"Empathy - Jesus Style"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 3, 2020
Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Acts 2:1-4, 42-47
I imagine that the guys in MAGA hats bearing arms on the capitol steps in Olympia in opposition to the various bans on business and gatherings several days ago don’t think much of empathy. Oh, it may be OK for a WOMAN to have empathy, they might say, but not a guy like me. It’s soft, squishy, uncomfortable, and definitely anti-American. I’m not sure how many of them would self-identify as followers of Jesus, but I would guess empathy has no place in their understanding of Christianity either. Their image of Jesus, I speculate, is a muscular dude leading an army into glorious battle – more like the Norse god of war than a peasant-teacher-healer from a backwater region of the Middle East. Empathy, they might say, is more of a liability than an asset.
But they would be wrong. They don’t get to choose whether to have empathy. Empathy is not a value – it is an evolutionary trait, and in fact it can be used for manipulation and control as well as understanding and compassion. Neuroscientists tell us that empathy is measurable in the brain – especially for pain and suffering, but also for pleasure and exhilaration. “Empathy relies on specific parts of the brain that evolved to enable emotional connection with others and the motivation to care. When we see someone in pain … pain pathways in our own brains light up, though to a lesser degree…. Still, we can’t rely on [sensory] resonance alone. For one thing, it tends to be stronger for people who are similar to us…. Luckily, empathy also has a cognitive component – an understanding that our feelings may not be the same as someone else’s. Separating our pain from theirs allows us to soothe any discomfort we feel, while staying curious about what they are going through.” Empathy is also not sympathy. Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune. In sympathy we may feel bad for the other, but it distances us from their suffering rather than opening a relationship.
We can tamp down, or we can enhance our innate empathy. Savvy manipulators rely on empathy to find the gaps in people’s emotional armor and use them for leverage. Effective managers in the workplace can learn to “fake it ‘til they make it.” The thing is, once you open the floodgates of awareness of others’ affections, you are likely to begin to care about them. I suspect this is why the MAGA hat wearers behave the way they do. Caring about others begins to open you up to selfless behaviors – also an evolutionary advantage, but not in the social Darwinism that is experiencing a resurgence in this time of Coronavirus anxiety. Even some of our elected leaders have begun to suggest that we should let the virus run its course – killing off the weak ones in the herd and allowing what really matters – profit – be the measure of value in life and death matters. Again, it’s not a question of choosing to have empathy. The question for us, as we seek to become more mature disciples of Jesus Christ, is how to live empathy – Jesus style.
Jesus did not invent empathy. The Torah draws deeply from the well of empathy. The ethical imperative that underscores all the commandments is this: “For YHWH is the God of gods, the Sovereign of sovereigns, the great God, powerful and awe-inspiring, who has no favorites and cannot be bribed; who brings justice to the orphan and the widowed, and who befriends the foreigner among you with food and clothing. In the same way, you too must befriend the foreigner,” and there’s the point, “for you were once foreigners yourselves in the land of Egypt.”
Recognize and feel with the other what you yourself have felt. Extend to the other the blessings and benefits which you have enjoyed. Reserve judgement and punishment for God. Categorically, you must not make of the other a scapegoat on whom to hang your frustrations, your shortcomings, your disappointments, and your pain. It’s a measure of how fragile our empathy is that this robust ethical directive would, in the hands and minds of a subjugated and occupied people, become encrusted with commandments and consequences that do not reflect the חֶסֶד (hesed) – the abiding and long-suffering love of God “who has no favorites and cannot be bribed; who brings justice to the orphan and the widowed, and who befriends the foreigner among you with food and clothing.”
Recently I have learned directly from some of my unhoused neighbors that they have become targets of attacks on Facebook implying that they and other unhoused people are responsible for spreading the Coronavirus on the island and suggesting that they should be driven away by throwing rocks at them. Yet our unhoused neighbors are already socially distanced and are more at risk because of underlying conditions than most of us. People of Asian descent, migrant laborers, African Americans – all are at greater risk due to the inequities in our system. To add insult to injury, they are being scapegoated – the opposite of empathy.
Resistance to empathy can enter our lives on a more intimate scale as well. Our own feelings of outrage or injury can blind us to the perspectives and passions of others – even those we are closest to and love most dearly – especially when we all feel compressed and hemmed in.
Philosopher René Girard tells us: “In the primitive and archaic world there are rituals of expulsion everywhere, and they give us the impression of enormous cynicism combined with a childish naivete. In the case of the scapegoat the process of substitution is so transparent that we understand it at first glance. The people participating in [ancient scapegoating] rituals … observed their reconciling results and appreciated them so much, … that they attempted to reproduce them without feeling shame. This was … because the operation of transferring sins from community to victim seemed to occur from beyond, without their own real participation. The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the anger.” Of course, the cathartic effect of scapegoating does not endure, but instead subsides, and the violence escalates. Jesus sought to interrupt the scapegoat cycle permanently.
Empathy was paramount in Jesus presence and ministry. So much so that I would add empathy to the beginning of my definition of the Way of Jesus – the “e” before the “f, g, h, i, j.” Empathy. Forgiveness. Generosity. Hospitality. Inclusion. Justice. As with these other human impulses, empathy is not unique to Christianity – it’s a universal human trait, perhaps even common among higher vertebrates. Nor is empathy highly valued among all who call themselves Christian, as we have seen. Instead we want to know how empathy is to be employed among mature disciples of Jesus, and its place among the “ten commandments of mature living.” Ronald Rolheiser’s second invitation to mature discipleship is “Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy.”
Rolheiser elaborates on this invitation: “Few things in life, including our own hearts and motives, are black and white, either/or, simply good or simply bad. Maturity invites us to see, understand, and accept this complexity with empathy so that, like Jesus, we cry tears of understanding over our own troubled cities and our own complex hearts and, like Jesus too, we can forgive others, the world, and ourselves for this complexity and imperfection. A mature person [observing] the world’s wars, violence, and wounds responds with empathy because she already recognizes within herself that same complexity, neediness, pride, greed, and lust that lie at the root of all that unrest. Deep maturity is very much synonymous with empathy…. [Empathy] gives us permission… not to be too hard on ourselves and, more importantly, it tells us to stop putting unfair pressure on our [partners], families, friends, [neighbors] … and jobs to give us something they cannot give – namely, happiness without a shadow….”
We do live in a time of shadow. And, indeed, there is no time in history that has been without shadow. We may become so accustomed to the shadows that we no longer perceive them, or the evil they shroud. In the time of Covid-19 we have been startled to see more clearly the shadows of racism, xenophobia, and class inequity. We are so fortunate that the fear of exposure has reduced gun violence and military maneuvers – at least for the time being. But we hold our collective breath fearing we will soon hear about escalation in domestic violence and eventual aggression between nations and insurgents over finite resources like fuel and water. The mature disciple sees our common needs and goals and strives to make them accessible to all.
This brings us to the early church – which in the near aftermath of Jesus’ teaching, healing, and presence – sought to live – Jesus’ style. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ instructions and the communal life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. A reverent fear overtook them all, for many wonders and signs were being performed by the apostles. Those who believed lived together, shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, sharing the proceeds with one another as each had need. They met in the Temple and they broke bread together in their homes every day. With joyful and sincere hearts, they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people. Day by day, God added to their number those who were being saved.”
Empathy opens us to understanding that the “other” is essential. It may seem a small thing – or perhaps it seems impossible right now – but what we could, in fact, go out of our way to create opportunities to say to “others” “You are essential.” Start with a nearby loved one. “You are essential.” Next a neighbor. “You are essential.” Then an old friend. “You are essential.” Then a stranger, an enemy even. “You are essential. I share all that matters in life – with you.”
Acts 2 is among the most unsettling texts of our cannon. It’s one that catalyzes shame over our inequitable systems, and thus stirs up our denial and resistance. Having experienced Jesus’ profound empathy for everyone he encountered, those early followers sought to become his body and as a community live out his empathy. The same Spirit that entered Jesus at the outset of his ministry has now entered the resurrected body of Christ, catalyzing among other traits, the profoundly human capacity for empathy – for mutual awareness and understanding. Empathy, in turn enables the body to bear witness to our common humanity and to the disabling effects of inequity. We do not have to wait for the Coronavirus to pass to inaugurate practices of empathy. Now is the time for us to be who we are called to be as followers of Jesus – mature disciples. In fact, crisis is the best of times. Crisis is literally “decision.” So let us decide today to dismantle the wall and build a bigger table where everyone is essential – a table of empathy – Jesus style.