Before you choose a side, do this


By Kathy Berken
On Deck

A New York Times article Oct. 25 about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, “Pick a Side. Pick a Side. Pick a Side. Now.” caused me to wonder if it is always wise to choose sides so quickly. By this, I mean political, religious or ideological sides.

Jesus took the side of love, mercy and compassion. He stood alongside the poor, the outcast and the sinner. He didn’t hesitate to heal people on the Sabbath or speak with people who were enemies of the state. When the Pharisees challenged Jesus with the impossible question about paying taxes (Matt 22:17–21, Oct. 22 Gospel), he faced a dilemma that spelled defeat no matter what side he chose. Rather than take a political stance, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Inclusion and compromise were methods Jesus used to get out of the trap the Pharisees set for him. Some other times, Jesus took the side of mercy over religious law. In particular, Jesus had several connections to the Samaritans, a religious group that was antithetical to the Jews. Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, he told the story about the “Good Samaritan” and he healed a Samaritan leper. Was he taking the side of a group the Jews shunned and hated? No. Jesus did not reject people based on their religious or political beliefs because doing so would undermine his very nature of infinite divine love for others.


This does not mean that Jesus ignored sin and wrongdoing. In Matthew 23, he calls the teachers of the law and the Pharisees “hypocrites,” “a brood of vipers” and “snakes.” Still, he tells his disciples to do what the teachers of the law and the Pharisees say, but not what they do. Again, Jesus suggests a sort-of compromise.

We seem to be faced with picking sides during every crisis, whether related to politics, religion, culture, work, or friends and families. Pick a side, we are told. We are supposed to believe Alexander Hamilton’s famous line: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

If we follow Jesus’ example, we choose love and compassion over politics and religion.

The question of the hour is whether we can remain neutral, employ compassion and love and still have integrity and hold to our values and religious beliefs without picking a side, at least right away.

Hamilton’s advice seems valid, yet what does it mean in everyday life compared with Jesus’ examples? I believe there is a spiritual challenge in this for us as Catholic Christians.

Before you pick a side, do everything in your power to understand the conflict. More than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, try to get inside the head and heart of the other. Try to become the other person for a while. Do your best to truly see, feel and think as the other. You don’t have to agree with that person or take on their values and beliefs. The spiritual practice is one of deep empathy in order to find a peaceful solution or compromise.

In the book, “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization,” Peter Coleman describes the “Bridging Divides Initiative” using an example about the abortion debate.

After a 1994 shooting rampage outside an abortion clinic outside of Boston, activists from both sides decided to meet and talk. Through face-to-face conversations over the past 29 years, they have all become friends. Coleman says that their understanding and affection for each other has changed the possibilities around violence surrounding this issue, even though none of the people changed their views about abortion.

The spiritual practice of deep empathy is a step towards peace. It might be a good way to begin the Advent season.

 (Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton  — The Arch from 1999-2009.)

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