The lowest form of knowledge is opinion. It requires no accountability and understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our ego and live in another’s world. — Plato
Recently I was reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. The main character, an aging professor of history in the decade of the 1970s, is commenting on life in America. He says most people today have undergone an “empathectomy,” their empathy surgically removed. It seems only to have gotten worse since. The absence of empathy is an indicator of sociopathy and can make people monsters. Supply your own exhibits A, B and C.
Recent research has revealed that the church as a whole has been among the most antagonistic toward immigrants coming to America — and this from a people whose most repeated command from their Old Testament is to care for the widows, orphans and strangers (or immigrants). Where has all the empathy gone?
The biblical word for empathy is “compassion.” The Hebrew word for it comes from the word for “womb.” The love of God is womb-like. Over and over again in the Gospels Jesus, God’s compassion made flesh, is described as having compassion and from that compassion healing people, feeding people, comforting people, lifting people up. The main characters in two of his most famous parables act out of “compassion” — the Samaritan who saved the life of the Jew lying beaten on the road and the father who ran down the road to welcome home his wayward son.
When Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he was talking about empathy. Wendell Berry has paraphrased the Golden Rule: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” Empathy knows we all live upstream or downstream from someone else.
“Empathy knows we all live upstream or downstream from someone else.”
The Koran echoes the foundational moral virtue of empathy: “A person does not have faith until one loves for one’s neighbor what one loves for oneself.” I saw on TV recently an American news reporter tell of being kidnapped by the Taliban, along with his Muslim driver, and held captive for months. The reporter said his driver’s Muslim faith had led him to help him escape. Abraham Heschel describes the God of the Bible as a God of Pathos. Empathy is one of the names of God.
Many in America today have suffered an empathectomy. We might even say America has. It has become deadly for us all, especially for the most vulnerable among us. The church can make a difference. We can start a contagion of compassion. Empathy can be renewed in our human hearts as we have hearts after God’s own heart. As it follows Jesus, the mission of the church is the increase in the love of God and neighbor. Let’s be about it.
Stephen Shoemaker serves as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. He served previously as pastor of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, N.C.; Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville, Ky.
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