There are many Christians who read their Bible in an incredibly specific and generally good way. I argue this method is not Biblical, but it is good. This good method is to find Jesus’ command to “love thy neighbour” and to assume “neighbour” means “all fellow human beings”. Jesus, thus, commanded ‘universal love and compassion’, and that is often used to ignore, shun, supersede or else eschew the horror of the Old Testament. But, we can’t afford to be complacent about what universal love and compassion means just because it has the aesthetics we want, on first glance. We have to look more deeply at what it means.
I’m not going to spend much time on discussing how one makes all the jumps of favouring one quote from Jesus, quite late in the Book, as context for the whole (and large) book, except to say this: as much as I like universal love and compassion as a starting point for a very useful discussion, I am concerned about reaching that conclusion for bad reasons. I think the best things a Christian can say to defend the idea isn’t to say “it’s obvious, when you read the Bible”, because I’ve read the Bible and it isn’t obvious; there’s a lot of murder and hatred and owning people and bigotry that is not clearly condemned. Not only that, but many other Christians now and throughout history didn’t find it obvious to be universally compassionate either; there’s empirical evidence it’s not been obvious and not easy to tell if you’re getting it wrong. Instead, the Christian can say “I think the Lord gave me compassion as a gift through which to read the Bible”. Okay, I may think that’s meaningless, but it gets them to use their compassion.1
Now that we have this imperative to universal love and compassion, what does it look like? There are a lot of moral philosophies that might help us start a conversation here. Aiming for maximal wellbeing is one option (a branch of utilitarianism), and I will argue that is the Biblical/apologetic answer; the hippocratic oath―first do no harm―is another, and I suspect the one that Christians default to after concluding the merits of universal love. For the sake of word count and ease of reading, I’m not dealing with Kantian ethics, situationism or other ethical ideas. There are many more philosophical omissions here, but that’s not strictly relevant; my goal is to advocate for discussion because the answer offered to ethics (particularly in comments here) is too vague. That I highlight this need with reference to so few of the discussion points in philosophy only exacerbates my point.
For this question, I want to address two contentious issues: war and euthanasia. These are the places that compassion will be of the utmost importance and, arguably, the hardest to envisage.
Starting with war: are you pro-war? This is a question in n practice and in principle. The airstrikes in Syria, for example, have big practical objections hanging over them: airstrikes may result in more recruitment to or the migration of Daesh; innocent people will die; there are better ways to spend the same money to look after people. But, if all the practical considerations were removed and all violent Jihadists were in a building, and you could just bomb that building, would you? (That’s the in-principle question.) We can assume, from the fact many of us are in democracies and our countries are already bombing Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, that a majority of people would answer yes.
So, is this what compassion looks like? I want to start to address the answer to that question with the Bible or, more accurately, the theologians and the apologists who defend certain parts of the Bible: the slaughter of the Canaanites and the Midianites. Although the details don’t always add up,2 the overarching defence is that God was acting out of love and compassion. The Canaanites were so debaucherous and so contagious that their continuation was a genuine threat to the wellbeing of all people, forever on from that point. God still loved the Canaanites, unconditionally, but also loved everyone else unconditionally. God’s goal was to maximise net wellbeing.
It would have looked very different if God had taken an hippocratic oath approach, and done no harm.3 By doing no harm, God would have to have not commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites, allowed the debauchery of the Canaanites to spread, and for fear and murder to spread across the land4 and for life to be miserable for basically everyone.
I think this is important to properly think about. The Christian who has concluded that compassion is the right way to read the Bible will often5 claim that Christianity offers all the answers. But, I’ve just elucidated very serious aspersions over that, by giving reasonable defence as to how that could lead to polar opposite answers on the same question, in the same context.6
Entertaining questions of euthanasia, it’s probably not difficult to see that there’s very similar discussion to be had. Firstly, we need to make sure we’re talking about the same thing when we talk about euthanasia. We are talking about the right of a patient who is suffering from an incurable and miserable condition to ask a doctor to end their life, and to reasonably expect that the doctor will, given that two doctors independently agree that the patient is lucid enough to have capacity for such a decision, is steadfast in their conviction that death is their wish for a period of time and in severe anguish and shows no likelihood of recovering. This is most frequently an end of life question, but it is worth noticing that at least 1 young person had died by euthanasia who was physically healthy, although in psychological anguish.7
So, note what it is we’re talking about: a person’s right to die. We are not talking about another person’s right to murder. We are talking about a person making a decision to die, and in what say we can realise that right. The current answer is for two medical professionals assessing that the patient is making a reasoned decision.8 Fears that the system may be abused are not relevant to this discussion because, for the sake of understanding compassion, we are ignoring the practical implications, as we did with the war system. Fear of systemic abuse of the system is also not relevant because such systemic abuse is a symptom of a political party that already abused democracy and would be as willing to subvert the law on murder as to ‘abuse’ the euthanasia law (which is the same as subverting the murder law). If this is your objection to euthanasia, you must also ban all other things that can be abused: medication, guns, police forces, wars, GPS… It’s a very regressive view.
So, what do you do? Our Christian may feel compelled to go back to the Bible and readout “thou shalt not murder”. But, the distinction between murder and killing here is essentially one of justification. If there is a compassionate justification for killing, then it is not murder at all.9 At this point, the Christian may decide to enter into the hippocratic oath and decide to actively do no harm. The consequence of this is that a person lives in a great deal of pain and suffering, which seems very much at odds with compassion. The other problem is that if one wishes to use the hippocratic oath here, then one must also use it in issue of war and terrorism. It’s important to be consistent, else one can simply use the two philosophies as the appropriate tools to do exactly what they want, bypassing a moral conversation altogether.
So, what is the answer: what does compassion look like? I don’t know. I suspect in our day to day decisions it’s much easier to delineate. What I set out to do here was muddy the water of a specific set of Christians certainty on the ‘compassionate’ reading of the Bible. A discussion still very much needs to happen. On the big questions, there still aren’t answers here. What we need is for people to stop being certain in their ambiguity and vagueness to permit the themes of their conviction to some substance.
1 There is a much bigger conversation to be had there, but it’s not the one I want to have today.
2 Like the killing of the children and the animals
3 I’m not talking about what right God would have to kill. I’m simply talking about what it teaches us about compassion.
4 well avoided!
5 and sometimes very smugly
6 This is before I entertain the question of how a God can expect us to behave in these terms, when we don’t have access to that knowledge to hand.
7 We’re talking about suffering, therefore we are talking about the mind. Psychological anguish is just as valid, if not more so, than physical ill health.
8 If you think no reasoned person would ever wish to die, our conversation here is moot; it is vital the patient has capacity and wishes to die. It would be an abuse of euthanasia for it happen any other way.
9 That’s a necessary proposition to justify God in the Old Testament