I am an Asian American. Statistically-speaking, this means that I am less likely to have a fatal encounter with a police officer than any other ethnic group, majority or minority.
This also means that when I read stories and see videos like the one involving George Floyd, sympathy comes fairly easy but empathy is far more difficult to achieve. I share this not as a concession but rather, as a confession.
I am also a Christ follower and a pastor serving and leading in a local church. This means that I should not stop at sympathy but take the long and arduous journey toward empathy, as often as necessary. This is usually a grueling endeavor. But this is what the call to “mourn with those who mourn” demands of us. I share this not as a skilled practitioner but rather, as a struggling novice. I am a Christ follower...This means that I should not stop at sympathy but take the long and arduous journey toward empathy, as often as necessary. Click To Tweet
In certain moments under specific circumstances, empathy does come more naturally. When I was in the first grade, my mother packed me gimbap for lunch early in the school year. She filled my very American Indiana Jones lunchbox to the brim with her very Korean rice-and-veggies-wrapped-in-seaweed. This was in the mid-80s, long before Asian cuisine was in vogue. When I opened my lunchbox the kids around me were repulsed at the sight of such an unfamiliar and peculiar meal. They laughed and mocked me into hiding. I ate my lunch that day in a lonely corner of the Summerdale Elementary School cafeteria—alone, angry, and confused.
That was more than 30 years ago and yet, even as I type the words, the emotions still run deep and rise quickly. Due to this very personal experience, any and every time I encounter a story of someone cowering in the margins because of misunderstood ethnic and cultural traditions, I empathize. I feel what they feel, at least in part. Empathy comes naturally when the situation at hand resembles personal experience.
What Do We Do?
But as church leaders, what do we do when the situation at hand doesn’t fit any of our embodied categories? Sure, I’ve had some kids make fun of me for a strange lunch. But that pales in comparison to being held down, knee on neck, struggling for breath, crying out for my mother and God. Nothing even remotely resembling such a situation has ever happened to me. I’ve never seriously feared that such a fate could befall my children someday. I have no rubric for these things. So I ask again, for church leaders like me, what do we do? I think the biblical prophetic tradition offers us a helpful and humbling glimpse.
The Hebrew Bible, which many of us call the Old Testament, includes fifteen works categorized as prophetic books. Written mostly in ancient forms of Hebrew poetry, these books are not easy to read. They’re even harder to understand, especially today. Most important here though is the nature of these books. My friend Tim Mackie of The Bible Project says, “These books were composed as a representation of the message of the minority voice in Israel before the exile.” It’s important to note, the prophets were not a minority voice in the contemporary ethnic-minority sense of the phrase; they lived and served amongst their own people, ethnically-speaking. The prophets were a minority voice in that they were saying things very few others were saying. They were delivering messages of judgment and dislocation to a blind majority living mostly in denial and defiance.
There are some today who think Christian prophecy means predicting the future. But predicting the future was not the primary role of Biblical prophets. It was a supplemental part of some of their work but primarily, Biblical prophets carried forth words meant to reveal deep, underlying truths about the present in vivid detail, not opaque renderings of the future. This was not joyous work. Most often, the prophetic tone is full of anguish, fury, and desperation. They didn’t enjoy saying what they said but it had to be said, and so…they spoke. As the prophet Jeremiah says, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jer 20:9b)
Listening and Learning
As I listen to and read my black brothers and sisters in light of the George Floyd tragedy, I am struck by the prophetic tone of voice, the undeniable and familiar timbre of anguish, fury, and desperation. And this, I believe, is one of the answers to the question “what do we do?” for leaders like me in times like these. We listen intently to voices like and unlike our own. We learn from the experiences of others, particularly the experiences we have no personal categories for. We make room for the fire blazing from weary hearts and broken bones. We do so, first and foremost, not so much to agree or disagree but to see and hear as the other sees and hears.
To be clear, the words of our black brothers and sisters are not canon. None of our words are. When it comes to details, technicalities, socioeconomic and political realities, and otherwise, we will get some of it right, we will get some of it wrong, and we will get most of it someplace in between. However, in tone and raw emotion, fueled by exhaustion and exasperation, their words are indeed prophetic, in the sense that they are, much like Jeremiah, words in the heart like fire, fire shut up in the bones, and there is a weariness in holding them in. Maybe, in times like these for leaders like me, to empathize is to create the necessary space, offer the necessary invitation, and lend the necessary listening ear. Click To Tweet
And so, maybe, in times like these for leaders like me, to empathize is to create the necessary space, offer the necessary invitation, and lend the necessary listening ear. We can debate the particulars and get ugly by politicizing everything down to the smallest details.
But for you and me, those leading and serving communities of Christ-followers, called to mourn with those who mourn and together be remade into the image of the Christ we follow, empathy matters. Before we can move forward together, we must begin together. And beginning together requires more than sympathy, more than feeling for the other—it demands that we begin feeling with the other.
…we make room for the fire
And as we do, may we who follow Christ and serve his Church do so with steadfast conviction and humble confidence. In the words of the preacher Gardner Taylor, may we place the totality of our hope, “in him alone who is able to stem the tide and steady the soul.”