Confronting Compassion Fatigue with Prayer and Action

In his sermon last Sunday, Father Ollie spoke of the need for followers of Jesus to be prepared to face the challenges of our world. It seems as if every week we witness another mass shooting, another devastating storm, or more scenes of senseless violence. If you’re like me, at some point it all blends together, and it becomes difficult to recall and distinguish one tragic event from another.

On the afternoon of Sunday, November 5, I read the first reports of the massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. I found myself simply acknowledging the sadness of the event, but going on with my day, unsurprised by the news. There have been 307 mass shootings so far in 2017, and many other tragic shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012.

The Right Reverend Matthew Gunter, Bishop of the Diocese of Fond du lac, recently wrote how Christians can love their neighbors in this “age of compassion fatigue.” Gunter wrote, “It takes a toll. I wonder if our whole society isn’t experiencing a mild (or not so mild) form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or more accurately, perhaps, the related condition of ‘compassion fatigue’. Compassion fatigue has traditionally been associated with people in the helping professions – doctors, nurses, therapists, police officers, social workers, etc. But, with the increased connectivity and access to images and information, I think it has become more generalized. And yet, as Christians, we must resist this tendency even as we acknowledge its reality and power. In his summary of the Law, Jesus enjoins us to, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ That is a call to compassion, a call to care. How might we respond to that call while avoiding compassion fatigue?” Bishop Gunter goes on to note that through prayer, through practicing vulnerability, through keeping Sabbath, through worshipping in community, and through acting for the welfare of others, we can avoid the temptation to be complacent, to be worn down, and to be fatigued by the evil in our world.

Recently, there have been conversations about how the Church is to respond to violence. Should we respond with prayer, with action, or both? Two “hashtags” appeared on social media after the shooting in Texas: #PrayersForSutherlandSprings and #ThoughtsAndPrayersAreNotEnough. The Episcopal group “Bishops United Against Gun Violence” released a statement on this very topic. The Bishops wrote: “Prayer is not an offering of vague good wishes. It is not a spiritual exercise that successfully completed exempts one from focusing on urgent issues of common concern. Prayer is not a dodge. In prayer we examine our own hearts and our own deeds to determine whether we are complicit in the evils we deplore. And if we are, we resolve to take action; we resolve to amend our lives…One does not offer prayers in lieu of demonstrating political courage, but rather in preparation.”

As Episcopalians, we have the gift of the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, and when faced with “compassion fatigue,” when faced with the question of whether to act or pray, when we can simply look to our baptism for the answer. The answer is both. In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to continue in worship, fellowship, and the sacraments; to resist evil and repent when we fall into sin; to proclaim the Good News of Jesus; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; and to strive for justice and peace among all people. The answer is “all of the above.” When we follow Jesus in baptism, and seek daily to live out our baptismal promises, we will find that God is with us, holding us in the fatigue of the world, and granting us courage and strength to confront evil with Love.

The Reverend Jacob E. Pierce, Associate Rector