Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Compassion and Condescension

Some words have multiple meanings, some of which are positive, and others which are not so much so.

One such word is the word "condescension". Usually, in American culture, it has a very negative meaning. People who act haughty and arrogant and who rub their alleged superiority in other people's faces are said to be "condescending".

Perhaps that comes from our cultural background and our assumptions to the effect that no one is better than any other person. Anyone who thinks that he or she is better than any other person is thought, by default, to be seriously mistaken, if not downright delusional.

When I was young, I recall hearing one or two kids say, "You think you're better than me," with the unspoken conclusion "... and that's obviously not correct." But it seems to me that that begs the question: Is it invariably true that no one is better than any other person?

Certainly, it is true from the perspective of a Christian such as myself that no one is more loved than God than any other person. God loves all people equally, because God is the essence of love itself. God, says the Bible, is "no respecter of persons". All people are equally valued by God, and our history in America seems to demonstrate that in spite of our obvious failures to perfectly embody our ideals, we have repeatedly returned to that theme, which was the very backbone of the Civil Rights movement.

Still, I'm not quite sure that saying that all people are equally valuable is quite the same thing as saying that all people are literally equal. Are all people literally equal in terms of intelligence? Are all people literally equal in terms of strength or physical health? Are all literally equal in terms of wealth? Are all people literally equal in terms of wisdom or insight? Are all people equal in terms of moral character? It seems to me that the answers to those questions and other similar ones are obvious.

In fact, it is precisely because of the fact that people are not equal to one another in every respect that we need to be reminded that God loves and values all human beings equally, in spite of their observable differences. What establishes a basis for equal treatment under the law is not the literal equality of all human beings, but rather, it's the fact that we are all equally valued by God, who shows no favoritism with regard to how he treats individuals. The same mercy available to one is available to all. Conversely, all will be equally subject to God's justice. No one gets any special favors on account of class or race or any of the other criteria which have so often tainted the judgment of human authorities.

If indeed it were true that no one was better than anyone else, there would be no incentive to aspire to greatness. After all, greatness often requires special effort, and even a certain amount of self-sacrifice. If all people are literally equal, why bother?

Saying that God loves everyone equally is not tantamount to saying that there are not differences between people, nor is it the same as saying that there will be no rewards or penalties attached to those differences. Saying that God's judgement is and will be impartial is not the same thing as saying that there will be no judgment at all.

We often think of condescension as a negative thing, and it often is. But there is a kind of condescension which we should all covet. Here's one definition of condescension, which I found at

"To put aside one's dignity or superiority voluntarily and assume equality with one regarded as inferior: He condescended to their intellectual level in order to be understood."

In the preceding definition, the word "assume" (in the phrase "assume equality") is not being used to indicate a person who believes something falsely, without any real factual basis for that belief. Rather, it's being used to indicate someone who takes something upon himself, as if he or she were putting on a cloak.

In that definition, we see a kind of positive condescension which is for the benefit of others. A person who lives life in this manner demonstrates through his or her actions that moral superiority is impossible without genuine compassion and humility. To be genuine, compassion must be communicated in a manner which causes the recipient of help to genuinely believe that he or she is completely and unconditionally loved.

Jesus had every right to act "condescending" (in the negative sense) towards every human being he met while he was here on earth. Yet, he put that right aside voluntarily, out of compassion for the human race. He humbly washed the feet of the disciples, not because he had to do so, but because of his colossal love for us. There was nothing snide or haughty about the manner in which he did so.

"This," said Jesus with his actions, "is what it means to be a true leader." We Christians should demand nothing less of our leaders.

Too often, people unfortunately choose to work in the service professions for ulterior motives which reveal the extent to which they have failed to get that message. Having been in a position where I was forced by unfortunate circumstances to plead for help, I have felt the brunt of the negative condescension which seems to motivate some people with whom I have had to deal. For example, some folks seem to find it difficult to wrap their minds around the idea that in spite of my current need for emergency help, I am nevertheless a highly intelligent, highly talented and highly principled person who has a lot to offer to the world and to the church. Consequently, I have been treated as if I am in some second-class category, to be tolerated and maybe even grudgingly helped when doing so does not take too much effort, but not taken seriously.

The presumptuousness behind that kind of treatment has suggested to me that such people are sadly oblivious to their own vulnerabilities. They seem to think that just because they have been materially blessed more than I, they are therefore more virtuous than I, even though they may know little or nothing about the specific circumstances behind my current condition. It is only on account of the grace of God that their material circumstances are temporarily better than mine, so I don't envy such people, because I know that God will humble them in due time, if it proves to be necessary to do so. But of course, if they would choose to humble themselves voluntarily, that would not be necessary.

In the book of Job, Job's so-called friends made the mistake of assuming that God must be punishing Job for his iniquity. The real story, as readers of that book know, was that Job was a righteous man, who had been set aside by God precisely because God was confident that Job would pass the test, thereby putting Satan to shame.

Such truths about people are often hidden for a season, but people need to remember that a day of judgment is coming, and on that day, all will be revealed. When all is revealed, it will result in punishment for those who deserve punishment and who have failed to avail themselves of God's mercy. But the positive side is that it will also be a day of vindication, when people's presumptuous and erroneous judgments will be rebuked. The haughty will be laid low, and the people who have been abused will be rewarded for their longsuffering.

I believe these things to be so, not just with respect to those who have treated me disrespectfully, but indeed, with regard to those who have wrongfully treated any other people in such a manner. I believe these things, because I have read the Sermon on the Mount, and I have observed that Jesus lived his entire life as if he really believed that sermon to be true.

We need leaders who will condescend in the positive way that Christ condescended: By putting aside their own superiority, whether real or imaginary, and choosing to love and serve mankind as Christ loved and served mankind.

Whether or not one is truly superior to another human being is, in a sense, utterly beside the point. If Jesus Christ could voluntarily humble himself, in spite of his utter perfection, what makes anyone else think that he or she is entitled to do otherwise?

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