Faith is Not Lost

Arden Mahlberg

“When did you lose your faith?”
I was asked.
As if faith can become lost.

Faith is not lost;
it is replaced, either with
something else or with nothing.

To ascribe lostness
to this state of leaving
a faith behind
is presumptuous.

One can turn away from
a faith or belief
and move on,

and what remains
becomes clearer
and brighter.

This was the case for me.
My old values
stand out even stronger now
with less competition
for my attention
and loyalty.

I did not lose my glasses either.
I just got a new pair
that work better for me and
a pair that I simply like better.

I have a shelf full
of old glasses too.

Trump is No Ethicist: Was Mike Pence a “Human Conveyor Belt?”

Trump is no ethicist.

After hearing testimony that Mike Pence and many other key Republicans took their oath of office more seriously than his wish to stay in office, now he attacks them as being rigid. He does enjoy labeling people and takes pride in coming up with the analogy of “human conveyor belt” to describe Pence’s supposed rigid behavior for following the Constitution. Curiously, this analogy does imply his agreement that he was asking, no, demanding, that Pence and others violate the Constitution. In charging them with rigidity, he once again reveals that he is no ethicist.

In Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe do argue that wisdom may require deviating from standard principles under certain circumstances. But one of those circumstances is not personal gain, following unsubstantiated claims, or trying to avoid the wrath of a bully. The testimony in the January 6 hearings reveals that Pence and other Republicans Trump tried to corrupt did deliberate about whether this situation justified breaking their oath of office to uphold the Constitution. They determined rightly that it did not. The evidence they asked for was not there. This is not rigidity; it is wisdom and integrity, just what we need from public officials.

But he isn’t trying to be. He seeks infamy.

But of course, Trump is not even trying to be an ethicist. His claim is that Pence “missed his opportunity for greatness,” to do something that has never been done before. No Vice President, as President of the Senate, had ever single-handedly decided the results of a Presidential election before. Presumably usurping a valid election would have been great because Trump is great. Even if these Republicans still believed Trump was great after seeing how out of touch with his oath of office his ego had got him, one of the features of doing the right thing is that you very often lose something in the process. Al Gore is an example of that. He could have become President of the United States by pulling the stunt Trump was demanding of Pence. Pence lost out on making history. Trump wasn’t willing to lose being the most powerful person in the world. Infamy is one type of greatness, I suppose.

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Memorial Day for our Enemies

“We never thought to include remembering our enemies who died in our Memorial Day service. We have crosses for us, but not for them. It just never occurred to us.” -Vietnam Vet

THIS IS MY SONG

(Jan Sibelius – 1899 / Words Lloyd Stone – 1934)

Finlandia

This is my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is,

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating,

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.

When we remember all those who have died in military actions and armed conflicts, perhaps our understanding of the cost of war will include the cost to other lands and peoples, not just ours.

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Kirill’s War of Religious Misinformation about Ukraine

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is falsely claiming that the attack on Ukraine is needed to defend human salvation. (Daily Beast 03/22/2022) Further, in response to the head of the World Council of Churches request that he intervene to help bring peace, Kirill reminds the Council they are not to take issue with a member church, such as his. Krill refuses to be held theologically accountable for dangerous spiritual claims some hold to be toxically false. Separate from whether claims such as his are true or not is the test Jesus put: you will know them by their fruit. The fruit of Kirill’s theological assertion is death. He has no problem with that. We should.

Kirill has thus engaged his office in psychological/theological warfare with Ukraine, whose Orthodox clergy have been increasingly initiating separation from his flock. This is occurring elsewhere outside of Russia. So he is not an objective witness. To him, not only is this a just war, it is a morally necessary one. And he won’t engage in dialogue about it with religious colleagues. This suggests that the issue may really about power. But he is making it a war over human salvation.

“If we see [Ukraine] as a threat, we have the right to use force to ensure the threat is eradicated,” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill recently preached to his church’s 90 million faithful followers. “We have entered into a conflict which has not only physical but also metaphysical significance. We are talking about human salvation, something much more important than politics….” As the patriarch sees it, Ukrainians are a threat to human salvation. (Daily Beast 03/22/2022)

A threat to human salvation? The fall is a myth. Its doctrinal offspring, original sin, is rightly contested. The other side of its coin, salvation, is likewise a contestable idea, though it rarely is. Regardless, in no way is it justification for invasion of another’s land and the slaughter of its inhabitants, not with Jericho, not with Kiev.

As Karen Armstrong points out, to love one’s enemy means to commit to protect them from harm. This goes for perceived religious enemies as well. If Krill really sees Ukraine as a spiritual threat, as a spiritual leader, he should extend his protection to Ukraine first and then go from there. Other voices need to be heard.

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When is Oz Doctor? Why Does it Matter?

Arden Mahlberg

I recall a Sunday when someone came up to me in church and asked, “Aren’t you Dr. Mahlberg?” I replied, “Not today,” and told them they could call me Arden. In situations like mine, some people politely ask how I would like them to refer to me. When I am in my role, it is Dr. Mahlberg. When not, it is Arden.

Mehmet Oz complains that some news sources are not referring to him as Dr. Oz as they report on his campaign for office. They have rules against using such titles outside their context. When they report on him engaged in the practice of medicine, they refer to him as Mehmet Oz, MD, or Dr. Oz. When not in that role, they refer to him as Mehmet Oz. In doing so, they are treating him as they do anyone else. He is protesting that, thinking he should always be Dr. Oz.

Whatever egalitarian motives we have as a society are well served by not allowing people to have their professional titles be used as their social identity. It is all about status, and status brings deference and power. That is why they want it. But outside professional practice, it is gratuitous and works against an egalitarian society. Some people with titles understand and agree with that. Others object and push for their way.

Identity is very important, and people should be allowed to claim and assert their identities. But not when they claim a social identity that puts them above others. Respect for the person does not obligate us to comply with such wishes. Respect for the role does not either when the person is not in their professional role. This is what belief in an egalitarian society requires of us.

It is also good for individuals. The healthiest identities are those that create the greatest resilience. I’ve spoken with many people who have moved after they retired and complain, “No one here knows who I am.” In their previous location, they had successful careers and were given social status because of it, which they embraced. This did not serve them well in the long run. We need not contribute to this unhealthy practice for ourselves, for others, and for the sake of an egalitarian society.

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“Armies of Certitude”

“Armies of certitude.” That is how columnist David Brooks describes what we will face when the Supreme Court’s makes its decision about abortion rights. (“Abortion: The Voice of the Ambivalent Majority,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2021) Certainty. What is it? Is it a good guide to being right? Unfortunately, certainty is no indication we are right.

I remember the feeling. I was struggling to figure out how to structure my dissertation research so I could answer the questions I had. Late one afternoon in the library, it came to me. I was excited to have finally solved the problem. It was clear. I wrote down a sketch of how it would work so I could fill it in the next day.

Certainty. As you might have guessed, the next morning I discovered that the idea I had been so certain about wouldn’t work at all. I was befuddled as to why it felt like an “ah hah!”

One would hope that the feeling of certainty would be strongly correlated with being right. Right? Imagine my disappointment years later when I reviewed the research on certainty and found that it has no relationship with being right. Certainty cannot be trusted. Certainty is just a feeling. It is not a sign of being right. Drat!

Not enough people seem to realize that. In a time of vehement polarization over so many things, the problem is not that people disagree. The problem is that too many people feel highly certain they are right. Their minds are closed. Dialogue is not possible. New information is twisted to support their beliefs. People who think differently are idiots, sheep, paranoid, or whatever dismissive term works. Then we are simply engaged in a destructive power struggle.

The one thing I have found that can soften things up is a four-step process, when that is possible. Let’s take abortion as an example.

Step 1: What are your thoughts about abortion?

“Abortion is wrong.”

Step 2: Why do you think that?

“Because it is murder.”

Step 3: How strongly do you feel about that?

“Very Strongly.”

Step 4: Why do you feel so strongly?

“I was an only child. I always wanted a brother or sister. When I was older, I asked my mother about it, and she told me that she didn’t want another child but had an unwelcome pregnancy and had an abortion. She was so matter of fact about it. It really hurt.”

The last ‘why?’ is a different one from the first ‘why?’. It is not a reason; it is the personal experiences that shape the position. Reasons are impersonal. The last ‘why?’ can be highly personal and highly charged. It feels like if you don’t care about those experiences, then you don’t care about me. You only care to have your way prevail.

When people feel compassionately heard about the personal and emotional parts of their position, they relax. Then, they may be open to hearing that depth in another person’s position.

Certainty is no indication we are right. Get the word out. Certainty cannot be trusted, and should not be respected.

Prayer as Participation

Arden Mahlberg

I got up well before dawn and stood at the rim of the Copper Canyon in Mexico to hear the Rarámuri on the canyon floor, far below, drum the sun up. The drumming began faintly until the canyon itself became a sound chamber. Before long, my body, moving with the rhythm surging through me, I felt engaged as a participant as well.

When the drummers see the sun peek over the canyon rim, they abruptly stop. The sun is up. What a thrill!

The experience of sharing in drumming the sun up on a feeling level gave me an entirely different sense of prayer that still informs me. Prayer is a form of participation. Speaking with a Rarámuri elder about their ritual reinforced for me that the drummers were not engaging in magic, as if the sun coming up required their drumming. They knew better than that. They were participating with gratitude in the wellbeing of what sustains their lives. Drumming as participation. Prayer as participation.

Prayer, to be wise, involves both receptivity and initiative. Without receptivity, initiative can be harmful, like the bull in the China shop. We can falsely believe we know what needs to happen for ourselves or others. Without initiative, receptivity can be inert, like the complaint about naval gazing.

The goal, then, is to balance and combine receptivity with initiative. Receptive forms of prayer, like contemplation and Centering Prayer, strengthen our awareness of ourselves and beyond ourselves.

Prayer is a form of participation whether or not we believe that prayer has some causal power. Drumming the sun up is not a causal factor and maybe neither are our prayers for health, justice or peace. But drumming the sun up can evoke gratitude and strengthen our shared vulnerability with all forms of life that depend on it.

Praying for others strengthens the bond of compassionate awareness. It may trigger other ways to help. Also, knowing that we are being prayed for or are in the thoughts of others while being wheeled into surgery does help, whether we believe in its causal power or not. We are not alone. Others are connecting with us, and we with them. Prayer is a form of participation.

Praying for ourselves strengthens our caring relationship with ourselves, including parts and histories we may wish we did not have. It can evoke other helpful ideas. The same is true for prayers of joy and gratitude. By sitting with them, finding images for them, sounds and words, we amplify the feelings. The receptivity to them leads to ways to live them out.

Many people won’t believe in non-ordinary causality unless it is decisive. If there is a God, that God must be all-powerful. If nothing is all-powerful, then there is no God, or so the logic goes.

We require prayer to overwhelm all other causal factors that are at play. It must be able to create fire from wet logs in a rainstorm, or it is unworthy.

Alternately, some people regard their prayers and positive thoughts as one factor in the mix of many factors that do influence outcomes, some scientific, some not. Prayer may or may not tip the scale. We can’t know that. If not, perhaps it is still better to pray than not.

Prayer is a form of participation when other options are not immediately available. And, when other options are available, prayer is an additional, meaningful dimension of participation, both with receptivity and with initiative.

Arden Mahlberg is a psychologist devoting himself to the psychology of spirituality and justice. He blogs at beyonddisavowing.org and ardenmahlberg.com.

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For the Safety of our Enemies

Arden Mahlberg

Veterans Day 2021 – I just drove past a memorial to soldiers from our state who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The organizers placed a white cross for each of our citizens who died in those wars. I guess it is presumed that they were all Christians.

Several years ago, I spoke with one of the organizers of such a memorial to all the American troops who died in Vietnam and Iraq. It was a massive display of white markers, in this case, not crosses. I asked him if they included markers for the enemy dead and civilians who died in the wars. “We never thought of that.” But he wished that they had.

I have been in countless church services where we prayed for the safety of our troops. Never, “We pray for the safety of the enemies of the United States.” This despite Jesus telling us to “love” our enemies. As Biblical scholar Karen Armstrong clarifies, this injunction. It technically means that we are to treat our enemies to the benefit they would have if we had a peace treaty with them. At the time of Jesus, that included the “love” clause of protecting our enemies from harm.

This is an especially important principle to promote now. Steve Bannon and Donald Trump have called for the punishment of legislators who voted for the infrastructure bill. They would have supported if it had been done by a President of their choice. People are harassing and punishing officials who uphold the validity of the last election.

In the current context, to pray for the safety of our enemies and vow to protect them from harm draws a clear line with the religious right. They believe they are contending with a cosmic enemy, Satan. From that point of view, to pray for the safety of one’s enemies and vow to protect them is to do the Devil’s work.

The same is true when Christian and Muslim communities protect each other from harm. To the fanatics, they are aligning themselves with The Enemy.

May we have the will to protect our enemies from harm!

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The Natural Origins of Evil

Arden Mahlberg

The human immune system keeps us healthy and alive through violence against intruders who would do us harm. “Natural killers,” aptly named, are one type of cells in our immune system. Without the benefit of any prior exposure, they naturally seek out and destroy harmful cells. We rely on such violence within our bodies to be healthy.

Externally, our ability to be alive and healthy also depends on us doing harm to other organisms. Invasive species can make other species extinct. Insects destroy trees. Beavers destroy habitat that some species depend on while their actions aid other species. It is the nature of the reality we are in on planet earth that doing harm frequently aids in survival, and thus is rewarded by evolution.

In competing for resources, those with greatest power, technology and material resources, tend to exploit those who have what they want. While we can fault greed, it is true that the accumulation of resources tends to reduce existential stress, benefit survival and reproduction. European colonization of lands previously home to indigenous peoples is a case in point. It is easier to acquire wealth when you are willing and able to exploit others and the environment. Many wonders of the world and many grand economies were built with slave labor, for example.

Reproduction benefits from aggression. Many human beings play with this in sex games that involve domination and sadism. Being aggressive and violent can be exciting and pleasurable, which reinforces those behaviors even beyond their effectiveness in getting what we want. Rape and sexualization of power are so effective that in 2003 a study estimated that 16 million males had DNA traced to Genghis Khan, who ruthlessly built a vast empire characterized by rape and pillage.

Because we participate in these dynamics, Christian ministers frequently refer to us as “fallen” or in a state of “brokenness.” The obvious implication is that human beings were once “whole.” The Garden of Eden explanation has us beginning in a state where all that we needed was supplied by the environment. As they myth goes, our ancestors were safe, with no predators. Food was plentiful and easy to obtain. But there is no evidence that our ancestors ever lived in such a state of safety, with all their needs met by the environment itself.

Most species on earth live under threat of predators and under conditions where they must devote much time and effort to meet their needs for food and shelter.  It is not just human beings that live in stressful conditions. There are, however, birds that live in such ideal circumstances in Papua New Guinea that they are called Birds-of-Paradise. They have plenty of food at all times of year and they have no natural predators or diseases, hence the reference to Paradise. Reproduction, however, is not guaranteed. To reproduce, males must put on elaborate displays for the females, who routinely reject more males than they agree to have sex with. But sometimes a rejected male will simply not take “no” for an answer and will hop on the female and quickly impregnate her. Rape in paradise.

For aggression to succeed, it must be paired with effective power. When it is, it goes a long way in determining which individuals and which species will live and reproduce and which will not.  Aggression has reproductive value, so many successful species exhibit adaptive aggression. Even in extremes, it can be rewarded by survival and reproduction. But things we regard as virtues can also have survival and reproductive value. While Genghis Khan’s method of control and expansion was noted for its brutality, rape, and pillage, after gaining domination over a population, he used tolerance and generosity to maintain control. Social intelligence also has survival and reproductive value.

While the ability and willingness to do harm are evolutionary adaptations to the stressful conditions of life on earth, when they are activated without being suppressed by compassion, individuals and groups can inflict harm that is not necessary for their survival, which is evil. Typical suppressors of doing harm can be overridden by fear, delusion, and seemingly benign social pressure. Social conformity is also important to survival and reproduction. When people expect us to do harm, we are likely to comply. This is how isolated groups, like corporate cultures, can spin off into doing evil, like predatory business practices. Whole societies can also, like Nazi Germany. Outsiders are more able to see the evil insiders are doing.

Evil is done from a state of moral imbalance. Self-interest is not counterbalanced with concern for others. Twenty-six centuries ago, the Jain religion was formed around the realization that we cannot survive on earth without doing harm. They vowed to live as well as they could while doing the least amount of harm possible. The motivation is compassion for all sentient beings, including themselves. With such compassionate awareness, there can be the recognition that even altering the environment to benefit ourselves can make it unsuitable for other life forms who previously thrived.

Psychologically, we are more likely to strengthen our compassionate awareness when we are not faulted for major things outside our control, namely that life on earth requires doing harm. The guilt imposed by the belief that humans are at such fault (original sin) tends to only motivate us to relieve that guilt and secure our good standing with divine beings. The concept of original sin is an example of blaming the victim in order to deflect responsibility from where it lies, the objective reality life on earth evolved from. The concept of original sin also provides a means for the church to control others. Original sin does not motivate us to increase compassionate awareness of other life forms with concern for their wellbeing. Better to simply recognize that the roots of evil are in what it takes to survive and reproduce in the environment of this earth. We have the option, though, to commit to doing the least amount of harm possible and learning the self-discipline to do so. By counteract destructive needs with compassionate awareness of other life forms and the earth itself, we are less likely to exploit or do harm. Then we are more likely to sacrifice some fulfillment of our own interests for the sake of others.

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“We’re Good”: When Forgiving is Unnecessary

Arden Mahlberg

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Forgiving Father, there is, curiously, no moment in the story when the father forgives his son. When taken as a parable of forgiveness, we may be seeing what we expect to see rather than something even harder to imagine – unwavering compassion, which is even more fundamental to the life of love.  

The purpose of forgiveness is to return us to a base of compassion when our bond with another has been damaged in response to an offense. Forgiveness allows us to return to full participation and collaboration with others in the work to be done, the work on the farm or the needs of love and justice. Because the father in this story is so consistently gracious toward his son, we assume it must be because he keeps forgiving him, offense after offense. We assume the father’s bond toward his son would be damaged by these offenses. But there is no evidence that it was.

When compassion does not waver, there is no need for the repair that forgiveness supplies even when an offense has taken place. One person’s bond with another can remain remarkably intact in circumstances where most people would experience great harm to their bond with the other. There are such events in this parable where we might expect the father’s bond with his son to falter or even break into disowning the son. but there is no actual evidence that it did. This points to a quality of love that results in more consistency in love of neighbor and love of self.

Let us explore the absence of forgiveness in the story and the unwavering compassion that it reveals. The son came to his father one day with the unusual request for his inheritance so he could pursue his own life rather than remain on the farm. There is no indication that the father was insulted or angry due to the request. The father simply carried out the son’s wishes. No emotions are conveyed in this exchange. No blessing and no curse, as there was with Noah toward Ham for a much lesser provocation.

It is commonly understood that the Prodigal Son’s request would have been insulting and hurtful to the father. He wanted his inheritance while his father was still alive. He wanted to leave his father, his father’s way of life and his father’s homeland. While most fathers might take this personally and be hurt, we see no evidence of that. The son’s decision would have brought shame to his father in the eyes of his community, but, again, while this may have occurred, there is no indication that the father internalized it.

Perhaps this is a father who knew his son very well and knew that he did not belong on the farm. Then the son’s request to have his financial resources and his freedom would have made sense to the father, and he would have responded empathically.

Compassion and joy are the only two feelings attributed to the father toward his younger son. When he saw his son coming home, he felt compassion and ran out to meet him. There was no barrier to overcome. This is not as remarkable as we might think. When a child brings harm to themselves and experiences failure, parents often respond compassionately. Their attention is focused on the feelings of the child. Their compassion helps the child recover and re-orient. Other parents respond with self-focused anger and shaming. “How could you do this to me! How dare you show your face!” Then the hole gets deeper for both child and parent.

In contrast, from seeing his son in the distance, the father’s compassion activated joy they could both experience when they met. When the son expressed how unworthy he felt, the father ordered the servants to clothe him in the finest clothing and shoes and even put a ring on his finger. From the point of view of unwavering compassion, worthiness and unworthiness are irrelevant, even meaningless. We are neither worthy nor unworthy of compassion.

The father’s actions conveyed to his son, “We’re good,” and moved the attention toward joy and celebration. Many of us have used this or similar expressions toward others when they expect our feelings toward them have been damaged by their actions. “We’re good,” relieves them of that concern, while “I forgive you,” tends to put attention back on the offense.

For the sake of completeness, the story also describes the effects of allowing our bond with others to be broken. This is when we need to engage forgiveness for the sake of repair. The setting of the story is a family farm with hired hands. Full functioning of the farm requires collaboration and cooperation among all involved. The older son must become able to work with his brother and his father. His inability to do so would be disruptive to accomplishing the work that needs to be done.

And so it is with God’s work. When a bond is damaged, we use forgiveness to return to being able to collaborate. Forgiveness, though, tends to be a transaction between apology and forgiveness. Worthiness easily comes into play, even when we believe it should not. Are you sufficiently remorseful? Do I deserve your forgiveness? We may even feel that with our apology the offended person is morally obligated to forgive us, and if they do not, we have the right to fault them for it. It is quid pro quo. While we may have been taught that forgiveness is a gift to be freely given, the ability to do so requires compassion. Even as a gift to oneself, forgiveness derives from the more fundamental quality of compassion.

From “We’re good,” it is much easier to avoid the quagmire of worthiness and unworthiness. “We’re good,” draws us away from self-focus. When someone tells us, “We’re good,” we experience it as a positive reflection on the other person, since they are focused on our wellbeing. It is easy to move on from there, in this story, to a grand celebration.

Relationships are not a two-way street. We each construct and alter our own street toward the other. Those constructions may have very different features. They may not be symmetrical. Love can be unrequited. Ill will may not be mutual. Parent’s often experience their child being upset with them, but they are not upset with the child.

Exceptions to symmetry are genuine mutuality, like mutual admiration, and mirroring. These have very different qualities. Mirroring can occur unconsciously, that we match how the other is treating us.  What is happening to one is also happening to the other. If you are upset, then I am upset. If you are not good with me, then I cannot be good with you.

As natural as mirroring is, it does not lead to living the life of love Jesus calls us to live. Many couples discover the helpful agreement that “only one of us can be upset at a time.” One must provide stability, preventing things from getting out of hand. Fortunately, when infused with the stable love of God, one person’s regard for the other becomes stabilized. And it can remain stable even when the other person’s interaction with them is agitated.

In this parable of unwavering love, we see both the benefits of it and the damage caused when good will wavers with conditions, as it did with the older son. He took his father’s joyful welcome and generosity toward his brother as an injustice to himself. He was unable to be happy for his father and his brother in their reunion. The father pleaded with him to join the celebration. This is a sensitive moment when we seek to share our joy with someone. This is when symmetry matters. When they do join in, it amplifies our joy. If they do not, our own joy is hard to sustain.

This story encourages us to be more like the father. It helps to recognize that we have the seeds of God’s unwavering compassion already within us. When we think we are lacking some quality, it is helpful to challenge ourselves to remember a time we did exhibit that quality, even to a small degree. In doing so, Wayne remembered his response to his daughter damaging the family car. After she got home, she went into the house, found her father, and told him she had done a bad thing. Tearful, she led him out into the garage to show him the wrinkled bumper. She was very upset with herself and expected her father to be disappointed with her, even angry. To her relief, he was neither. He was also relieved and grateful for his response.

Wayne’s gratitude immediately extended to his father, who had treated him with compassion when he was in his daughter’s shoes. He had once driven his father’s prize car home with a broken headlight and damage to the bumper and grill. Chagrined, he described to his father how, on a snow packed road on the edge of town, he had lost control and hit a rural mailbox and wooden fence. When the car slid on a curve, he hit the brakes rather than accelerating out of the slide as his father had taught him. He felt ashamed. He also felt sick as he looked at the damage to his father’s immaculate car, fully expecting his father to be angry. His father, however, was unphased and hugged Wayne, saying, “We’re good. We’re good. We’ll look at the damage together tomorrow and see what we can do. Let’s go have supper.”

Now, Wayne hugged his daughter the same way and told her the story of her grandfather’s compassion toward him. She was touched by how this compassion had moved from her grandfather down to her.

While damaging your parent’s car is trivial compared to what is described in our parable, it is important to recognize that human bonds remain unwavering more commonly than we might think. Harmful actions do not always alter how the injured person relates to the one who did the injury.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there may also be some legacy effect for the younger son, having lived with his father for as long as he did. When asking for his inheritance and his freedom, the son shows no signs of ill will toward the father. When he returned having squandered his father’s wealth, he took full responsibility and had no expectations. When his father expressed joy in his presence, he was able to shift quickly from feeling unworthy to sharing in his father’s joy. He had either forgiven himself or his compassion toward himself was relatively stable.

Unwavering compassion can be cultivated. First, we must establish compassion as our base and then learn to keep it steady. I have helped many people connect with unwavering compassion through the following exercise. I begin by inviting the person to focus on the sense that they are loved, by the source of all love, fully and completely just as they are. When people object that they cannot sense it, I invite them to imagine what it would be like if they were experiencing it. Whatever little bit a person experiences it in this exercise, I encourage valuing it and enjoying how good it feels. This enhances the feeling. Then I have them notice where and how they sense this compassion in their bodies, their thoughts, and their feelings. Then I invite them to notice what this makes their bodies want to do. Very often, it is some joyful expression.

Then I encourage people to imagine doing ordinary things while in touch with this unwavering compassion, even just taking a walk, and noticing what is different about it. They usually report smiling, walking more relaxed and erect with more comfortable awareness of their surroundings, including other people.

This experience of compassion tends to generalize toward other people. We see them differently, through the eyes of compassion. A man with frequent road rage, for example, found that this spiritual practice changed his driving experience. Now, when other drivers disrupted his driving, he found himself making positive assumptions about them. When someone stopped quickly in front of him to turn left – “I guess she’s not familiar with this neighborhood.” To his surprise, the hostility was not there, nor was the need to forgive the other driver or forgive himself for his reactivity. Instead of the finger, now he gives them a wave and a nod: “We’re good.”

It is best to start this generalizing of compassion within easy situations and work up to the more challenging ones. When we get thrown off, as we will, it helps to take some time to explore your reaction with compassionate curiosity. One approach for digging down is to fill in the blanks: “When someone _____, I feel ______.” Say this aloud. Notice what happens inside yourself as you hear yourself and then adjust the statement accordingly. For a person with road rage, it might be, “When someone cuts me off, I feel like I have to teach them a lesson.” From speaking this aloud and hearing himself say it, one man noticed this come up: “When someone cuts me off, I remember how my dad ignored me when he came home from work.” Usually, going through this step five or six times brings a positive shift and makes it easier to sustain compassion in those situations in the future.

To live the life Jesus taught requires that this stable base of compassion be universally applied. We are not to approach people from a neutral stance. We are to welcome the stranger, without profiling, we might add. They should not need to earn our compassion. We are to sustain the base of compassion even when it is not reciprocated. Jesus taught such asymmetry when he said we should love our enemies, even when they are doing harm to us. This does not mean that we do not protect ourselves or that we tolerate ongoing harm. Far from it. The marriage vows do not read, “I will stay with you no matter how you treat me.” We can love and protect ourselves while having goodwill toward others, even toward our enemies. We can, as Karen Armstrong suggests, follow Jesus’ directive by vowing to not harm our enemies and to protect them from harm by others.

The suffering people Jesus cared for believed that their plight meant that God had turned against them. They did not believe there was unwavering compassion. Their suffering must mean that they were not in God’s good graces. It also meant that to others, who felt justified in mistreating them. Suffering people are easy targets for exploitation. They may not feel justified in standing up for themselves when they feel they do not deserve better. This is how being atheistic about unwavering compassion becomes a justice issue. Believing, experiencing, and participating in unwavering compassion leads to more just action toward ourselves and others.

In bringing his good news, Jesus campaigned to promote belief and participation in unwavering compassion. In his Sermon on the Mount, he informed suffering people that they were blessed by God, which would have been mind boggling. “God is good with you.” The Parable of Unwavering Compassion, as we might now call it, inspires us to learn greater constancy in our ability to live the life of love.