He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– The prophet Micah (NRSV)
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Can kindness save the world? That is the question I posed as I reflected on the theme of ‘transforming the world through loving kindness.’ Are we really talking about changing the world through small acts of kindness, perhaps from one stranger to another? If so, are we discussing a movement like London’s ‘Kindness Offensive,’ known for orchestrating large-scale ‘random acts of kindness?’ Although kindness is an important virtue, and the world is all the better for it, can friendly, gentle, caring, considerate, and helpful people change the entrenched systems of domination, poverty, and violence that we face in our neighborhoods, nation, and the global community? Kindness may give pleasure to others and make us feel better in return, but I suspect that transforming the world will require more than simple acts of kindness that lift someone’s spirits.
Perhaps the answer to my question can be found by exploring the meaning of the phrase ‘loving kindness.’ That intriguing expression offers new insights. There are two ways of looking at this phrase and it turns out they are interconnected. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is in reference to the poetry of Micah 6:8 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation—“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this context, it is important to grasp what it means to ‘love kindness,’ (a verb with an objective noun), particularly in partnership with such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘humility.’ A second way of looking at the phrase is by examining the peculiar hyphenated word ‘loving-kindness’ (a compound noun), invented by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) when he created the first English translation of the Bible in 1535. If this is the case, one wonders why ‘kindness’ needs a modifier. Is there any other kind of kindness than the loving kind?
It turns out that Coverdale created the term ‘loving-kindness’ to translate some instances of the Hebrew word chesed (kheh′-sed), which is found 248 times in the Hebrew Bible. (Sometimes chesed is transliterated as hesed.) The Hebrew word is difficult to translate into English, because it has no precise equivalent in our language. Most of the time, Coverdale substituted ‘mercy,’ but in thirty cases he used ‘loving-kindness.’ Sixteen hundred years earlier, the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (completed about the second century BCE) substituted the Greek word eleos (el′-eh-os), often translated into English as ‘mercy,’ ‘pity,’ or ‘compassion.’ In the late fourth century CE, St. Jerome (347-420) rendered it in Latin as misericordia, meaning ‘mercy.’ More recent English translators predominantly choose ‘mercy,’ although ‘kindness,’ ‘compassion,’ and even ‘grace’ are sometimes used. But none of these words are truly synonymous. For instance, ‘mercy’ tends to imply an act of leniency by a more powerful person toward a weaker one, while ‘compassion’ implies a kind of solidarity with another’s pain.
In Micah 6:8, the word that the NRSV translates as ‘kindness’ is also the Hebrew word chesed. We are told by Micah that God requires us to ‘love chesed.’ So instead of saying ‘love kindness,’ we could easily substitute ‘love mercy’ or ‘love compassion.’ (‘Love loving-kindness’ doesn’t really seem to work at all.) Chesed is a noun and not an adverb, so we could not accurately translate this text as ‘love kindly’ or ‘love compassionately’ although I think that meaning could be implied and might actually be more understandable. It depends on whether we want to place the emphasis on ‘love’ or chesed.
There is another dimension to consider, however. In many of the Hebrew texts, chesed is used to reflect a covenantal relationship between God and humanity—a proactive persistent love shown by the greater party (God) toward the lesser party (humanity). As a result, some translations use the term ‘steadfast love,’ implying an unwavering loyalty, a love that will not let go despite the continual waywardness of the beloved. This is very different from ‘kindness’ or ‘mercy.’ Most of the time chesed is used to describe an attribute of God, not of fickle humanity. So in this context, if one is to ‘love chesed,’ it means to cherish the unwavering, enduring, unstoppable love of God.
One Hebrew-English Bible that I consulted online uses the term ‘covenant loyalty’ instead of ‘steadfast love.’ That translation reads, “do justice, love covenant loyalty, and walk humbly with God.” It is an extremely awkward phrasing, and one that will probably not be found on a bumper sticker any time soon. But put another way, this translation suggests that the people of Israel must totally and joyously embrace a steadfast commitment to the covenant between themselves and their God. Instead of chesed being an attitude of God alone, it can now be seen as a loving response by God’s people. If this is the case, understanding the human side of the bargain in the biblical covenant becomes very important.
A continual message throughout the Hebrew Bible—especially in the law and the prophets—is that God expects Israel (and by extension, us) to create a just society in contrast to the domination system they left behind in Egypt (and that we find all around us today). The prophets regularly reminded the leaders of Judah and Israel that social and economic justice must be their prime concern to be a faithful people. So fidelity to the covenant is closely linked with the establishment of justice. In this sense, to ‘love chesed’ is a commitment to be a faithful and compassionate person who strives toward a just and compassionate society.
Over the centuries, some Hebrew scholars have reinterpreted chesed as a vision of the ideal human life characterized by mercy and compassion—a life that demonstrates the kind of love and concern that is at the heart of the covenant. A life of chesed takes us beyond a contractual obligation to a full embrace of generosity and service to others. Acts of chesed represent an active commitment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
In the end, chesed is represented by the interrelated concepts of faithfulness, compassion, and justice. Simple kindness—although extremely important in our lives—pales by comparison. Kindness is necessary; but will it change the world?
Human love is the source of compassion: an empathy with the suffering of others and a capacity to feel how others feel. The Latin root of the word ‘compassion’ is a compound of com (with) and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning ‘to suffer with.’ Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the one in need. True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that one is moved to the point of action. In the gospels, we see that Jesus was often compelled by feelings of compassion to heal and feed the poor. And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who acts compassionately toward the one who suffers, even if that person is a foreigner, a stranger, or an enemy.
Compassionate action usually takes two forms: charity and justice. The word charity is derived from caritas, Latin for ‘love.’ One could say that charity is a form of kindness, especially toward those in need. But in many cases, charity consists solely of a monetary gift. Some Hebrew scholars contend that the compassionate kindness of chesed is far more than just charitable gifts—money, clothing, food, or other material goods. Chesed kindness requires face-to-face service. A chesed life combines both generosity and servanthood. Although generosity sometimes leads to self-satisfaction, service generally becomes a very humbling experience.
Charity and service represent personal forms of compassionate action. Their objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering. Justice, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. It is about transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassionate action. It is the social and political form of caring for the least of these. The difference between charity and justice is this: charity seeks to heal wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place. No matter how generous we are with our time and money, in the end, charity is only a Band-Aid. It fills the gaps left by an unjust society. Charity is important, but it is not enough. William Sloane Coffin has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
Scholar John Dominic Crossan proposes that based on God’s repeated concern for justice in the Bible, the primary function of the church should be to take on the ‘normalcy’ of the world, by which he means challenging the typically unjust social order in which a few prosper at the expense of the vast majority. Yet, far too many Christian communities are unwilling to accept this challenge because justice gets us involved in politics. In spite of this, Jesus and the prophets call each of us to strive for justice in our time and place.
Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice. (Matthew 6:33)
The command to love our neighbor is always a political command. To follow Jesus and to proclaim the God of love, compassion, and justice leads us to a distinctly political stance of looking out for the welfare of our most disadvantaged brothers and sisters. Compassion, charity, service, and justice are all interconnected. Compassion is a motivator, while charity, service, and justice are concrete responsive actions toward those in need.
Will kindness save the world? Perhaps. Being thoughtful, considerate, and tenderhearted will certainly make us better people. But we are called to do more—much more. In the spirit of Micah, we are called to work for justice, to give and serve with all our heart, and to live humbly and simply as God’s agents of transformation.