H. Haker – Compassion for Justice

« Compassion for Justice »

by Hille Haker

Index – Verzeichnis – Indice – Índice – 指數


1. Walter Kasper’s Theology of Mercy And Metz’s Theology of Compassion

According to Walter Kasper’s seminal study,[1] mercy, from the Latin misericordia, is a central concept for the Christian theology of the twenty-first century. Systematic Theology, however, has rarely embraced mercy as foundational.

Why mercy instead of love? Mercy, Kasper argues, maintains the connection to justice better than love does. Spelled out as empathy, compassion, or pity, mercy becomes a correlative term to justice. The biblical tradition marks mercy as a central attribute of God; mercy is in fact God’s way of justice and holiness (or sacredness), tying it to God’s attention to those who are suffering. Mercy marks, at the same time, the way caritas and the works of love are to be practiced: completing and in fact superseding justice. Whereas justice is based on symmetry and the reciprocity of the ‘give’ and ‘take’ between partners, mercy embraces the non-reciprocal gift. In light of mercy, caritas does not only mean the assistance and support of the poor; rather, it also means the love of enemies, and the forgiveness of guilt

With these very short remarks I only want to allude to the direction Kasper takes. From my own discipline of ethics, I welcome this attention to mercy within systematic theology. The way Kasper develops the concept, however, raises some questions concerning the relation between systematic theology and ethics. To show this, I want to reinterpret an alternative approach, namely the concept of compassion that Johann Baptist Metz introduced at the turn of the millennium.[2] Metz’s concept differs strikingly from Kasper’s, and it is worthwhile to scrutinize these differences.

As I have shown in a previous issue of Concilium, the key concepts of Metz’s alternative ‘new political theology,’ to which his compassion theology is related, are fourfold:[3] First, political theology is grounded in anamnetic reason, as the memory of God in so far as this also expresses the memory of human suffering. Compassion is an ethical implication of the historical, or more precisely: anamnetic conception of reason, and it shapes, at the same time, the perspective on history. Second, Metz’ new political theology is based upon a negative universalism rather than assuming, like Hans Küng does in his Project of Global Values, commonly held universal values; it attends to the concrete historical experiences, especially the suffering from injustice, and places those who suffer at the center of theology. Third, Metz insists on an eschatological theology that emphasizes the urgency of the Kairos of action; and fourth, he gives orthopraxy, active engagement, priority over orthodoxy. Placed within this concept of political theology, compassion is neither (merely) empathy nor (paternalistic) pity but entails the recognition of the other – as the concrete other: it correlates with the moral claim that I must see the traces of damage that suffering, and especially suffering from injustice, leaves, and that I must respond to the suffering of others. For Metz this personal dimension of suffering must lead to the practice of solidarity that is the linchpin of hispolitical twistof compassion.

Misericordia, mercy, or compassion, as taken from these two important Christian approaches, is not just a term among others. Rather, Kasper and Metz both emphasize that it is a central concept of Christian theology. Yet the semantic distinction between mercy and compassion is more striking than Kasper’s book argues. The concepts are not interchangeable, I will argue, but instead reveal two different pathways, and both are needed in a renewed Christian political ethics.

My third interlocutor, Martha Nussbaum, has provided some major works on moral emotions within ethical theory, including compassion; more recently, however, she has offered a philosophical approach that integrates the concepts of love and compassion into a liberal political ethics. The difference between a systematic-theological concept of mercy and a political-theological concept of compassion becomes clearer when we consider her decidedly ethical concept of ‘political love’.

2. Nussbaum’s concept of political love

In her recent work,[4] Martha Nussbaum explores love and compassion in their relevance for a political ethics, arguing that it complements the normative realm of political liberalism. Compassion, as Nussbaum defines it, is a “painful emotion directed at the serious suffering of another creature or creatures”[5] Compassion is closely related to moral judgments. Moral emotions have a cognitive dimension, as Nussbaum has long argued, but in being ‘affective’, they are tied to concrete situations rather than to abstract moral principles. The opposite of love and compassion is not so much hate but rather disgust and shame. Disgust excludes or stigmatizes the other, especially social groups – or, more radically, even dehumanizes them. Fear, envy, and shame, Nussbaum holds, are all enemies of compassion. They inhibit us from connecting with the other: we then do not regard the other’s pain as serious; we blame the other for her suffering; we pretend the other’s fate could never happen to us. Nussbaum shows the process by which the culture of indifference emerges,and she offers ways to counteract to it. Turning to the liberal nation state, Nussbaum affirms its normative ideals: justice is centered on equal respect and dignity of all members of humanity, and all citizens in a state. But the norm alone is insufficient unless we have resources to counter the social attitudes of disgust, shaming, and stigmatization. Society, Nussbaum argues, needs the citizens’ imaginative engagement, and this is nourished by love. “Love, then, matters for justice— especially when justice is incomplete and an aspiration.”[6] Love is necessarily particularistic and plural, and yet, people can be brought together, especially through the arts, around a common set of values. A “poetic spirit”(191) countersour indifference and connects us with our own vulnerable and ‘animalistic’ dimensions. Political love therefore enables us to be compassionate and live up to the demands of justice. 

Nussbaum’s analysis of negative emotions is important to understand how the culture of indifference that Metz called ‘amnesia’, the repression of one’s own vulnerability, and lack of compassion and solidarity, emerges or prevails. While Nussbaum turns to aesthetics as a medium to connect (political) love and justice, I will now defend a Christian political ethics that replaces Nussbaum’s far too optimistic liberal ethics with the critique, resistance, and transformative solidarity as necessary elements of the counter-culture to indifference.

[1] W. Kasper, Mercy: The essence of the gospel and the key to Christian life, New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014.

[2] J. B. Metz,Das Christentum im Pluralismus der Religionen und Kulturen’, Luzerner Universitätsreden 14, 2001, pp.3-14;J.B.Metz, ‘Compassion. Zu einem Weltprogramm des Christentums im Zeitalter des Pluralismus der Religionen und Kulturen’, in L. Kuld, A. Weisbrod (eds), Compassion. Weltprogramm des Christentums. Soziale Verantwortung lernen, Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2000, pp. 9-20.

[3] Cf. H. Haker, ‘Compassion als Weltprogramm des Christentums – Eine ethische Auseinandersetzung mit Johann Baptist Metz’, Concilium issue no. 4 (2001), 436-450.

[4] M. Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5] Ibid., 142.

[6] Ibid., 380.