Anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts, but Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. Femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. Broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.
Sometimes I’m wondering if we’ve lost the primary sign of true civilization. When I hear the angry rhetoric and therefore the arrogant talk about a number of our chat show pundits and political candidates, I’m wondering what has become of compassion. When I happen to catch a flash of a vicious voice like Ann Coulter (I can only take a few minutes) I’m wondering what has become of civilization. When I hear even Christians talk in such bitter tones about immigrants and minorities, anybody who is “different”, I’m wondering if they need ever read the Gospels and if they care about the values of the Kingdom of God. I know it is an extreme voice, but I even heard a web preacher say he thought we should always take the Bible literally and stone homosexuals. God have mercy! If Margaret Meade is correct that the primary sign of true civilization is compassion, I’m wondering just how civilized we are.
Of course, there was an enormous outpouring of well-deserved compassion and bonafide outrage over the death of Cecil the Lion, but what about the death of innocent children caught amid war, or homeless families in our uncivilized urban centers? The Old Testament all for welcoming the alien and therefore the stranger and the first ministry of the first church was to worry for the widows and orphans. Compassion isn’t just the primary sign of civilization, it’s central to what it means to be a lover of Christ. St. Paul draws a sharp contrast between the “works of the flesh” which include strife, anger, quarrels, factions, envy” (…sounds like our current political climate) and the “fruits of the spirit” which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:19-23).
And so…I check my own heart and spirit. Even when handling people I afflict, am I able to commit to measuring by the primary sign of civilization, to measure with compassion?