The word “empathy” came up a while back. President Obama said something about empathy as a requirement for a Supreme Court Justice. Of course, the talking heads jumped all over that one. Impartiality is a requirement for doing justice. The Republicans in Congress railed against the word and it was quietly dropped. We were apparently to be assured that the new appointee is not empathetic. It is, I assume, not considered a legitimate requirement for a judge.
But politics aside, is it? Are empathy and impartiality incompatible qualities? Doesn’t impartiality itself require empathy with both sides of an issue? If empathy is not a desired quality for a judge, what about the rest of us? Especially those who are followers of Jesus Christ?
Well, the word is not found in our English Bibles (at least in the NASB and KJV, the only ones I have a concordance for), though its synonym “compassion” is. Each of the two words is a combination of the words “in” and the word “passion.” One is of Greek origin, the other of Latin origin. Problem is, the word tanslated “compassion” has a completely different origin and meaning.
So then are we off the hook?
Maybe a definition is in order here. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives one definition of empathy as: 2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.
Yet we find empathy throughout the New Testament. It’s just not called that.
Matthew 7:12: “All things whatever you want people to do to you, so also, you do to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Luke 6:31: “And even as you want people to do to you, do to them likewise.”
Romans 12:10: “… taking the lead in honoring each other.”
Romans 12:13: “… sharing the needs of the saints.”
Romans 12:17: “… taking forethought for good in the presence of all people.”
Isn’t empathy just an aspect of Christian love, that particular ability to place oneself in another’s mind and emotions? The ability to not only ask “What would Jesus do?”, but “What would this person expect Jesus to do?”
It’s the attempt to think like one of another race, another religious persuasion, a different political viewpoint. It’s to see others not as what we think they should be (just like us) but as what they are.
It’s a desire to point people to Jesus Christ, whatever they look like or whatever their political party, or whatever their preferences in food, drink or entertainment. It’s to resist the urge to make people over into our image.
It’s love in action!
When the College of Biblical Studies, where I taught, was only Houston Bible Institute, and before the electronic age, mailings had to go out by hand. Volunteers would fold, lick and stick stamps on stick-on mailing labels.
On one of my off-days, I went in to help with the work. I sat across the table from a very sweet, middle-class white lady. Sticking on names was kind of fun. I would see the names of donors, students, former students and fellow church folks, many of whom I was acquainted with.
All of a sudden the lady across from me blurted, out a name on one of the stickers, ______! What’s this man doing on our mailing list?
The man was an African-American activist in the city, as well as a Texas Legislator. He was known for raising many issues and for advocating black causes, both in Houston and in Austin, the state capital.
“He’s a student of mine and a good friend,” I replied. “He makes sure he’s back in town for his evening class, even when the Legislature is in session.”
The lady began her tirade. “Do you know all the things he’s been doing?” And she began listing for me all his activities.
I simply looked at her, interrupted and said, “All God’s chillun’ ain’t white Republicans.”
I don’t know if she caught on, but she was silent.
Empathy is to be able to see other people from their context, not our own.