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Tenderness steeped in Christ

“In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”


When Flannery O’Connor penned these words in 1957, they must’ve encountered some very puzzled readers. Memories of the German gas chambers were still very fresh. And nobody believed that it was tenderness that brought them about. It was crazy Adolf Hitler and his heartless SS goons. If they had “tried a little tenderness,” perhaps the whole mess could’ve been avoided.


Tenderness is the solution, not the problem. Isn’t it?


Well, here we are nearly 60 years later, and we are nothing if not a tender society. We are full of concern for the outcast, the poor, the downtrodden, the suffering and the discriminated-against. Which is of course, in many ways, to our credit, as our care for these least among us constitutes the very heart of the Gospel message.


And yet somehow, our tenderness is going terribly, terribly awry.


I see it everywhere. Concern for the feelings of various subgroups subjected to “micro-agressions” has led to unprecedented restrictions on free speech on college campuses and elsewhere. Efforts to help “transgendered” persons feel comfortable in the restroom are placing young girls at risk of facing non-transgendered sexual predators in those same restrooms.  And, of course, our legitimate compassion for women facing difficult pregnancies has somehow been derailed, and led to the extermination of nearly 60 million young human lives in the U.S. alone since 1973. 60 million. Didn’t Stalin kill 60 million?


The latest group to be subjected to our tenderness are the dying. We used to care for them by accompanying them in their last days and weeks on earth. We would work to relieve their pain. We would provide them hospice care and spiritual support as they prepared to meet their Maker.


Now, apparently, we find it easier to just kill them outright.


I know it’s all supposed to be about giving patients the “option” to end their lives. But it’s amazing how quickly the “right to die” can become the “duty to die.”


Already, in states where physician assisted suicide is legal, insurance companies are denying payment for life-extending treatment, while happily offering to cover the minimal cost involved in “compassionately” poisoning the patient to death. Groups advocating for the rights of the disabled are virtually united in their opposition to “right to die” legislation, fearing that efforts to end their members’ suffering will rapidly lead to efforts to end their members’ lives.


Life on this earth, by necessity, involves suffering. The word “compassion” means “to suffer with.” But over time, we seem to have lost the ability to suffer with the afflicted. It seems easier  — and certainly more comfortable for us — to simply make their suffering go away.


But we can’t completely eliminate suffering in this life. Hence the temptation to eliminate a person’s suffering by eliminating the suffering person. Or by eliminating the sufferings of one group of people by oppressing another group of people.


Tenderness without Christ leads to the gas chamber.


How does Christ release us from this false tenderness?  Through what Walker Percy called the “scandal” of the Christian notion of the immense value of every human life. Christ took on our humanity — not as someone rich and powerful, but as a baby, a poor man in a forgotten land. He reminded us that every person is created in the image and likeness of God. Every person possesses dignity. Every life is worthy of protection.


Without Christ and the Christian “scandal,” tenderness toward one group leads to the victimization of another group — or perhaps even that same group. Most likely, it is the strong who prey on the weak. Often, those “pulling the strings” aren’t motivated by compassion at all, but are simply exploiting the tender sensibilities of their constituents to achieve their own goals. I don’t believe that “advocates” for the transgendered are nearly as interested in helping that tiny, often suffering demographic as they are in securing a bludgeon to use against the church — and the very notion of man’s creation as male and female. Likewise, Obamacare wasn’t about insuring the poor — that could have been accomplished easily with simple block grants. Rather sympathy for the uninsured was used to allow an unprecedented takeover of the U.S. healthcare system. And you don’t have to scratch too hard at “compassion for the dying” to find “reduced health care expenses” and “get rid of inconvenient sick people.”                         


If we believe that we have a God who loves us, then our lives have value. All lives have value. The unborn child with Down syndrome. The woman dying of cancer. Of course we are called, wherever possible, to relieve suffering. But that must always be done within the context of a deep love and respect for the value of human life — every human life.


Be compassionate.  Be tenderhearted. But please make sure that your tenderness is steeped in Christ.


Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016