received a copy of the local paper, and read a story about a three year old child who had drowned in a backyard pool in our city. As I went into lunch, I couldn’t help notice that the major topic of conversation around the tables was about the news story. How tragic and awful it was for the mother, the family, of that child. And it was. But no more tragic and awful than the experience of hundreds, thousands, of women in Niger who we had been hearing about all weekend. Why did one story grab our attention so much more than the others? I can only answer that it was because deep down, perhaps without even recognising it, many in the room were thinking, “That could have been my child. That could have been me.”

I hesitate to tell that story, because I don’t want to seem judgmental of others when I am often exactly the same. But I felt like I learned something very profound that day. It is hard to care for people when their experience does not touch our own lives in some way. Deep down, do we categorise some people’s experience as different to ours, and some people therefore as “other” to us, so that we can seemingly justify to ourselves not caring about them in the same way?

These kinds of questions make me feel rebuked, and I kind of hope you do too. I don’t want to be a person who cares about things only because they have some connection to my own self-preservation and self-interest. I want to be a person of compassion, speaking out against all injustice, especially when it is so outrageous, so disgusting, so far removed from my understanding of humanity, that I still can’t quite believe it could happen to anyone.

In terms of the Nigerian girls, what can we do?

For starters, we can start speaking up. We can take every opportunity to ask our government and our media to speak up too. And we can start speaking the truth about what has happened. Recent media reports say these girls are being sold “as brides,” accepting the language the perpetrators have used for what they are doing. That is watering down the true horror. They are being trafficked as sex slaves. Let us name this evil for what it is and stand against it.

We can educate ourselves about this situation, and support organisations that are seeking to work against injustice in places like this. This article on 6 Things You Should Know About Nigeria’s Mass Kidnappings is a good place to start. If you want some much deeper context, and are willing to engage with some harrowing truths, this working paper on Boko Haram and Gender Based Violence is worth a bit more time.

And we can pray. I was so pleased to read this article at A Church for Starving Artists which lists the names of many of the missing girls, and encourages readers to pick just one name and pray for that girl. Let’s make this personal. Let’s not succumb to the temptation to think of these girls are “other,” but let’s start treating them as our own children. Because, humanity, they are.