Jesus had a way of putting profound truth into just a few words.
One time he summarized the entirety of the Bible by saying “Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself.” In these two commands lie the essence of all Christian spirituality.
I’ve been thinking about empathy lately, and about how essential it is to fulfilling the Second Commandment. I think we need more of it in the world – in our public discourse, in our attitudes, in our dogma, and especially on the internet. It seems like many Christians are sorely lacking in empathy. I’m not pointing a finger at the Church; I’m confessing. There have been times when my expression of Christianity led me to label and dismiss my neighbor instead understanding him. I found myself hating people instead of loving them. But I don’t think Jesus is ok with that, and as I’ve continued to follow him I’ve found some of my attitudes toward my fellow humans changing. When I remember some of the attitudes I’ve held, or when I find myself defending a certain speaker out of habit, I wince and ask myself, “Is that really how we’re going to represent Jesus to the world?”
I Hate Your Politician and Want Him to Fail
About a year ago, I was under the influence of conservative talk radio. Though the personalities supported traditional family values and morality, the more I listened the more I hated my neighbor. Especially, my neighbor the President. I was told that he was a Marxist, a socialist, probably a Muslim, and perhaps a foreigner. He was an elitist snob who hates America and is secretly trying to destroy our great Christian nation. He’s incompetent, arrogant, and lazy. If you hear these things often enough, you can start to believe them. That’s what happened to me. As a result, I rooted for his failure. Whenever I saw a news headline that said something positive about him, I dismissed it as liberal bias. Whenever things weren’t going well for him, I put another point on “our” team’s scoreboard.
I let political ideology define my view of him as a person, and I forgot that he’s somebody God loves. I don’t think the President hates God and America. From the best that I can tell, he’s a fellow believer who’s trying to live out his Christianity in the best way he knows how. I don’t think his so-called “socialist” ideas are rooted in a hate for America, but rather in a desire to help the poor and the oppressed. Though I sometimes disagree with him about the Federal government’s role in helping the poor, and what the best way is to stimulate the economy, I admire the fact that he’s trying to fulfill the Biblical commandment to bring justice to the downtrodden.
Yesterday Obama said that he believes gay people have the right to get married. The shouting voices, of course, rushed to declare that “Obama Declares War On Marriage“. And while the conversation about marriage is an important one, we should have the empathy to love Obama and understand his perspective – even when we disagree. Based on what I’ve read in the past few days, it seems like Obama’s position on gay marriage is his attempt to support equality as he understands it, not an attack on God and Christians and all the straight married people. I’m not talking about compromising my own beliefs here. I’m talking about following Jesus’ command to love – not just in a passing, sarcastic, prayer, but in caring enough about our President to empathize with him.
I’m Uncomfortable with the Phrase “Gay Christian”
As it turns out, there’s more than one view on the topic of homosexuality. And I’ve come to realize that I had allowed a theological position to trump Jesus’ command to love my gay neighbors. When I was in college, I was shooting a documentary asking people on the streets of Minneapolis what they thought of organized religion. I met a young man my age who told me that he’d never been in a church because he was gay and didn’t feel welcome. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
Every time a gay marriage vote comes around, I see a lot of things on Facebook that make me sad. See, I believe that God’s original intention for marriage is for it to be a loving, lasting union between a man and a woman. But I also believe that gay people are people too, and it’s ridiculous that I should even have to say that. When an issue becomes all about morality and politics and we fail to love our neighbor, we’ve forgotten the Second Commandment. This is where empathy matters. Empathy puts faces on “the gays”. For a married straight couple, voting against gay marriage really doesn’t change anything. But to gay couples, it makes all the difference in the world. Empathy means putting ourselves in their shoes, and understanding that their desire for marriage doesn’t come from a devious plot to destroy straight marriages, but rather from a desire to have the best lives for themselves and the people they love.
It turns out, there are gay Christians. I have no idea what it would be like to be gay, and to try to follow Jesus at the same time. I do know that I need to love gay Christians. Part of loving my neighbor means caring about their lives, even if their lifestyle is different than my understanding of God’s ideal.
(Also, I’m sorry for all the times I’ve used “gay” as a generic derogatory adjective. I shouldn’t have done that.)
If You Support Abortion, You Want to Murder Babies
As the father of an unborn child (and a born one), I firmly believe that human life begins long before the baby exits the mother ship. I understand enough about abortion to know that it can be a terrible thing that tears apart families, leaves lasting emotional scars on mothers, and destroys beautiful potential. I love my neighbor, even if he’s not even born yet. However, this does not give me an excuse to hate everyone who disagrees with me. As it turns out, abortion is a complicated issue. And I’ve seen conservative Christians – in our desire to protect the unborn – point fingers at judgment at those on the other side of the “issue”.
Some people believe that life doesn’t begin the moment a sperm hits an egg. They don’t hate families and children; they think the best thing for children is for them to be born only to mothers who are ready (as ready as anyone can ever be for parenthood). For many women, an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy can be a sentence to permanent poverty. There are people who promote birth control (including abortion) because they believe that it’s the right thing to do. If I label them as “baby murderers”, then I no longer am loving them. Until recently, it had not occurred to me that people who support abortion might be something other than one-dimensional villains. That perhaps, they’re trying to do the right thing, even if their understanding of what’s right is different than my own. .
Too Bad You’re Poor, You Should Have Thought of That Before You Were Born
One side-effect of listening to too much talk radio is a justification of racism, arrogance, and all-around prejudice. For some strange reason the same people who promote “traditional family values” also support the elevation of America and Americans above all other citizens of the world. Before I knew it, I’d hear someone complain about “Mexicans sneaking across the borders and taking our jobs”, and I’d just nod stupidly in agreement. How dare they make a desperate attempt to escape violence, injustice, and abject poverty! How dare they attempt to provide for their families! I’d see something in the news about a terrorist, and I’d nod stupidly and think “What do you expect from a Muslim? Of course they’re terrorists.” I’d accept it when the Right-Wingers said that every true Muslim secretly wants to destroy America. I’d listen while the same people promoting Christian values defended the idea that people on welfare are lazy leeches. And suddenly, I hated an entire swath of the globe. Yes, the Bible says to defend Israel, but would you believe me if I told you that there are Palestinian Christians too?
The Bible says a lot about defending and protecting the poor and oppressed. Yet somehow, I allowed “American Capitalism” to trump Christian love. It was so much easier to label and dismiss entire groups of people, along with their problems and hopes and dreams, rather then seeing them as collections of individuals each in need of Jesus’ love. And if followers of Jesus won’t show God’s love, who will?
I Don’t Think Jesus Wants Me To Hate Anyone
I recently read a study that said atheists are more likely to be compassionate than believers. It said that when Christians do show charity, they are more often motivated by reputation and doctrine than by compassion. This reminded me of a story Jesus told, about how religious people refused to help someone in need. While they carefully followed every Biblical command and went out of their way to honor God by not sinning, they completely missed the point of love. The only person who would help was a foreigner, a non-believer, a hated second-class citizen. I think we’re like those religious people sometimes. We hold carefully to Biblical standards of morality, but fail to show empathy to the hurting people around us. Holding Biblical morality is very important. Sin is a serious issue, serious enough that Jesus had to died to deal with it. But if someone else’s sin is my excuse to hate them, then I’m sinning too.
It’s hard for me to not hate people. I often catch myself thinking and saying things that I know Jesus wouldn’t like. But hopefully, as I continue to spend time with Him, that will continue to change. As it turns out, empathy is a beautiful thing.