Our Circle of Empathy

Our Circle of Empathy

Sojourners is an evangelical community based in Washington DC. It is a progressive and socially active community, contrary to the common perception of what it means to be an evangelical. Jim Wallis, who is the Executive Director of Sojourners, recently said that the scripture we heard read today from Matthew 25 is the “test” scripture for his community. When thinking about their position on issues or the actions they feel called to undertake, they always ask themselves if they are responding to the needs of the least of their brothers and sisters. In fact, it is in response to this passage that Sojourners established their community in the heart of one of the most downtrodden neighbourhoods in Washington.

The passage is presented as a “test”. Matthew sets this up as a way of separating sheep from goats, blessed from unblessed. Those who pass the test enter the kingdom, those who don’t, don’t. Read in this light, the story of the sheep and the goats can bring on a feeling of dread, a feeling that we haven’t done enough to pass the test. In fact, though, the story is intended to encourage us in reaching out to others, not condemn us for those times we don’t.

This passage is sometimes taken to present an image of God as a stern judge who is just waiting to condemn us. Dennis Linn, a Christian educator who does workshops about the image that we have of God, presents it differently. Linn suggests in his workshops that we all ask ourselves when have we ever fed the hungry or clothed the naked or welcomed a stranger. Can we all think of a time when we have done that? (Hands up if you can). So we’re all sheep. Now, can you think of a time when you walked past someone in need or failed to visit someone you knew was sick? (Hands up) So, we’re all goats.

When Linn did this exercise with a group of nuns and came to the conclusion that we are both sheep and goats one of the participants said, “No, we’re all good goats.” And that, I think, says it perfectly. The Jesus we come to know through the gospel stories is not one who condemns others because of an infraction here or an oversight there, or even because of a major offense. Jesus came to heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, forgive the sinners and welcome all into the commonwealth of God.

One way in which we can participate in God’s commonwealth is by following the guidance of Matthew 25, looking for and responding to situations where there are hungry to bed fed, prisoners to be visited, homeless to be housed. But it is impossible for each of us to respond to every need there is in the world. The trap is to give up on responding because we realize we can’t respond to everything. We need to recognize that we can’t be good sheep all the time, but we can be good goats.

When Jesus refers to those who are in need, those who are hungry or thirsty or in pain as “the least of these my brothers and sisters” he is inviting us to feel empathy toward them. Empathy, the ability to share the feelings of another person can then evoke compassion, the urge to act on our empathetic feeling in a way that addresses the need of the other person. These feelings do not appear only in good sheep. Even bad goats have a sense of empathy for others – at some times and in some circumstances. Even bad goats can understand the situation of another and have some idea of what that other is feeling.

Now, empathy doesn’t always lead to an act of compassion. Sometimes we don’t have the time, the energy or the resources to respond. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed by “compassion fatigue” or “donor fatigue”. We’ve seen one too many persons in need and when there’s another hand out in front of us, we just walk on by. This can lead to our feeling guilty. Then we feel like we’re simply bad goats.

Feeling guilty isn’t pleasant. In order to deal with that unpleasantness, we can go through some interesting mental processes, often at a subconscious level. We can tell ourselves that the person in need isn’t really deserving; they should just get a job. Or someone else should look after them: the government or their family or a church with better resources than ours. Or we might even tell ourselves that since we can’t help everyone why help anyone.

Empathy is an innate trait of human beings that has served an evolutionary purpose since the dawn of time. It’s not something that we need to be taught, we’re born with it. Empathy helps us to function in society. It tells us what other people are feeling. How they are reacting to us. Whether we can trust them. Whether we’ve insulted them or pleased them. If we recall that for most of our 100,000-year history, up until the last century or two, we human beings lived in small groups, perhaps of no more than 100 or so people, then empathy assumes major importance within that intimate social structure. We needed to get along with our tribe or our village because our survival depended on it.

What Jesus is doing in this passage is asking us to expand our circle of empathy beyond those we know and to empathize with and feel compassion for those who are part of the larger human community. In his day, two thousand years ago, he was asking his Jewish community to feel compassion for Samaritans and Syro-Phonecians, for Romans and Greeks. In our day, if we expand the circle of empathy we would extend it beyond the Mediterranean world that Jesus knew to include brothers and sisters around the globe. But how can we feel empathy for seven billion people?

The truth is that we can’t. We can’t have that sense that we understand and share what other people are experiencing, not for seven billion people.

We need something more than empathy if we are to be motivated to treat the least of these as brothers and sisters. Fortunately we have the capacity to reason as well as to feel empathy. It is this capacity to reason that makes up the excuses that we create when we feel guilty. But there is also a more positive capacity that reason gives us: the capacity to stand back from our feelings and to think twice about the first thought that comes into our heads. We can look at the big picture; take the helicopter (or the balcony) view of the situation.

If we think beyond what we, to the reasons that people are hungry or thirsty, or homeless or lacking in warm clothes, without letting our sense of guilt cloud our thinking, we realize that for 99.9% of them there is something outside their control that has led to their being in this predicament. They may have lost a job and been unable to find a new one. The partner they relied on for support may have died, or left them. They may have a disability, mental or physical, that makes it hard to work or hard to live in community. They may be surviving at the whim of a government or social structure that panders to multi-national corporations at the expense of the most vulnerable within its borders.

If we think about the circumstances that may have led to the predicament that our brothers and sisters find themselves in, then we may be able to take action to deal with that circumstance. And if we don’t act in every circumstance, we are nonetheless good goats, doing what we can when we can.

Recent studies by moral psychologists suggest that when we humans exercise our powers of reason and look at why people are in need and think about what we might do in a systematic and systemic way to address those needs, we actually make more progress toward resolving the underlying problems than when we rely only on empathy. The problem with empathy alone, as I’ve suggested, is that it is just not possible for us to make the circle wide enough at the level of feeling compassion. But we can use our powers of reason to see that improving the lives of others improves the quality of our own lives. If my brother or sister is better off then I am better off. “Ubuntu”.

Whether it is in response to God’s call, or out of a sense of moral commitment to the flourishing of all humankind, caring for the persons who are members of the human family who are in need is a way in which we can experience the presence of Christ in other people. And that is a gift to ourselves and to God’s world.

Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2015. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.