Evolving Empathy

The Washington Post recently ran a great piece about the importance of evolving our sense of empathy when it comes to fighting climate change. This quote, in particular, jumped out:

“Empathy is built on self-preservation. We watch out for our children because they carry our genes, for our tribe because it offers sex, safety and sustenance. Spreading our care across space and time runs counter to those ancient instincts. It’s difficult emotional work, and also necessary. We must try to evolve our emotional lives: away from the past and toward a future that needs us desperately.”

In other words, it’s not hard to get a person on your side if their inaction will have direct, visible consequences on their daily life . Bring up something more abstract, however (or something with consequences or benefits for others), and their eyes will start glazing over.

Climate change is a great example, since it’s one of the ultimate “kick the can down the road” issues, and it’s consistently painful to watch people choose the convenience and comfort of their current lifestyle over actions that would improve the long-term consequences for future generations.

This second path is not an easy one. The act of dramatically widening your sense of empathy is one of radical, selfless love. In fact, it’s the primary message of Jesus. This powerful essay sums it up well:

“Putting aside matters of practice, administration, and interpretation, Christ made one thing exceedingly clear: The foundation of His doctrine is love.”

As the world continues changing at a rapid pace, and legacy institutions continue to crumble (good riddance to many of them!), some Christians are opting to “stick with their convictions” and hide behind their favorite Bible interpretations rather than ask themselves a simple question: is my stance on a given issue driven by a heart of radical love and empathy, or is it driven by my church movement’s tradition and/or my own self-interest?

The essay linked above says it best:

“Another truth I’ve learned over the years is this: The path of convenience rarely leads to something valuable. In today’s convenient Christianity, we have millions of self-labeled Christians who are happy to be Christian, as long as they don’t have to actually live the doctrine.”

Just like the Pharisees chastising Jesus for healing a woman on the Sabbath, when faced with a challenging situation, many Christians take the easy route and rely on existing Biblical interpretations (and the resulting policies) over actions based on radical love.

Using this “immediate personal comfort or benefit vs. the needs of others” lens, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Are the relentless mass shootings across the country less important than your ability to own an AR-15 (and defend against a hypothetical invasion by a government that…uh…has nuclear weapons)?
  • For men, is your interpretation of Bible verses that results in male-only church leadership (and ministerial roles) of higher value than the damaging effects that these policies have on women?
  • Does your desire to keep politics out of spiritual conversations make you shamefully silent about racial issues affecting many others?
  • Have you considered how your intense, guilt-ridden need to isolate yourself from sexual temptation and promote purity culture affects the mental health of the young people around you?
  • What would your church do if presented with a married gay couple that wanted to study the Bible and become church members?

We know that Jesus had no issue breaking traditions to perform controversial acts of outreach. At the many forks in the road you’ll encounter, you can never go wrong by taking the loving, empathetic path.