Overcoming the Limits of Empathy


Bumper Sticker Wisdom

A few days ago while sitting in traffic I saw a bumper sticker that gave me pause. It read: “There’s only one race: the human race.” On most days I probably would have read it and nodded in agreement with its message of solidarity, but my audiobook had just ended and I was alone with my thoughts.

The basic sentiment was true enough, but does its oversimplification contribute anything substantial to our social discourse? More than once when I’ve engaged in conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism or other systemic ills, some well-meaning soul or other has offered up a comment like: “We’ve all been picked on or bullied for our looks, or intelligence, or weight, or something. We need to acknowledge everyone’s pain and love each other for who we are.” And again, on the surface that is true enough, but it’s a conversation-stopper. Specific forms of discrimination have specific causes, specific effects, and specific solutions. Not every unkind word or instance of bullying has its roots in systematic oppression; sometimes people, individually and in groups, are just mean. An inability or unwillingness to see the difference is not enlightenment, it’s self-indulgence.

Woke or dreaming?

Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t see race?” It’s almost always intended to be supportive of racial equality (though most of the time I cynically suspect it’s begging the rest of us to notice how woke the speaker is), but in practice it erases the experiences of people of other races. You or I may claim not to see someone’s race, but that person doesn’t have the convenience of forgetting about it; they have to live with the 24/7 reality of all the people who do see their race and treat them differently because of it. Truly seeing someone means acknowledging hardships they experience but we don’t, not pretending we’ve all had the same hardships and opportunities simply dressed up in different clothes.

Another example of erasing someone’s experience is woven throughout some men’s reaction to the #metoo movement. Right away we saw responses like “not all men” or “men are sexually assaulted too.” Both true, and neither is helpful to the situation being addressed. The first dismisses women’s experiences in favor of comforting men who can’t separate their defensiveness from the actual problem, and the second derails the conversation away from behavior that has become largely normalized and tolerated by equating it with behavior that for the most part is already unacceptable.

The Worst Offense is a Bad Defense

In a culture where we are encouraged to empathize with others, we need to recognize the boundary between empathizing with someone’s story … and trying to make it our own story. When someone tells us their story, we don’t need to figure out how to relate to it, we need to listen. By all means develop a strong practice of empathy – but also recognize its limits.

As uncomfortable as we might be with discrimination, when someone tells us it has happened to them, let’s suppress any initial instinct to discredit that claim (“oh that happens to white people too” or “maybe you’re being overly sensitive”). Of course we can and should think critically about the situation and information, but here’s an example where empathy applies: how do you feel when someone tries to tell you your interpretation of your lived experience is wrong? So how should people feel when you do it to them? Other people understand their own experiences as well as you and I understand ours, so let’s stop trying to tell them (and ourselves) otherwise.

We don’t necessarily launch these reactions from a negative place. Perhaps our intention is to be impartial. Or maybe our intention is to learn. Or to be an ally. Or something else that seems positive to us. The hard truth is, in interpersonal relationships, especially those entangled in the realities of discrimination, intentions might not matter. We feel like they should, but if the practical result of our reaction is that someone feels further alienated and tells us so, does it cause us any harm to consider how we might be wrong? If a conversation that starts with someone’s experience of discrimination ends in a discussion of our hurt feelings about their reaction – that is, if we need comfort because someone else has spoken about being oppressed – the empathy train has gone off the rails. And we have to own that.

The Bigger Story

Not every story has to be about or even relatable to our own story to merit compassion.

I’ve learned this the hard way, because I’ve been guilty of some flavor of pretty much everything I’ve mentioned. The one thing I’m wise enough to know is that no matter how “woke” I think I am now, there’s always more to learn, and that’s done by listening, not by explaining and defending.

As Christians, we are obligated to listen and to be compassionate because every human being is part of Christ’s story. Isn’t that what it means to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet? And isn’t that idea so much bigger and better than our own tiny story?

Let’s find commonality where we can. And where we can’t find commonality, let’s find Christ.

When life hands you Philemons…


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ezra 4:7, 11-24, Philemon 1-25, Matthew 12:33-42

The Letter to Philemon is not only the shortest of Paul’s epistles, but the third-shortest book in the Bible.  It’s shorter than any of the devotional posts on this blog. It isn’t written to an entire congregation, but to a single person. It doesn’t contain grand theological arguments, but a simple request.

Though the underlying premise of the letter has been debated by some, we traditionally consider Philemon to be the owner of a runaway slave named Onesimus who befriended Paul during the period he was under house arrest in Rome. Paul convinced Onesimus to return to Philemon bearing this letter which asked Philemon to accept the slave as a brother in Christ. Paul, reflecting the character of Christ, was even willing to assume any debts Onesimus might owe that he might escape punishment.

Paul was asking both parties to do something incredibly challenging: to see each other not as cogs in the cultural machine, but as human beings deserving the dignity of any beloved child of God. Philemon had to overcome the  idea that, no matter what the law allowed, Onesimus was his equal in Christ. And Onesimus had to risk his continued freedom on the hope that Philemon was capable of what Paul was asking.

This situation encapsulates what seems to be a fundamental flaw in human nature: we are capable of dismissing entire categories of people as less than fully human. Slavery, which exists to this day, is predicated on this flaw. It’s not a liberal or conservative bias; consider the flurry of recent revelations of sexual harassment by media and other executives across the political spectrum. Communication on social media becomes more and more like reputational target practice. Examples abound.

This phenomenon has an unfortunately circular nature: because we can’t see everyone as human, we don’t believe they see us as human, which reinforces our negative assessment of them, which in turn reinforces their negative assessment of us, and so on…

Paul could have used his influence to strong-arm Philemon into complying with his wishes. While he wasn’t above using a little guilt (“I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”), he knew that trusting Philemon to grow in his own understanding of Christ’s love would make for a permanent change that pressure would not. It may seem unfair of Paul to impose on Onesimus to test this theory, but he was also free to obey Paul or not. Imagine the trust – in Paul, Philemon, and God – necessary to return.

When we are at odds  with people, we can seek victory or peace. One requires us to see others as losers – something physically, spiritually, or intellectually lesser than ourselves – and the other demands we see others as beloved equals. Which would Christ have us pursue?

Comfort: God isn’t worried about what other people think of you.

Challenge: Vulnerability is a risk we all must take.

Prayer: For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122:8)

Discussion: Are you more aware of your own tendencies to discriminate (we all have them!) or of how you suspect other people might discriminate against you?

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Threats Both Foreign and Domestic


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Esther 8:1-8, 15-17, Acts 19:21-41, 4:31-37

A pack of foreigners and their radical leader – well known for recruiting people to his strange and potentially dangerous religion – wander into town. Locals worry these men will change the character – perhaps the very foundation – of their society. Merchants are projecting exactly how the influence of these aliens will negatively impact local jobs, revenue, and tourism.  First there are angry murmurs, then protests about this evil religion, then angry mobs ready to forcibly evict these strangers, though doing so means sacrificing civil rights on the altar of security.

You know who we’re talking about.

That’s right – Paul and his merry band of Christians wandering into Ephesus. The Greek city was famous for its grand temple to Artemis. Artisans there sold a lot – a lot – of silver shrines and other souvenirs to pilgrims and tourists. They were worried Christianity was going to be bad for business, so they nearly started a riot to drive Paul and his companions out of town. The local authorities talked some sense into them and explained the courts were available but there wasn’t any justification for charges let alone a riot. There aren’t many stories older than the one about people who hold privilege rationalizing their hostilities toward people who don’t.

Christians might be tempted to look at this story and say: “But… those Ephesians have nothing to do with me; their religion was wrong and ours is the right one. Those Christians weren’t actually dangerous.” Nope. Like it or not, Western Christianity is compromised by privilege, because every group that rises to power eventually believes both that it deserves to be at the top and that sharing said privilege is a threat to its security.

Remember when Jesus said: “Blessed are you who value safety above mercy?” Of course not, because he actually said: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Real faith offers love, mercy, and forgiveness because Jesus has offered them to us. It’s hard for the last to be first if we insist on starting from the top.

Comfort: When we feel threatened, Jesus is still beside us.

Challenge: Read this article on 30+ Examples of Christian Privilege.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to be merciful. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been confronted by your own privilege?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!