Donald P. McNeill in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life offers a profound perspective: "Honest, direct confrontation is a true expression of compassion... The illusion of power must be unmasked, idolatry must be undone, oppression and exploitation must be fought, and all who participate in these evils must be confronted. This is compassion." Not quite the way we usually define the word, is it? But so very compelling.
As a woman in leadership I am almost daily aware of and impacted by the realities of power, idolatry, oppression and exploitation. Unfortunately, more times than not, when I'm confronted by such darkness, compassion (at least as I've understood it previously) has not been my intuitive, spontaneous response.
What if it were, but as defined anew by McNeill?
Easier said than done. How can I know that the choice to confront - particularly in the often intimidating realms of power and exploitation - comes from a place of compassion versus contempt? Is there a way in which I might learn to discern and then, in fact, offer compassion by speaking the truth (out loud!) instead of nursing anger and resentment and/or just remaining silent? I think the key might be determined, at least in part, as I consider the larger ramifications and impact of my honesty, my confrontation, my compassion - not just how it will affect me.
The biblical narrative that comes to mind is that of Abigail - a woman who riskily, compassionately, and yes, confrontationally, discerned on behalf of a people and not for herself. The text in 1 Samuel 25 says, "[Abigail] was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband?was surly and mean in his dealings" (3). Not an ideal marriage and eerily familiar to many, I know. Despite such, she spoke honestly, confrontationally really, to King David about her husband: "May my lord pay no attention to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name - his name is Fool, and folly goes with him" (25). Honest words that carried tremendous risk - and compassion: "Please forgive your servant's offense?Let no wrongdoing be found in you as long as you live" (28).
As the story proceeds, Abigail's husband, never veered from the paths of power, idolatry, and oppression - despite his entire clan's near destruction by David and his men. Her courageous confrontation of David with the truth about her husband discerningly, even cleverly, called for his compassion. She also confronted her husband, telling him what she had done; the compassion she had displayed on his behalf. His response? "Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone" (37). And God's response? "About 10 days later, the Lord struck Nabal and he died" (38). Abigail lost her husband, her means of welfare, her life as she had known it. Her confrontation, her truthful words, and her compassion bore great consequence and she still boldly told the truth. Abigail made a beautiful, risky, and courageous choice. (Yes, her story goes on, taking a pretty dramatic turn, but even without such, her identity stands strong on its own.)