Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) The Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has the connotation of having one’s entrails being stirred up. In other words, Jesus had a visceral response upon seeing the crowds and immediately, sent disciples in mission. Visceral compassion generates urgent action.
Splagchnizomai, or visceral compassion, is what has provoked so many in witnessing the murder of George Floyd. It is not yet three weeks and already there have been demonstrations in at least 1,600 places so far, large and small, across all 50 states—and more around the world. Why now, we ask? Why this time and not all the times before? What finally sparked this splagchnizomai? Why did the churn in our belly—our sadness, our empathy, our quiet tears finally set us in motion, move us into the streets, and compel us to demand change? I don’t know. But at least now we know what to call it—splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion combined with an urgency to act.
We’ve all heard stories of people in the grips of this visceral compassion who perform heroic deeds and exhibit strength they could not believe they possessed. One of those people has a birthday coming up this week. Next Saturday, June 13th, Patrisse Cullors will be 37.
Ms. Cullors is a multi-media performance artist with undergraduate degrees in philosophy and religion from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an activist. She is a freedom fighter. She is Black and Queer. Patrisse Cullors is one of three woman who started Black Lives Matter, back in 2013, out of their frustration following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Today Black Lives Matter is an international human rights movement which campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people.
From the very beginning Black Lives Matter recognized the need to include the leadership of women and queer and trans people. “To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation,” they said, “we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center” (Black Lives Matter.com, “Herstory”). Yes! We might call this splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion and urgency to act for those most in need.
Ms. Cullors was raised with three other siblings by her great-grandmother, Jenny, while her mother worked three jobs to get food on the table. Grandma Jenny was Choctaw, Blackfoot, and African American. She grew up in Oklahoma. Great-Grandma Jenny’s father was a medicine man. Cullors remembers she told lots of stories about the KKK, lots of stories of her father defending their family against the KKK, and about her eventual move to Los Angeles. Ms. Cullors reflects, “I believe if I didn’t have my great grandmother, who deeply believed in me and my siblings, I would not actually be who I am today.” (“The Spiritual Work of Black Lives Matter,” On Being with Krista Tippet, Public Radio, 2/18/16)
Cullors asks, “What is the impact of not being valued? “How do you measure the loss of what a human being does not receive?” Through Black Lives Matter, Cullors says, “You see the light that comes inside of people to other communities that are like, ‘I’m going to stand on the side of black lives.’ You see people literally transforming. And that’s a different type of work. And for me, that is a spiritual work. It’s a healing work. And human to human, if you take a moment to be with somebody, to understand the pains they’re going through, you get to transform yourself.” (On Being)
Jesus’ mission and that of his followers is to bring healing, peace, wholeness—all the elements of true Shalom. Fueled with visceral compassion Jesus sent the disciples to those who were lost and hurting. He sent them to be shepherds to people who were like sheep without a shepherd. He sent them knowing full well that they, themselves, were but simple sheep. He sent them, not as conquering heroes, but “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” He instructed them to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Their objective was not to dominate but to serve. For the sake of compassion, they wielded nothing but compassion.
This is what discipleship looks like. It means dealing with wolves by addressing them in their sheepilness. It means transforming wolves through forgiveness. Discipleship looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply provoked by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you.
Today, we are witnessing the results of centuries of unresolved racial violence in our collective body. We cannot address the pain of this without unleashing the wolves within and among us. Discipleship “means deciding, as grateful followers of a brown man who died at the hands of brutal law enforcement two thousand years ago, that we will not tolerate the demon of racism in our midst for one more generation.” (Debie Thomas, I Am Sending You, Journey with Jesus, 6/7/20)
Jesus, our Great Shepherd, creates in us a shepherd’s heart. He calls us to what we were created for. “Jesus knows the cure for our brokenness, our malaise, our boredom, our angst. He knows that when we go out into the world in his name, healing what is diseased, resurrecting what is dead, and casting out what is evil, we participate in the transformation of our own souls. What we’re hearing in these days is the very heart of God within us, deep calling to deep, the Spirit of crying out on behalf of a world desperate for justice and mercy.” (Thomas) It’s a call to action that we call splagchnizomai.