Anyone who seeks to understand goodness needs to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post about the “hard work of compassion.” He is an African-American engaged in the not-so-mundane task of reading Mothers Of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War. He writes:
For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.
I am also struck by this comment:
In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving.
Compassion isn’t a favor; it’s power, or so he writes. I may well agree, but this idea of his is so new and emotionally raw, that I have to sit with it for a while. At the very least, I think he’s right that our society views compassion as a favor, and that is just deep down, dead wrong for any culture to do. I don’t know whether or not compassion is power, but the human capacity to see more than the surface, to understand and to extend kindness when no kindness or understanding is returned has to be something far more than just a favor.
I can’t claim the struggle of slavery as my own and to do so would be wrong. But this man’s struggle with compassion, his willingness to do the hard work of seeing the humanity of the people who refused to see his own humanity reminds me of my own struggle with Christianity. In that, we are brother and sister. I’m grateful for his willingness to do the work and for his insights.