Issue 89 / September - October 2012
The Medicine for This Sickness: A Reaction to the Recent Violence and Killings in Nigeria
Rev. Dr. Pachomius Okogie
These days, we are witnessing a kind of violence never before heard of in our land. Young men and women are planting bombs in public places, and even blowing themselves up, using themselves as fatal weapons to kill dozens of innocent men, women and children. This is a very serious sickness that needs an urgent prescription and a cure from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions.
In Acts 10:38 we read the following: "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him." And in Matthew 9:36 we read: "At the sight of the crowds [who seemed lost], his heart was moved with pity [with compassion] for them." In brief, this explains what was responsible for the life and actions of Jesus of Nazareth and how it is that he did no harm, but rather only good: He was moved with pity, with compassion for others. And what is compassion?
The Greek word for compassion is "splanchnizomai" or "spankhnomai." It means to be moved as to one's bowels moved with love and pity or sorrow. It means to suffer with someone, to feel and identify with someone's pain. To have compassion is to have mercy, to recognize and have sorrow for someone's suffering. It is to have love, care, kindness and tenderness for someone, especially for those in need.
Clearly, those who are planting bombs or blowing themselves up or who are plotting similar schemes in Nigeria (and people of similar minds who are perpetuating violence in other parts of the world) no longer have compassion for others and for themselves. And yet, they claim, for the most part, that they are doing this in God's name. The real question is: In the name of whose God? Is there a God without compassion? It is certainly not in the name of the God of Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it really in the name of Allah of Islam. And it is definitely not in the name of YHWH (God) of the Jews either.
In John 14:9-11, Jesus said to Philip who asked him to show them the Father, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. ... I am in the Father and the Father is in me. ... The Father ... dwells in me." Unequivocally, one can say that what we see and love in Jesus of Nazareth, namely, his compassion for the poor and for everyone in need, his gentleness, his unconditional and faithful love, to name only a few, is equally true of the God that he has revealed to us. And Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1, saying, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ."
What do we know about the God of Islam? Asghar Ali Engineer remarks that the very first chapter of the Qur'an has the second verse as follows: Al-Rahman al-Rahim (i.e., The Compassionate, the Merciful). In fact, every chapter of the Qur'an (there are one hundred and fourteen of them), from surat al-fatiha to surat al-nas, begins with Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (i.e., "in the name of Allah the Compassionate and the Merciful") (with the exception of the chapter Tawbah in which this phrase is not in the beginning but comes later). Thus, among Allah's own 99 names are al-Rahman and al-Rahim (i.e., The Compassionate and The Merciful), and Allah has sent his Prophet Muhammad into the world as the Mercy of the world, as rahmatu lil'alamin (i.e., as "mercy of the worlds") and as al-risalat al-alamiyyah (i.e., as one who represents universal mercy). And a Muslim, according to Asghar Ali Engineer, begins everything by reciting, "Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim" (that is, "begin [every step] in the name of Allah Who is Compassionate and Merciful"). One can infer from this that the predominance of mercy and compassion in the life of Muslims is indisputable. Thus, even when one may engage in a "rescue mission" - that is, plot or participate in a war against the oppressor in order to liberate the oppressed, who cries for justice - even then the Qur'an (in chapter 4, verse 75) does not expect the violence to be reckless. In other words, Muslims may never fight a war "without compassion"; they may never fight a war except on compassionate grounds (and only with compassion). Not even in the name of the most oppressed of peoples may they fight a godless war, an unholy war. A war that is considered holy is that which is fought fi sabili Allah (i.e., in the way of Allah). The way of Allah is of justice and of protecting the rights of the poor and exploited. For more on this matter, one may consult the commentary of Maulana Muhammad Ali's The Holy Qur'an (Lahore, 1973). Meanwhile, it is most certainly unjust and ungodly to kill the innocent. Is it not?
Now we have seen that like the God of Jesus of Nazareth, Allah of Islam is compassionate and merciful. Among Allah's 99 names none is used as frequently as al-Rahman al-Rahmin. And Allah demands that Muslims be compassionate and merciful to others even in circumstances where they are morally compelled to liberate the poor and exploited from the callousness, godlessness and decadence of the oppressor. Otherwise, those that they seek to help may in fact end up being worst off, and even destroyed by their actions.
Additionally, in the ninth century the servant of God Umar, the second successor of the holy and most venerable Prophet Muhammad, decrees as follows in respect of Christians: "Their churches shall neither be used as dwellings nor destroyed. They shall not suffer any impairment nor shall their dependencies, their crosses, nor any of their property. No constraint shall be exercised against their religion (Q. 2:256) nor shall any harm be done to any among them" (cited in J. M. Gaudeul's Encounters & Clashes: Islam and Christianity in History, Rome, 2000, p. 47). All in all, the soul of Islam is mercy and compassion.
Finally, what do we know of the God of the Jews? According to Richard H. Schwartz, YHWH (God) is referred to in synagogue services as Ha-rachman, that is, as "The Compassionate One" and as Av harachamin, that is, as "Father of Compassion." And the Talmud (i.e., a collection of books, which is considered as one of the holiest of Judaism's books and taken to be very authoritative in Judaism) also teaches that Jews are to be rachmanim b'nei rachmanim, that is, "compassionate children of compassionate ancestors." Thus, one who fails to be compassionate cannot be a true descendant of Abraham (Bezah 32b). And the Talmud says categorically that heaven will grant compassion exclusively to those who have shown compassion to others (Shabbat 151b). This insistence on and importance of compassion in Judaism is taken further by the Baruch Sheh'amar prayer which is recited daily in the morning (Shacharit) services. Here is the prayer: "Blessed is the One (God) Who has compassion on the earth; blessed is the One Who has compassion on the creatures [animals and people]."
In Judaism, compassion is not only an attribute of God, it is imperative for all Jews to show compassion. Rabbi Dovid Sears states, "Compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only God's business; it is a virtue that we too must emulate. Moreover, compassion must not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, one of a number of religious duties in the Judaic conception of the Divine service. It is central to our entire approach to life." Why is compassion at the core of Judaism? As Richard H. Schwartz reminds us affirmatively of Isaiah 11:9, the answer is: so that "no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's holy mountain"; so that no one may hurt or be hurt; so that no one may destroy or be destroyed in all of God's creation.
We may now conclude by saying that if and when all men and women of Nigeria realize that those who have shown no mercy and compassion on earth to their fellow men and women and children will not be shown mercy and compassion in heaven by God, then they will most certainly, consciously and actively cultivate compassion, and the current reckless violence and killings in Nigeria will begin to die a natural death.
Rev. Dr. Pachomius Okogie
University of Saint Anselm,