Some years ago, when I was still a professor of theology, I received a phone call from one of the local parish priests, complaining about the unsettling effect that some of our students were having in his parish. His words: “They’re a pain in the neck! They take a few courses, come back to their parishes, and are elitist and condescending, no liturgy or parish program is good enough for them any more. I don’t doubt that they’re right in their principles, but … don’t you teach them any compassion!”
The priest here cannot accurately name what the problem is, but the gospels do. This is what the gospels would call an incident of amazement; a minor one surely, but a real one nonetheless. These students are amazed in the biblical sense because they are caught up in an energy, however positive, without holding and compassionately shaping that energy before giving it expression. They are letting an energy simply act through them, as if they were mindless electrical conduits rather than hearts and minds meant to gestate compassion. To be amazed, biblically, is to let energy (be it positive or negative) simply flow through you without holding, pondering, and transforming it.
We see many examples of this in the crowds that follow Jesus in the gospels. Frequently, just after Jesus has performed some great deed or spoken with particular power, we hear the gospel say: “And the people were amazed.” Almost always Jesus is quick to say: “Don’t be amazed!” In the gospels, amazement is not a good thing. That is also true for life in general; with a few exceptions, sporting events and rock concerts. What is wrong with being amazed is that while it makes for zesty group-spirit and some spirited events, it also makes for mob scenes, group hysteria, and crucifixions. It almost always works against compassion. Jesus knew this well and feared amazement. He knew that the same people, caught up in good energy, who wanted to make him king could just as easily five days later be caught up in a different kind of energy and that could prompt shouts of: “Crucify him!” When one is simply a conduit for whatever energy happens to be in the air, things can change rather quickly. The cheers of football matches can, as we know, very easily turn into the mindlessness of rioting and destruction.
In his outstanding book on violence, Gil Bailie, quotes a Salvadoran officer who had ordered the rape and massacre of some 767 people in 1981. After the massacre, that officer is reported to have said to his troops: “What we did yesterday, and the day before, this is called war. This is what war is. War is hell. … Now, I don’t want to hear that, afterward, while you are out drinking … you’re whining and complaining about this, about how terrible it was. I don’t want to hear that. Because what we did yesterday, what we’ve been doing on this operation – this is war, gentlemen. This is what war is.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, commenting on this in the New York Times, simply says: “You can only stare in dumbfounded horror. There is no one to blame but the gods of war.” (Violence Unveiled, pp. 266-268)
Who or what indeed are the gods of war? They are precisely the forces of amazement – non-questioned and non-pondered energy that is never held long enough so as to be transformed by somebody’s heart. Such energy, since it is then precisely heartless, takes on a life of its own and is just as easily the force that makes for gang-rapes as it is the force for any positive spirit.
Biblically the opposite of amazement is pondering. This is what Mary does under the cross and what Jesus does in the Garden of Gethsemane, they ponder. To ponder is to take in energy, hold it in tension (in agonizing tension sometimes), and then carry it until it can be transformed so as not to be heartless. To ponder is to take the energy the enters us and shape it by compassion.
We see this in Jesus: He took in hatred, but gave back love; took in curses, but gave back blessing; took in violence, but gave back forgiveness; and took in bitterness, but gave back graciousness. Energy did not blindly and heartlessly flow through him as it does when there is a thunderous cheer at a football game, as it does when a group of hormonally-charged teens vandalize a building, as it does when the starry-eyed first fervour of a new theology student (where a little learning is a dangerous thing) expresses itself in arrogance and condescension, or as it does when “the gods of war” unloose rape and massacre. Rather, by sweating blood, Jesus always first held the energy long enough so that he was not a simple conduit of group-energy, responding in kind, hate for hate, love for love, amazement.
Amazement is the antithesis of compassion. Don’t be amazed! That warning comes from Jesus.