On Monday I wrote a sermon. I drafted it, let it sit overnight, worked on it some more, and then had Jill read it. She gave it the clergy spouse seal of approval, so I was ready for today. It was a pretty good sermon. As I always am, I was relieved when it was neatly printed and placed in the center of my desk. (I’m fastidious like that.) But I’m not preaching that sermon. Late in the week I deep-sixed it in the recycle bin. I’m preaching something different.
Usually, I preach on the Gospel. Occasionally, I preach on the Old Testament text. Almost never do I preach on the epistle. At three of our four English-language services on Sunday, most weeks we don’t even read the epistle. But last Sunday afternoon, when I read today’s propers for the first time, I dutifully read the epistle, and as the week wore on, it tightened its grip on me and wouldn’t let go. More about that in a moment.
And then, on Tuesday evening Barbara Bush died. I only met Mrs. Bush once, and then only in passing. Her death ought not to have affected me beyond being a notable headline. Perhaps it was because so many broadcasters referred to Mrs. Bush as “America’s Mom.” I’m not sure. Regardless, as I pondered her gentility, her civility, her empathy for those around her, I began to lament. The loss of Barbara Bush strikes me, if you’ll allow a crude analogy, the way that the loss of a white rhinoceros strikes me: There are too few of them remaining, and we can’t afford to lose another.
I don’t mean to idealize Mrs. Bush unrealistically. I am told that she could be a pistol in private. My deeper lament is for the state of our culture, which the loss of Mrs. Bush accentuated for me. It seems to me that, in our culture, our capacity for empathy is failing us.
I am not alone in my lament. Gary Olson, author of Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain says that our society increasingly “displays an anethetized conscience towards the suffering of others.”[i] Olson goes on to say that we hear the cries of those in all sorts of need around us, but our “moral sound waves are muted as they pass through powerful cultural baffles.”[ii]
That resonates with me. At every turn in our culture, it seems, something discourages empathy. Politics is now so divisive, with a vanishing sense of the common good. Officials elected to represent a constituency increasingly refuse to receive comments or concerns from constituents not of their political party, as if they only represent those who voted for them.
Sarcasm—vicious, biting sarcasm—is the lingua franca of the day, from politicians, late night television hosts, and even in common conversation on the street or around the water cooler. Increasingly, people will malign anyone, irrespective of the cost to that person, as if zingers score some sort of cosmic points.
The author Peter Bazalgette points to the unempathetic nature of the internet as the drain down which our capacity for empathy is spiraling. Bazalgette says, “If you take the average working environment now, you spend most of your time not talking to people or even phoning them but sending them an email. Without facial expressions or tone of voice, you’re not aware of the impact of words. [We] see this with cyber bullying and revenge porn, [where people] don’t see the victim of [their] bad behavior.”[iii]
Gary Olson might agree that the internet is a contributor, but he believes the problem is much more pervasive. Olson says, “We [have] come to view our ‘selves,’ our identities, as based primarily on market values, especially ‘Only care about yourself and a few persons close to you.’ One advances in society via rugged self-reliance, and individuals are basically hypercompetitive, perpetual consumers.”
Olson may be right. I remember a time when the media used to refer to the American public as “citizens,” whereas now that term has been completely supplanted by “consumers.” We approach the world by what use it is to us, and too often the real and sensitive lives of other people are barriers to be avoided or overcome, not empathized with.
What is empathy? I know of no better definition than Harper Lee’s, placed on the lips of Atticus Finch and spoken to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus says to his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”[iv]
When was the last time many of us really, truly did that? Empathy is more than charity or sympathy. Empathy is more than doing a kindness. Empathy is being vulnerable enough to see the world through the eyes—the experience—of another. Empathy is an act of love.
And that’s why today’s epistle lesson grabbed hold of me this week and would not let me know. Today we read from the First Letter of John, which reveals to us a few verses after today’s reading that “God is love.”[v]
Note John’s language carefully. John does not say that God loves. Loving is not a thing God does, like brushing God’s teeth or mowing the grass. John says that God is love. That is who and what God is in God’s very nature. God’s character is love. God’s passion is love. God’s commitment to the world is love. And God carried out the supreme act of empathy when God, literally, took Atticus Finch’s advice. In Jesus, God climbed into our skin and walked around in it. God experienced the world as we do, with our confusion, our vulnerability, and our pain. Today John says, “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us.”
God’s empathy for us becomes our model and calling. And not only because the world needs it. Remember, God himself is love, and 1 John tells us that the way we meet God, and know God, and deeply encounter God is through our acts of empathy and love. When we love, God flows through us. John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not [only] in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Why, so often, are we unable to do this? Why are we susceptible to the anonymity of the internet or the consumerism of our culture as barriers between us and our fellow human beings? David Niose, who blogs for Psychology Today, believes our lack of empathy has its roots in fear.[vi] We are fearful of the world’s cruelty and of the things we have being taken away from us. The irony is, of course, that our fear creates the very cruelty of which we are afraid. The irony is that without empathy, without the capacity to love our fellow human beings, we lose our relationships with them and we lose, by definition, our relationship with the God who is love.
In the novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky, the priest Father Re says to the teenager Pino, who is afraid to help Italian Jews escape to Switzerland over the Alps, “We can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened. If we lose love, all is lost.”[vii]
Earlier in 1 John, John says, “We pass from death to life because we love one another.”[viii] Those are the truest words I know. If we lose love, all is lost. So let us go from this place with the willingness to climb into one another’s skin, to see through one another’s eyes, and to allow the God who is greater than our hearts to swell those hearts with empathy and love.
[iv] Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird.
[v] 1 John 4:8.
[vii] Sullivan, Mark. Beneath a Scarlet Sky, 102.
[viii] 1 John 3:14.