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Christian love is bigger than compassion

25 September 2015

Sympathetic feelings are part of Christian teaching, but the whole vision is more expansive, argues Hugh Rayment-Pickard

THE Dalai Lama launched a new “Centre for Compassion” in Oxford last week. Its ambitious goal is “to completely reshapethe field of ethics” by offering “an understanding of ethics which does not rely on religion”. The centre’s organisers argue that the various religions cannot agree about ethical issues, and that the world now urgently needs an ethics “which can apply to everyone, no matter what their beliefs”.

The premiss behind the centre is that compassion is a universal feature of the human condition. We need to be loved, and we have the capacity to love: all ethics flows from this. Looking at the Dalai Lama’s other teachings, it is clear that this ethic of love is essentially individualistic, and depends on a positive attitude of concern within each one of us.


AT FIRST sight, this may not seem miles away from Christian ethics. St Paul was arguably the first person to set out a universal ethic based on love. For Paul, this ethic transcends religion (Jew and Greek), gender, and social status (free person and slave). And Jesus taught that all ethics could be summed up as two kinds of love: love of God, and love of neighbour.

While love clearly is the central Christian value, we need to avoid the mistake, often repeated in school assemblies, of seeing Jesus as a first-century hippy who thought that if we all had loving feelings inside us, the problems of the world would disappear. “All you need is love” was a catchy Beatles lyric, but is not Christian teaching.

We all admire St Luke’s two majestic parables about compassion: the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son; but the majority of parables are not about love per se, but about economics: the fair administration of wages (the Workers in the Vineyard), debt forgiveness (the Unjust Steward), the dangers of wealth (the Rich Young Man), and the proper use of our financial resources (the Parable of the Talents).

If Jesus really had proclaimed an inoffensive message of universal love, it is hard to imagine that the Romans would have bothered to kill him. Telling people to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” hardly encourages sedition.

Jesus was not executed because the authorities had a problem with people loving one another. It was his teaching about a new Kingdom, of which he would be “king”, that posed a threat to the prevailing political order. For Jesus, love was not only a benign inward disposition towards all creatures, as it is for the Dalai Lama, but it was also a public and social reality in which we “abide”.

In Jesus’s vision of the Kingdom, we are much more than individual ethical beings, each on his or her separate moral path. We are urged to use love to build loving communities, and Jesus’s repeated meals, before and after the resurrection, symbolise this. Compassion is not only what you or I feel towards others: it is a force that shapes society.


ST PAUL was aware of the risk that fuzzy notions of love could lead to an anaemic morality of individual sanctity, in which the principal ethical task is to keep our noses clean by ensuring the purity of our inner feelings.

Paul’s teaching about the ethics of the community or, as he calls it, “the body”, affirms love as a social reality. In 1 Corinthians 12, the chapter before his famous sermon on love, Paul argues that the ethic that unites a community is love, understood as “honour” for all the distinctive parts of the body.

This concept of honour is important, but not often talked about. The foot-washing at the Last Supper is often cited as the epitome of Jesus’s teaching about love. But his gesture was not about love as an emotion, or a compassionate state of mind, but love as honour. To wash someone’s feet is a symbolic gesture of the respect that we accord them.

The concept of honour gives us insight into the nature of love as a force that binds community. We meet many people each day with whom we have a necessarily functional relationship: at the supermarket checkout, for example, where the point of the encounter is to pay for our shopping. It is not necessary, or even helpful, for us to be emoting compassion towards the person checking out our groceries. The loving relationship I have with this person is based on honour: we respect each other.

Healthy societies are those that can create the structures and systems that promote honour between citizens. This is the case in the Kingdom of God, where the poor will be honoured, as will the prisoners.

The landowner in Jesus’s parable of the Workers in the Vineyard honours all employees by paying them a proper wage; the unjust steward honours his master’s debtors by reducing their debts.

Discussion about compassion can be only a good thing, and Christians have a distinctive and powerful contribution to make. Compassionate feeling is clearly part of Jesus’s teaching on love, but the Christian vision of love is much more expansive. We have to think beyond being loving individuals, and ask how to create a loving society with loving laws, loving social systems, and a loving economics.


The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of 50 Key Concepts in Theology (DLT).

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