Maureen H. O’CONNELL, Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in an Age of Globalization. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009. pp. 242. $32.00 sc. ISBN 978-1-57075-845-4.
Reviewed by Daniel J. OLSEN, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, 700 Terrace Heights, Winona, MN 55987.

In Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in an Age of Globalization, Maureen O’Connell constructively revisions the virtue of compassion for a globalized age. Using the Lukan parable of the Good Samaritan as a lens, she reassesses how one must define and care for one’s “neighbor” in a contemporary world beset by poverty and social inequality. Her primary audience is the “privileged Christian” who self-identifies with the travelers in the parable. She hopes to engage this audience in an alternative approach to compassion and globalization that stresses a self critical assessment of their role in perpetuating massive unjust suffering on a social level.

Compassion begins by identifying a pervasive “bourgeois Christianity” in American culture, which fails to see from the perspective of the marginalized person. It then argues for a needed self-critical awareness focused on the suffering other, with the virtue of compassion as the lynchpin upon which this conversion is to take place. O’Connell then provides a worthwhile analysis (particularly for newcomers to this subject) of several philosophical and theological perspectives on compassion, including those of Plato, the Stoics, Aristotle, Kant, Augustine, Aquinas and Christian Scripture, among others. While mainly selecting voices from the Western philosophical and theological tradition, this section stands as a useful review of compassion, in large part due to its perceptive assessment of what contemporary readers can cull from these rich resources.

In Chapters Four and Five, O’Connell focuses on applying the insights of Martha Nussbaum and Johann Baptist Metz, respectively, to her re-formulation of compassion. Nussbaum aids her argument by providing an anthropology of flourishing that takes into account emotion, narratives of suffering, as well as a socially critical approach to compassion. Metz, for his part, is seen as providing a viable framework for social transformation that accentuates memory, narrative and solidarity (145). He provides an understanding of needed “interruptions” in unreflective individuals who all too easily ignore the plight of the marginalized sufferer.

Utilizing the foregoing discussion, she argues that the practice of compassion cannot remain the same after Hurricane Katrina. In light of this catastrophic event and its immediate aftermath, she finds the need to move beyond an objectification of the victim toward an appropriate politically compassionate response toward the other. For the author, directly facing one’s complicity in this event is needed in order to offer an authentic compassionate response to one’s neighbor in a globalized context. Her book then concludes with an extended reflection on the importance of cultivating political compassion in the contemporary global context. It has key links to liberation and feminist theology throughout and attempts to wed the issues of flourishing with political social activism.

The manner in which O’Connell delves into the issue of compassion can simultaneously be viewed as a strength and drawback of this work. Throughout, she circles back to the same core points about the social and relational nature of compassion in a globalized context. This choice can be viewed as somewhat frustrating for the reader as she tends to restate arguments “in other words” throughout the text. This re-phrasing also occurs as the author draws together many sections with “concluding remarks” and in the way in which she integrates the insights of dialogue partners (such as Nussbaum and Metz) and events (Hurricane Katrina) at several points. Readers may regard this revisiting as a worthwhile, thoroughgoing and pedagogically effective strategy or as a reiteration of points already made clear at earlier moments in the text.

In the end, this is an important and timely work, involving appropriate philosophical and theological voices. In naming the predominant American Christian view that “bourgeois” compassion by proxy needs the interruption of “political compassion,” O’Connell offers a helpful addition to ongoing discussions of global ethics. Adequately redefining one’s “neighbor” in an increasingly globalized context requires the relational, emotional, narrative and imaginative qualities O’Connell does well to highlight.

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