“Compassion means justice.” That is the ancient teaching about compassion.  The prophets of Israel insisted on the union of compassion and justice, as does Meister Eckhart who says, “compassion means justice” and “compassion is where peace and justice kiss.”  Justice represents the yang side to compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh answering the question, “what is compassion” during a retreat. Video originally posted to the YouTube Channel, Zen Buddhism Europe.

Thomas Aquinas, among others in the premodern era, celebrates compassion this way: “Among all the things that cause enjoyment concerning the Lord, there are two—namely, compassion and justice. “  If you “take justice away, no one will be secure and happy.  Likewise, without compassion all are fearful and do not love.”  He cites the psalmist who says, “The lord loves compassion and justice.’”

And he invokes the prophet Micah: “I will show you, O people, what is good and what the Lord requires of you.  Especially to do justice, to cherish compassion, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Aquinas recognizes that “we find these two things, compassion and justice, in all the works of God.  Compassion comes first, and after it follow justice.  Therefore the psalmist says, ‘all the ways of the Lord are compassion and truth.” 

Teambuilding. Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash.

Aquinas frequently equates truth and justice and warns you cannot have one without the other.  A leader who lies often will never be a befriender of justice.

In the modern era the word “compassion” no longer meant a relationship between equals; it became divorced from justice and became synonymous with “mercy.” 

A current word for justice—and therefore for compassion—is sustainability.  Justice is what is ultimately sustainable.  Injustice is in the long run unsustainable.  Another scientific word from science for justice is homeostasis which refers­ to how systems seek balance.  Our bodies seek balance; ecosystems seek balance, a quest for balance seems to lurk deeply within nature itself.

Father and son planting a tree for permaculture project in Melbourne VIC, Australia. Photo by Crema Joe on Unsplash.

Liberation theology was a very successful and inspiring effort to link again justice and compassion and render justice-making an integral part of a healthy spirituality.  It awakened millions to their courage and responsibility to work for justice in one’s own citizenship and nation but also justice toward others, including the creatures of the rain forest and the rainforest itself. 

Powerful forces such as the CIA and Opus Dei and other far right wing movements in the seventies linked up with the Vatican to kill liberation theology and the base communities spawned by it that were providing great vision and empowerment to the poor in Central and Southern America in particular. 

Movements of authentic compassion were thwarted by certain economic, political, and religious powers. 

Short film on the life of San Oscar Romero de Americas, the Archbishop of San Salvador. Produced in 2015 before Romero’s canonization by Pope Francis. Video originally posted to YouTube by CAFOD.

Saint Oscar Romero was a generous person who put his life on the line for the sake of the poor and oppressed and was gunned down for doing so.  So too was Sister Dorothy Stang, who stood with the peasants and others who honored the Amazon rainforest and worked to protect it. 

Jesus stood up to the empire of his day and paid an ultimate price for his compassion.  Sadly, his example is not always followed by those who wrap themselves in mantles of Christian power.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 390f. 

See also, Matthew Fox, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times, pp. 101-131.

Banner Image: Speaking truth at protest for black lives. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you sense a shift away from compassion as mercy and more to compassion as justice-making? 

Are you assisting that shift?

Recommended Reading

Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way. 
“The teaching of Aquinas comes through will a fullness and an insight that has never been present in English before and [with] a vital message for the world today.” ~ Fr. Bede Griffiths (Afterword).
Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake

The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times

A stunning spiritual handbook drawn from the substantive teachings of Aquinas’ mystical/prophetic genius, offering a sublime roadmap for spirituality and action.
Foreword by Ilia Delio.
“What a wonderful book!  Only Matt Fox could bring to life the wisdom and brilliance of Aquinas with so much creativity. The Tao of Thomas Aquinas is a masterpiece.”
–Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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4 thoughts on “Compassion is Justice”

  1. Avatar

    Yes, I experience this shift in climate justice work- we are awake to the interconnectedness – the fact that while one species or community (for example marginalized communities due to racial discrimination) suffers, we all suffer. We all need mercy and we can all stand up for justice.
    I love the video talk you shared from Thich Nhat Hanh as he brings a lighthearted understanding that “suffering with” not not mean “suffering as”; at least that’s how I understand his message.

    1. Richard E Reich

      Susan, Thank you. I am encourage by people like you who have experienced this shift in climate as justice work and that entails the fact that we are all connected with each other and the world at large. And suffering with = compassion.

    1. Richard E Reich

      Ron, you are right, injustice is a lack of compassion, for if compassion means suffering with others, injustice is the ultimate lack of compassion…

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