Forty some years ago I was in a small town on the Fourth of July. There was the usual kind of celebrating going on but there was also a group of men passing out fliers. On one side was a peace symbol and, in large block letters, “Footprint of the American Chicken.” The war in Vietnam was still on and still dividing at home.

On the back of the flier, in very small letters, there was a Bible study complete with numerous references and proof texts explaining why killing Communists was commanded by God. As I read further, the flier explained why Catholics, Jews and people of color (not the term used) were not only inferior, but instruments of the Antichrist that needed to be vanquished. I have long since forgotten the name of the author, but I remember his title: “Chaplain to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

I began to learn then a lesson that has been reinforced many times: it does not take too clever a person to build a biblical argument to justify practically anything. That is why I feel so stuck.

Some of the younger members of my extended family have made it abundantly clear that they want nothing to do with religious people in general or, specifically, the Christian Church. They are not alone. The literature tells us that young people ranging from the late teens to early 30’s are disinterested and disenchanted. They tend to be wary of institutions and more likely to be drawn to causes and movements like Tom’s Shoes or the recent Relay for Life.

Contributing to the disengagement of the “echo boomers” is a commonly held perception that the Christian church is intolerant, legalistic, moralistic, self centered and riddled with corruption. Sadly, it is not hard to find multiple sources for that perception. In his April 9 cover story in Newsweek, author Andrew Sullivan points to politicization of Christianity as a reason for its decline. From protests at military funerals to financial empires of televangelists to sexual abuse by clergy to arguments that the will of God includes small government and gun ownership, the public image of religious people is, to say the least, tarnished.

But when I look at the congregation I serve, what I see does not match that image. I see people who are trying to make a positive contribution to their community. I see people who have retired only to find a new vocation building decent homes for low-income partners. I see parents who are trying to lead their children into productive lives with a strong sense of belonging to something far greater than themselves. I see hard-working people who are living with more uncertainty than ever, just trying to stay afloat. I see people who are brutally honest with themselves and struggling each day against addiction, leaning on others because they know how much they need community.

So I feel stuck. Stuck between a negative perception and a reality that does not reflect it. And I am convinced that the only thing that can reconcile the difference is compassion. Literally to “feel with,” compassion is the ability to experience the suffering of another while simultaneously seeking to alleviate it. If people of faith were defined by their compassion rather than their dogma, our public perception problem might go away. If compassion was the stick we used to measure everything from public policy to personal ethics, imagine how society might change.

If compassion became the heart of what we say, believe and do, we might even rise above our exclusive claims on the truth, our persistent need to raise ourselves by lowering others, and become the human community we are intended to be.

• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.

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