Hey, Santorum, Rigidity is a Weakness, Flexibility a Virtue, Compassion the Gold Standard

The problem I had when Rick Santorum accused Obama of showing ‘weakness’ by apologizing for the accidental burning of Korans at an air base in Afghanistan was not that he was being asinine and doing the usual by criticizing (from a safe distance) a difficult decision he did not have to make.  My problem was that he would so openly display his inability to show a small modicum of compassion for another person’s faith.  For me, that’s a scary image for a presidential contender to project, especially a self-proclaimed “religious” candidate.

Renowned theologian and respected ecumenical thinker (and former nun) Karen Armstrong argues that the one unifying element of all faiths is compassion.  The Golden Rule.  Do Unto Others as you would have them do to you.  It was not invented by Jesus.  It was wisely restated by him.  It’s a variation on core tenet of Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and most other “isms,” even Islam(ism). Compassion is our human and spiritual commonality, from atheist to devout; none of us like to see a dog getting kicked or a kid starving to death on our plasma TV.  At our best we care when others suffer; we even care enough, sometimes, to do something about it.  This shared compassion must be the driving force for religious and secular discussion–not accusation and inflexibility.  If the religious right could tap into compassion–the kind their religion preaches–they would sound a little more sane to the wider world.  You’d think a devoutly religious person like Santorum would feel bad about the burning of any faith’s sacred text.  I’m sure he’d be up in arms if a cache of his spare Bible’s were inadvertently used by a band of Afghan shepherds to cook their stew.

But if the religious right were to show more compassion, they would not be the religious right.  They’d join us in the middle (or the left), in our dangerously gray world.  I mean, nobody wants to install abortion clinics inside the local daycare center, but it only takes a little compassion to see how hard it is for a young, single mom to bring a child into this world–especially once all possible social supports have been cut.

Reflecting on black history month with my students, it is always interesting to remember that Martin Luther King–a man we can easily see as brilliant from the future–was ridiculed by many during his time for his non-violent stance.  He was thought to be ‘weak’ because he showed compassion for his enemies.  So was Gandhi.  During a recent screening of the great film Boycott, my students were throwing punches at the movie screen after MLK’s house was fire-bombed during the Montgomery bus boycott.  They moaned when he called on an angry mob to meet hate with love.  They wanted MLK to pick up a shotgun and go on a rampage.  That’s how much we’ve learned from history, probably because we have leaders who are always under pressure to appear strong instead of compassionate.

The great irony is that Obama is one of the more moral, thoughtful, compassionate, and therefore truly spiritual presidents we’ve had in a long time.  Probably only second to…who?…Ronald Regan?  GWB?  No way.  I’m talking about the very liberal Jimmy Carter of course (who, by the way, still teaches Sunday school).  Which leads me to wonder where we’ve lost our foothold in faith and politics.  Since when does religious mean rigid (or right)?

When compassion leaves religion, you’re left with dogma.  I don’t want to “throw up” at the thought of a strict separation of church and state, as Santorum does (that was his response to Kennedy’s historic speech where Kennedy said, “the separation of church and state is absolute”), but I wouldn’t mind seeing a little compassion spill into the political world.

So Rick Santorum is not only being a little nuts (as expected), he’s not valuing a core tenet of his faith.  Religion, after all, is, at its core, about weakness, about our human frailty.  What a better way to express that than to say sorry and ask for forgiveness.  Rick, don’t you know we’re all original sinners.

“Men are born soft and supple,
Dead, they are stiff and hard….
Whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a discipline of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a discipline of life.”
-Lao Tzu

But I’ll show Rick a little compassion.  I am, after all, 30% Catholic, sometimes.  I’d like to compassionately remind him of a few Catholic teachings he has chosen to ignore over the years, including the Catholic stance on the war with Iraq (against it), death penalty (against it), universal health care (for it), union labor (for them), “preventative war” (against it)…the list goes on.  Check out some more here:  “Top Ten Catholic Teachings Santorum Rejects While Obsessing About Birth Control.”  In fact, look closely enough and you see that Obama is a way better Catholic than Santorum.

A few good practices for the day:  If you’re feeling rigid (we all are sometimes), try a little Ignation Spiritual Exercise of imagination (in honor of Rick).  Take a few moments to visualize yourself as a participant in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, either as a Freedom Rider or a protestor at a march or sit-in.  Watch the police approach with clubs and fire hoses.  Imagine if you would have had the strength to remain non-violent, to show the kind of ‘weakness’ MLK and Gandhi did while being attacked.  My students and I did this exercise and we failed.

Another great practice:  take one belief you feel very strongly about (gay marriage, death penalty, organic food, cat food) and for a few minutes mentally argue against it in the most reasonable way you can.  Never let beliefs grow too rigid.  Try to find a little compassion for the other side.

Give Up and Die to the idea that being inflexible is a sign of strength.

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