In A World of Enmity, Christ Calls us To Empathy – Here’s What We Have to Know and Do

As I followed the #MeToo threads on social media last Fall, it didn’t take long to notice that most people were responding in one of two ways: either they voiced support for the women (and the few men) who bravely revealed their wounds or they discounted the stories and sometimes even openly criticized those who spoke up.

Whether scrolling through social media feeds or having a face-to-face conversations, it’s not uncommon to encounter hostility when trying to engage on polarizing topics like misogyny and racism. That’s why we keep it polite and talk about the playoffs, TV shows, or the weather (at least that’s the drill here in New England). But if we want to decrease enmity and help those we lead fulfill Christ’s mandate to radically love, avoidance is not going to work. We need to become more empathetic. If we want to decrease enmity and help those we lead fulfill Christ’s mandate to radically love, avoidance is not going to work. We need to become more empathetic. Click To Tweet

How Apathy and Defensiveness Block Empathy

At one time or another, all of us have responded either defensively or apathetically to contentious topics.

Defensiveness often manifests outwardly—for example, talking over someone who disagrees or bludgeoning them with facts that support your ideology. Think talk radio.

But it can also be more internal, such as rising blood pressure and/or a looping, negative internal monologue.

Regardless of the topic, defensiveness reveals where we feel threatened. It’s a primal effort to protect our ideologies and resist the discomfort of being challenged—or the tumult that comes when we realize we might be wrong.

Apathy tends to be more passive-aggressive than defensiveness, but it’s similarly unhelpful in moving us toward empathy and Christ-likeness. Disengagement, disinterest, and disregard all characterize apathy. While apathy might be an honest expression of lack of concern for an individual or issue, it may also reflect loss of hope or despair.

With regard to issues that are dear to God’s heart, such as the mistreatment of women or minorities, neither defensiveness nor apathy are appropriate responses. So how can we inspire those we lead to make different choices?

Understanding Empathy

In therapeutic terms, empathy means “to recognize others’ feelings, the causes of these feelings, and to be able to participate in the emotional experience of an individual without becoming part of it” (from a review published in the International Journal of Caring Sciences, Sept. – Dec. 2008).

Some studies seem to indicate that empathy is connected to genetics, implying that some of us are incapable of being empathetic. This perspective disregards the healing power of the cross. Furthermore, research on brain plasticity indicates that empathy, along with other forms of emotional intelligence, or EQ, can be learned later in life.

The ability to be empathic is directly related to our willingness to feel pain and stretch to understand perspectives that are not only unfamiliar, but often uncomfortable. Recognizing our discomfort can actually alert us to slow down and resist any default responses including defensiveness or apathy.

Simply keeping our mouths shut does not equate with being empathetic: That requires curiosity, humility, repentance, and an engaged moral imagination which allows us to respond to unfamiliar experience as Jesus might have. (See John 4:1-42, the woman at the well.)

We see an example of how humility and repentance lead to empathy and changed behavior when God calls Peter to minister to the Gentiles, a people whom he previously judged and religiously avoided (Acts 10). Because most of us are Gentiles, this example might lose its punch. But substitute Alt Right for Gentiles. Then we see the magnitude of Peter’s conversion. (I’m aware that this example has its limits. The Gentiles were a people group where the Alt Right is a group of people who have self-selected their unbiblical beliefs.)

This type of transformation takes time, energy, and intentionality. As leaders, we need to model this. For us to have integrity, we must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. Are there people groups or particular individuals whom you dislike or readily dismiss? For me this would be the Alt Right. The disdain that bubbles up in me might be understandable but it’s no less offensive to God than the Alt Right’s hatred of blacks and women.

Other questions to ask yourself: Do you truly believe that someone from a radically different background (for example, less resourced and uneducated) is equal to you? Do you have relationships—professional and personal—that demonstrate your willingness to love across barriers? Regarding sins of the heart, if we haven’t come before the Lord and confessed our own transgressions, our leadership will be tainted, and ultimately, unsuccessful. Regarding sins of the heart, if we haven’t come before the Lord and confessed our own transgressions, our leadership will be tainted, and ultimately, unsuccessful. Click To Tweet

3 Steps for Cultivating Empathy

These three initial steps will move your church or organization toward becoming more empathetic.

  1. Publicly acknowledge any of the ways that individuals or people groups have been marginalized or disrespected. If nothing comes to mind, you and your leadership might want to ask women or minorities if they would like to share any of their experiences.
  2. Create an environment for safe, productive dialogue. Safe spaces are characterized by a willingness to listen, believe, and extend empathy. It should be communicated that any comments or attitudes that reveal callousness, disregard, or lack of empathy for those who have been discriminated against or wronged will not be tolerated.
  3. Intentionally and gently expand your group’s comfort zone by providing points of connection with and opportunities to learn about individuals who are different than your majority culture. Practically speaking, this could take many forms. One black friend who teaches history at a mostly white, conservative college, brought in a panel of men and women who experienced racism first-hand during school desegregation. His students had the privilege of listening to the stories of black Americans who were deeply scared by racial hatred. (Worth noting: at the end of the semester, many students rated this class as their favorite.) Another possibility would be for your entire church or organization to read a book on race.* In order for this to succeed, you might want to first gather a group of leaders to read the material. Then, create church-wide small groups (facilitated by these leaders) and discuss the book for several weeks.

April Yamasaki, writer and pastor of a Mennonite church in Abbottsford, BC, believes that:

Empathy begins with listening deeply to God and listening deeply to other people. Rather than rushing in with well-meaning solutions of our own, we need to take the time to listen with respect, to lament, and to live with the burden. I see this in Nehemiah, for when he first heard of the destruction of Jerusalem and the plight of the survivors, he first ‘sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven’ (Nehemiah 1:4). He later went to Jerusalem to talk with the people and led them to rebuild the walls of the city, but that’s not where he started. He started with empathy.

As this passage indicates, empathy is not the end goal. Empathy is meant to motivate us to action. That might mean “speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, seeking justice for those being crushed” (Prov 31: 8-9), or simply choosing to stand with someone who has finally found the courage to admit that they were sexually abused. Perhaps more than anything else, empathy should motivate and empower us to love. 3 Suggestions + 5 Books that can help us build empathy that empowers us to love like Christ. Click To Tweet


*Book Suggestions:

Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey

Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve See: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism 

J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right

Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice

Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption