Some recent Facebook bloggernacle conversation has gotten me thinking once again about an issue that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a long time. (I probably started this post during the Prop 8 Blog Wars, but in classic ZD fashion, never got around to finishing it.) My original title was something like “Should We Have Compassion for Gays?” I changed it because I didn’t want to deal with the people who only read the title of the post before commenting. But that is in fact the question I want to think about.
Here’s the thing: the phrase “compassion for gays” kinda makes me cringe. Should we have compassion for women? Should we have compassion for singles? Should we have compassion for left-handed people? When it’s framed like that, the implicit message is that these are categories of people who are somehow broken and defective, and therefore in need of our compassion. I’m reminded of people expressing horror at the possibility that they are on “the list” of the compassionate service committee. And I’m guessing that most of us aren’t crazy about Mormons being labeled as a group in need of compassion (because we’re spiritually deluded and/or don’t realize we’re in a cult).
I’m also wary of the language of compassion because I’ve seen it get used in contexts where something like “basic respect for human dignity” would make a lot more sense. To say that it’s “compassionate” to advocate for equal housing and employment rights for gays, for example (as I once saw asserted in the Deseret News), sounds like an assertion that one is going above and beyond what might be expected—as if the acceptable norm would be to treat gays like second-class citizens, but because we are such good, compassionate people, we’ll opt to do better (at least once in a while.) I also think it’s telling that when a person begins a comment by saying, “let me first say that I have a great amount of compassion for gays,” the comment usually continues, “but I’m opposed to [some form of gay rights].” That sort of thing makes me suspicious of compassion.
But I’m probably going too far if I’m completely dismissing compassion as a virtue. After all, Jesus exhibited it. So maybe my question is–how do we have compassion without condescension, without a metamessage that something is wrong with the person? Perhaps there’s a difference between compassion as a response to a particular situation—seeing a person in pain, realizing that a person is having a hard time and wanting to help—and labeling a general class of people as objects of compassion. With the latter, I think we run the risk of using the language of compassion as a way of making us feel good about ourselves (e.g., I’m such a virtuous person, because I have compassion for all the unenlightened bloggers who disagree with me.)
The baptismal covenant in Mosiah 18 calls us to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those that mourn. I like that as a possible definition of compassion. And there’s something significant in there, I think, about the need to take each other’s experience very seriously. I would guess that many if not most members of the church would agree that we could do a better job of being kind to gay individuals. But genuine compassion, I think, might require something harder. We can’t mourn with those that mourn without really listening to them—even if what they have to say isn’t easy to hear, even if it challenges some of our deeply held beliefs.
A friend of a friend commented a while ago on Facebook about how much she loved the LDS doctrine of marriage (specifically, our rejection of same-sex marriage). I’ve read more arguments about gay marriage than any sane person should, but for some reason I found the tone of this particular comment very unsettling. I’ve been trying to articulate why, and I think it has to do with what I’m saying about mourning. Because no matter how beautiful and wonderful our doctrine of marriage might be for many people, we’re paying a very high price for it. We’re losing our gay sisters and brothers. And I think the least we can do is acknowledge that cost.
I’m also thinking that it’s a problem to describe compassion in terms of personality traits or feelings. Because ideally it’s not about how we feel; it’s about how we act. The question has occasionally come up of whether it’s possible to oppose gay rights, or condemn gay relationships, while still feeling compassion for gays. But I think that’s the wrong question, both because it assumes that compassion is primarily a feeling, and because it so easily lures us into a scenario in which gays are not really people, but potential objects of our compassion. In that framework, the focus is less on the actual needs of others, and more on how we can manage to have the right feelings, as if the primary issue at stake is how we feel. The harder–but more important–question, I think, is what it means to act compassionately. And when it comes to gays, I think that as a church, we’re still pretty muddled about what that looks like.