Area Studies

What can we learn by comparing practices and customs in different societies around the world?

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The Threat of Compassion in an East Asian and Diaspora Context

Megan Geem (a pseudonym) is a graduate of Talbot’s School of Theology. She is interested in how culture impacts theological interpretation, comprehension, and application in the context of discipleship and spiritual formation.

Megan Geem (a pseudonym) is a graduate of Talbot’s School of Theology. She is interested in how culture impacts theological interpretation, comprehension, and application in the context of discipleship and spiritual formation.

WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic

April 6, 2018

by Megan Geem

Why do East-Asians and their descendants find grace so challenging to understand and accept? This paper hopes to provide one answer to this question through exploring the relationship between two biblical concepts: compassion and grace. Research suggests that the two are deeply and symbiotically interconnected. The former, if understood in accordance to its original Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context, is meant to inform and lead into the latter. Compassion, as result, may be a key piece for which believers from East-Asian honor-shame cultures need help in comprehending and receiving, so that they can show grace to themselves as well as others.

Grace and Compassion in the Old Testament

The interrelation between compassion and grace is a concept the ancient Israelites would have understood. Although both words are used independently to describe God throughout the Old Testament, their frequent use together suggests the Israelites naturally linked the two concepts (e.g. Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:15; Ps. 103:8). In various translations, compassion is often substituted for the word mercy. While this may appear to be in conflict it actually is not—true mercy is understood by scholars to be the demonstration (i.e manifestation) of compassion and love (Scorgie et al. 2011, s.v. “Mercy”). When God first introduced himself to Moses and the Israelites, he did so as Yahweh who is gracious and compassionate (Ex. 33:19). As such, being gracious and compassionate not only are the first two qualities God introduces in the Scriptures about himself, but are also the two first and foremost qualities by which the Lord interacts with his people (Cassuto 1967, 439).

Grace, Compassion, and Naming in the Ancient Near East

The importance of this double adjective descriptor of God (his names), is that in the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE) a name acknowledged and granted something its existence. Names were believed to provide the world order and structure, if not contributing to it (Seymour 1983, 109). Names could establish a ruler’s authority and legitimacy or set a person’s destiny who was still within the womb. The osmologies and cosmogonies of the day are one example of this. Like their ANE counterparts, the Israelites believed that when God gave names to the different parts of the universe he created, a framework was being constructed out of a nameless chaos that this new universe was to operate by (Heidel 1973, 18; Genesis 2:19-20). And since the giver of the name was also understood to have power and authority over all he or she named, the people would have believed God to be the highest and ultimate authority and power in the universe.

Accordingly, names were not taken lightly in the ANE. A name was one’s essence and being. Therefore, if something had a name, it was understood that this was because it was worth being named (Seymour 1983, 109). This is regardless of whether it was a proper name of a person, place, or thing, the naming of a phenomenon, or an association between concepts into a name. As such, anything to do with one’s name or the names of others was seriously taken by the people of the ANE. For instance, the annihilation of one’s name and posterity from record books, such as being “blotted out” from God’s book, represented the ultimate misfortune for the ANE people (e.g. Deut. 25:6; Ps. 69:28) (Seymour 1983, 111-12). The loss of one’s name not only threatened complete ostracism from society itself, but also meant that individual and his/her posterity would cease to exist to the rest of the world (e.g. Isa. 14:22) (Seymour 1983, 111-12).

By declaring himself through self-revelation to be gracious and compassionate to Israel, God was therefore making a major statement about himself. The association of these two terms with each other as with himself meant being gracious and compassionate were core, and related, expressions of who God is. But understanding the definitions of these two concepts in the original Hebrew language may grant further understanding of why these two terms were linked together. Let us first start with grace.

The Hebrew Definitions for Grace and Compassion

Chen, the Old Testament word for grace and the root for its derivatives, describes an action rather than an abstract quality or attribute of God. It is an active working principle manifesting itself in beneficent acts that encompass the idea of pardon, favor, and graciousness (Berkhof 1939, 426-27). The term is used in the Old Testament both to describe the interactions of man towards his fellow man and of God towards humankind, in the sense of a superior bending or stooping in kindness towards an inferior (Kwiatek 2015). For instance, Esau’s acceptance of Jacob’s gift, when they met after many years, was one of chen (Gen. 33:10). Similarly, the Egyptians by God’s leading showed chen to the Israelites in giving them articles of silver and gold (Ex. 11:3.) Chen is also what Noah found in the eyes of God at the time when God had decided to allow every other living thing to be destroyed (Gen. 6:7-8).

What is important for this discussion about chen is that inferred within it is the idea of justice (Eisenberg 2008, 74). In the Hebrew, justice combines two ideas. First is the notion of punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. The second is the idea of righteousness in terms of living in right relationship with God and with everyone else out of that overflow (Keller 2012, 3-18). This meant that the Israelites believed God’s chen towards mankind was not something freely given. It demanded a heart posture from those seeking for it, for the granting of chen by God would mean for him to accept the penitent person back into a restored and righteous relationship with him.

As such, chen was only for those whose hearts sought to act in accordance with the image of God, obeying the commandments in their call to be his priests to the world, and who were repentant when they missed the mark (Kwiatek 2015). King David’s heartfelt confession and genuine repentance in Psalm 51 is one example of this. His earnest pleas for God’s chen for his sins were heard because God saw that David’s heart was after his own.

This idea of chen (grace) as action is important for how it contrasts with compassion, which at root is an affection (McDermott, 1996, 40) — a felt sorrow or distress for another’s condition (Scorgie et al. 2011, s.v. “Compassion”). The English word, compassion, is most often translated from the Hebrew term rachamim, and its root, racham/rachum/rechem, which means “womb.” The association is that compassion comes from a deep place within one’s self with the intensity and ferocity likened to motherly or sibling love (who would come from the same womb). As such, God’s compassion refers “to the inward feeling that resides in the [One] who looks upon wretchedness. It is the deepest of words showing the inward affection of God for man in his pitiful condition” (Lee 1986, 666-67).

Inherent within compassion’s definition is the desire and leading to relieve the suffering it witnesses (Scorgie et al. 2011, s.v. “Compassion”). For this reason, compassion is arguably deeper, finer, and richer than action alone. It is not just affection (Lee 1986, 666-67). It is also what impacts, stirs, and then propels the affectionate party into informed movement (Purves 1989, 17). For instance, God’s compassion is what leads him to promise to gather and restore the fortunes of his people (Deut. 30:3). It is also what the prophets were aware of that was motivating God to bless instead of judge sinful men, save for those who reject his heart (Isa. 30:18-19; Jer. 15:6) (Scorgie et al. 2011, s.v. “Compassion”).

The Relationship between Grace and Compassion

Based on these understandings, I propose that compassion and grace are related because it is the former that leads into the latter. That is, compassion and grace are core expressions of who God is because compassion is what leads God to be gracious as well as to show grace. Starting with Adam and Eve, following man’s first sin, the compassion-to-grace model can be seen throughout the Bible, climaxing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Gen. 3:22-23; 4:13-15; 8:21-22; Jonah 4; Isa. 49:15, 55:1; Hos. 11:8; Matt. 15:32; Luke 10:33; Luke 15:20-24; John 3:16).

Andrew Purves, in The Search for Compassion, expands on this idea. For Purves, Jesus’ compassion reveals the life and inner nature of God, becoming a window of access to who he is and his way of being in ministry toward us (Purves 1989, 16). As such,

God’s compassion requires us to understand God now in terms of God’s vulnerability and willingness to suffer with us. This calls for a revolution in our concept of God in which we no longer understand God to be an unchangeable, unaffected being who loves us in distant untouchability. Instead, we discover God to be the one who knows suffering intimately and who is changed by that experience (Purves 1989, 12).

Purves states that what makes compassion so unique is that it leads the giver to provide a care radically specific to the needs of its recipient(s) (Purves 1989, 17). Herein lies the crux we must understand about compassion’s relation to grace. In the grand narrative of God’s Kingdom, God knew the only way to restore his suffering Kingdom back to wholeness was by granting what no one but he could afford: his grace. For while sins could be forgiven, man’s sin nature and thus his distance from God’s presence, would remain unless a regeneration of man’s spirit could come about. And so because of his devoted compassion to his people, God gave over and above in grace—not just through blood, but also with new life through the Holy Spirit. So compassion leads to grace, and grace to the glory of God, leading to worship and the praises of his name (Rom. 11:33-36; 1 Peter 2:9).

Compassion and East-Asian and Diaspora Culture

Grace and compassion, the attributes of God, are challenging concepts for East-Asians and their descendants to grasp, due to the honor-shame based cultures in which they are raised. The reason? The cultural values of honor and shame do not naturally endorse and lend themselves to compassion (which leads to grace). Rather, the very way East-Asian society is structured actually discourages compassion.

This may be because compassion directly challenges the central values of social harmony and order in East-Asian society. This is no small matter, for within cultures of honor and shame, the preservation, coordination, and promotion of a group’s defining and central values are core (DeSilva 2000, 42). To do other than what is expected, as well as accepted, is seen as inviting chaos and disorder into the very heart of society.

Within East-Asian culture, including those in the diaspora, social harmony is maintained by adherence to a strict social order. This structure, based upon Confucianism, informs how people are to relate to one another. In East Asian culture, for example, there are clear expectations of how children are to behave toward their parents, younger people towards their elders, and women towards men. Being collectivistic in nature, this group-minded orientation of East-Asian society works naturally to maintain the social system set in place through each man minding his brother, in a manner of speaking (Benedict 1946, 223).

Since one’s sense of identity within this culture is socially informed, obedience to these expectations is thus considered of paramount importance (Hwang 2012, 123-24.) This is because in a group-oriented society like East-Asia, belonging to, and being accepted by, one’s group is the basis for one’s identity. The respect and recognition given by society of being considered a valuable member, otherwise known as honor, is everything. Honor is what elevates the status, social standing, and therefore the perceived worth of people by others within the social order (DeSilva 2000, 25). It is also what informs one’s own self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and self-respect.

In contrast, failure brings about dishonor, leading to one’s shame. Shame, briefly put, is the feeling of internal personal badness that is also an objective social state (Pattison 2000, 182). Both its psychological and social dimensions can be summed up by the experience of feeling “toxic unwantedness” (Pattison 2000, 184). Shamed individuals not only see themselves (and are treated as) outsiders and outcasts. They also live in a state of uncleanness and alienation causing the internalized experience and feeling of rejection (Sangalang 2013, 20).

Put differently, failure is seen as being unacceptable to East-Asians because it impedes their ability to contribute to society’s social cohesion, order, and structure. The resulting disapproval in the eyes of others, which directly strikes at their core sense of identity, threatens not only their own sense of belonging to that society but others’ thoughts of the same. For this reason, East-Asians often hide and cover up deeper struggles in an attempt to save face. Most do so by keeping up with appearances through presenting to one’s community the “face” of success and of being put-together, which contrasts with their internal broken reality (Sangalang 2013, 6).

It is for these reasons that compassion may be considered a dangerous affection in East-Asian society. One, perhaps, even to be feared. This is because compassion defies the very means and methodologies by which honor-shame cultures operate. Compassion, perhaps seen as pity, affirms the presence of the negative qualities that a person is seeking to keep hidden.

The threat of compassion is that it challenges the enforcement of social order and structure that is central to the cohesion and harmony of East-Asian society. It does so by inviting the expression and manifestation of deviant behavior: the acceptance of another’s weakness, vulnerability, or failure with the hopes and purposes of relieving it. Through compassion, therefore, the unacceptable suddenly becomes the accepted, and what is dishonorable suddenly becomes less lethally dishonoring. And by doing so, compassion disrupts the core and implicit belief in East-Asian culture that societal expectations are to be kept and maintained.

The following candid and exemplary case study offered by Sam Louie, an Asian-American therapist, captures this struggle for East-Asians to display and experience compassion. In his article in Psychology Today, Louie introduces James Lee, a 35 year- old married Korean American with a gambling and sexual addiction. James keeps his struggles a secret from those who care about him, including his own pastor and church community, out of fear of their reactions. When he finally decides to share his addictions with trusted others, James receives the response he expected and knew would come.

Instead of receiving the support he needed, James was met with silence from his father and a hysterical earful from his mother. Between her yells of “How could you?! We didn’t raise you to be like this!” and the father’s silent stonewalling, their message was loud and clear. Through what he did, James had brought shame to everyone involved, letting down not only himself, but failing his family and the larger Korean community and culture of which he was part (Louie 2014).

The reaction of James’ parents to their son’s addictions mirrors the typical response in East-Asian society to another’s struggle and suffering: rejection. Being perhaps the ultimate punishment in a world that centers around belonging and social harmony, rejection articulates and reinforces the message that social expectations are to be taken seriously and maintained. In fact, fearing rejection has become so engrained in East-Asian culture that studies reveal East-Asian children begin to display perfectionistic tendencies starting from early on in life (Toyama 2006, 53). By working hard to achieve perfection, so can failure and rejection be avoided.

The heart of the matter is this: if compassion is not witnessed as being manifested towards others in East-Asian societies, then East-Asians have few, if any models, to see compassion applied to themselves. Since compassion, and subsequently grace, do not fall in line with the expected cultural response and social consequence of failure, this makes these attributes of God not only foreign but also suspicious and questionable. Moreover, since compassion and grace are relational dynamics operating outside of the East-Asian worldview, operative relational models are especially needed to help East-Asians conceptualize and internalize these experiential realities in a comprehensive manner. Without a model, expressing, and therefore receiving, compassion and grace will be deeply difficult for the everyday East-Asian, whether in Asia or in the Diaspora.

Introducing Compassion and Grace in East-Asian Culture

Given this knowledge and understanding, how can compassion and grace be introduced to East-Asians desiring to understand these core and essential truths about God? This article will briefly present two suggestions, which will both require further research to flesh out their applicability, implications, and long-term impact.

Use of Similar Contextual Terms

The first proposal is that contextual terms, similar or related to compassion, be used to bridge the cultural gap. In doing so, opportunities can be made for introducing both compassion and grace in a tangible and experiential way. Koreans, for instance, may find compassion and grace approachable through the Korean terms jeong. While not fully capturing the idea of compassion as understood in the Hebrew, jeong, referring to love both as an affect as well as the force of a relationship, is a paradigmatic embodiment of it in the Korean language (Son 2014, 735-47). For instance, jeong contrasts with the Western expressions of love, depression, hate, or anxiety in that if the latter have a centripetal (or inward) effect, jeong has the opposite centrifugal (or outgoing) effect (Chung and Cho 2001, 2).

However, unlike compassion, jeong is as much a collective as it is an individual emotion. Jeong is manifested through warm, rich, and nurturing interpersonal relationships in tandem with the phenomenon of the “in-crowd versus out-crowd” that seems ubiquitous in Korean culture—the latter contributing to the lack of compassion and grace in Korean culture (Chung and Cho 2001, 2-3). In other words, having jeong towards one’s “in-crowd” expressed through loyalty and dedication leads to the opposing dynamic of excluding others for not belonging by being as one should (i.e. lacking compassion and grace for such individuals.) If we help Koreans bridge their understanding of Hebrew concepts of compassion and grace with their own cultural concepts, they can thus become empowered. This integration results in the enhancement and flourishing of Korean spirituality and practice in line with biblical understanding (Ka 2010, 225-226. 221–231).

Biblical Examples of God’s Compassion and Grace

Secondly, East-Asians can engage in deep Scriptural study, seeking revelation from the Bible for examples of God being gracious and compassionate. In the culture of the ANE, what separated the God of the Israelites and the Hebrew faith from other deities and religions was the very fact that God, as a relational God, was gracious and compassionate (Schnittjer 2009, 58-60). It was only because of God’s own self-revelation and consistency that the Israelites were able to understand these core expressions of God’s nature.

In the same way, God may have to provide his own revelation of these qualities about himself to Asians through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Such work has already begun and been made available through the studies of East-Asians like Witness Lee who, along with his mentor Watchman Nee, writes about the enjoyment of the divine life and on the building up of the church (Lee 1986, 666-67).


As hopefully evidenced, there is an important but easily missed relationship between compassion and grace. Those from honor-shame cultures can greatly benefit from this knowledge for how it applies to their unique and contextualized spirituality as believers living in the liminality between their East-Asian culture and a more biblically-informed way of life. From the honor-shame perspective, grace given out of compassion presents a unique opportunity for East-Asians to respond to the patronage to God: to respond not just out of reciprocity and thankfulness, but with a loyalty and devotion bounded by love that is uniquely captured culturally in an East-Asian phenomena such as Korea’s jeong.

There are many possibilities for how the compassion-grace model can impact, inform, and infuse new life into East-Asian spirituality. The research simply needs to begin. This paper, being introductory, is not comprehensive or by any means an in-depth study. However, it is an expression of hope that the future life of East-Asia’s children can be even greater, and more greatly grace-filled, than it already is at present.


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