My friend Forrest, who takes the term “Renaissance man” to another level, was recently conceiving of directing a play in an outdoor theater sculpted out of the snow of small-town Massachusetts. The play is called Trojan Women, and it is about the disturbing aftermath of the Trojan war. In the preparatory process, Forrest was tripped up by a heretofore unconsidered definition of a certain word with a rather bad rap in the English language: pity. In the translator’s introduction to the play, he found this:
“Pity is a rebel passion. Its hand is against the strong, against the organized force of society, against conventional sanctions and accepted Gods. It is the Kingdom of Heaven within us fighting against the brute powers of the world; and it is apt to have those qualities of unreason, of contempt for the counting of costs and the balancing of sacrifices, of recklessness, and even, in the last resort, of ruthlessness, which so often marks the paths of heavenly things and the doings of the children of light. It brings not peace, but a sword” (Gilbert Murray, introduction to Trojan Women).
This definition is almost contrary to the complacent attitude that we normally associate with pity. So Forrest published a post calling for other perspectives. “Essentially, pity involves looking down on someone else,” he summarized the common understanding. “You have compassion, for their plight, but do not or will not share it.” He cited other quotes and conversations that have suggested different meanings of pity to him, one of which even compares it to love, but his feelings about the word remained mixed. He wondered if it is a confusing and dated way to describe such a worthy passion for justice.
Since he called on me in particular, I was moved to do some serious research into the matter. Which, in my case, meant Biblical exegesis. Lest you question my religious response, I took my cue from the translator’s use of Christian symbols, and the fact that both the play and the New Testament were originally written in Greek.
In Biblical Greek there are two main words connected to pity. One is eleeo, which means to have mercy, compassion, or pity on. This is most often used as a supplication toward an authority figure: Have mercy on me! It is also connected to divine activity—the miraculous power to heal, forgive, liberate, make justice, and reconcile.
The other word is splagchnizomai (try saying that ten times fast…or even just once). It literally means to be moved in your bowels, which connects to the idea of a mother being moved in her womb with compassion for her child. Despite the less than transcendent images that “movement in the bowels” may conjure, the idea is that the bowels occupy roughly the same anatomical space as the womb, and thus provide a seat of compassion for both genders. So, figuratively, splagchnizomai means to be moved with compassion, to feel sympathy, to pity. Splagchnizomai suggests a more human, messy, bodily experience than eleeo. It is the gut-wrenching feeling we get when we see other people suffering.
This is what all that fuss over incarnation is about. Jesus, as the story goes, possessed that divine power of healing, liberating, and so forth, but was also a human being like the rest of us, who felt in his large intestine what it means to suffer leprosy, blindness, insanity, exclusion, oppression, and poverty. Jesus heals and teaches people because he is moved in his bowels—sometimes even when this urge is in conflict with his physical and emotional needs, as it often is for the rest of us (e.g., Mark 1:40-42, 6:30-34). The only thing that makes him different, perhaps, is that in spite of his frustration, he always acts upon that movement in his bowels anyway.
So, what does all this mean about pity? I think the differentiation between pity as condescending and compassion as constructive is recent—helpful in some cases but not necessarily true to the heritage of experiences tied to these words. Traditionally, pity has also been connected to truly feeling and acting upon the suffering of others. It shares the same Latin root as the word “piety,” which means dutifulness. In this case, it means fulfilling one’s duty to those in need, as in 1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
Pity is a useful word because it connotes splagchnizomai, the kind of compassion that is physical and messy. We need to feel others’ suffering on a visceral level, with the mix of both noble and lowly emotions that this entails. Of course, you could feel it and then turn your head aside without taking action. But then the motion of pity in your bowels gets stopped up. To put it bluntly, you get constipated.
Another of Forrest’s friends, Luis, deepened the discussion by expanding on this idea that pity moves. “Pity is all about movement,” he wrote. “[It is] about being moved away and towards—away from acting and thinking selfishly and caring only for one’s own life and safety and towards acting for the sake of ennobling, protecting, and caring for others. It is the difference, in short, between Harry and Voldemort, Gandalf and Saruman, the Sermon on the Mount and the Inquisition. The schism is endlessly reiterated and is by far more telling than simply talking about good vs. evil. It is, of course, a dialogue of power and what power truly is.”
Movement is the most basic form of power. It is the force of lifting a finger, of moving a mountain, or of crossing your arms and sitting down. It is the translation of our volition into the physical world. So, as Luis elaborated, the moral value of power depends on the direction it moves in. Power can be inward moving self-interest that tramples whatever is in its path, or it can be outward moving pity that “acts in interest of something outside of yourself to affirm life and work for a world of conscience.”
If, as I have previously suggested, we ought to consider other kinds of senses to include in our rather limited cultural repertoire of five, I would vote for this one: the sense of movement. Movement is not just something we do, but something that is done to us in our bodies. We are moved in our guts to respond to others out of love; or we are moved by fear and selfishness to withdraw in self-protection. But we cannot help but be moved, just as we cannot help seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching what crosses our paths.
It may be that in the context of the play’s translator, who wrote a hundred years ago, pity was already considered condescending. But even then, it makes perfect sense that he would try to create a sense of shock and reversal in his readers by using the word to connote such revolutionary, anti-status-quo attitudes and actions—and certainly it is by no mistake that he ties it back to its Biblical roots.
The reference to bringing “not peace, but a sword” is from Matthew 10, a passage about radical commitment to something beyond the comfortable structures of society. In fact, it is a commitment to disrupt these structures, for which “the world” will hate and persecute you. However, it is not a call to violence. What Jesus is doing, and calling his disciples to do, may provoke violence and disruption, but that is not its end, much less the means they use to seek that end, which is the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven “has been subject to violence” (Matt. 11:12), precisely because it is a kingdom where the innocence of children reigns (Matt. 19:14), where the lowliest are most important (Matt. 18:4), where the poor are welcomed first (Matt. 19:23), where abundance and mercy do not follow worldly logic of who “deserves” it (Matt. 20:1-16). In other words, it is a kingdom created by the movement of pity. In the conclusion of the last chapter mentioned, Matthew 20, when two blind men are shouting for Jesus to have mercy on them (eleeo), people tell them to shut up and be respectful. But Jesus takes pity on them (splagchnizomai) and touches their eyes. “Immediately they received their sight and followed him.” They kept moving.