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
A reflection on compassion by Stephen Shoemaker.
The main character in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose, is an ageing professor of history in the decade of the 1970s. He comments on life in America, noting that most people 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.
Recent research has revealed that the church in America as a whole has been among the most antagonistic toward immigrants – and this from a people whose most repeated Old Testament command 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 neighbour what one loves for oneself.”
Rabbi Abraham Heschel described the God of the Bible as a God of Pathos. Empathy is one of the names of God.
Many in the world today have suffered an “empathectomy”. 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 neighbour.