[Partially adapted from Chapter 7 in Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]
In the spring of 1963, civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, sought to end Jim Crow laws by participating in mass sit-ins and marches. The government’s response included tear gas, arresting children still in high school, and—captured in iconic imagery that is now part of our nation’s psyche—deploying dogs and water cannons against peaceful demonstrators. Opinion among formerly disinterested members of the public, in the South and across the nation, began to shift as newspapers and televisions showed images of men, women, and even children being attacked unjustly.
Neutrality or ambivalence is harder to sustain in the face of such evocative images of suffering. When our empathy is engaged, our empathy can move us toward justice.
Empathy is a part of the Imago Dei in us, the Image of God in which we were created and which all humans possess. Experiencing empathy is a characteristic of the God who created us and allows us to be social, relational, and caring human beings. The gift of empathy is the capacity that allows us to be in relationships that include the physical but also move into the spaces of emotion and spirit. The ability to empathize is what makes it possible for us to truly love one another. If God had not designed us to understand the felt reality of others, it would be impossible to live justly on behalf of others. Without entering into another’s story, we are left to help from the outside, relying on our best intentions, which is often a recipe for doing more harm than good.
In Romans, Paul talked about God’s Spirit living within us, and how the Spirit understands, feels, and knows our struggles and pain even better than we do. That’s a concise definition of empathy: to enter into and share another’s feelings.
The word empathy has roots in the Greek word empatheia (passion, state of emotion), which comes from en (in) and pathos (feeling). Whenever we enter into another’s feelings, something important happens: we value that person more. The converse is true: if we cannot participate in the unique feelings and life experiences of another person, we tend to devalue that individual, viewing him or her dispassionately or as an object.
When we slow down, engage, and are able to enter into the pain and suffering of other people, justice can follow. That often occurs when our empathy is kindled.
Certain images are so iconic, so emotive, that they kindle deep empathy and move us outside ourselves. Eighteenth-century abolitionists made effective use of empathy. A small, emblematic image of a kneeling and shackled slave was created in 1787, ringed by the now-famous question, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This powerful combination of image and text was stamped into pottery, jewelry, and medallions. The logo was designed to help people make the connection between goods they consumed, such as sugar, and the unjust system that produced those goods. As this logo and other empathetic propaganda from the abolitionist movement became more widespread, collectively they began to move public sentiment in favor of the abolitionists’ cause.
Empathy was what carried such people out of the sphere of their own concerns and into an engaged concern for their fellow humans.
Empathy enables us to enter into and share another person’s grief and sorrows, and ultimately stand with the sufferer in his or her need—just as God shares our grief and sorrows. Isaiah 53:4 prophesied of Jesus, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering.”
Having placed the capacity for empathy in humanity as a part of His image, God calls on His people to activate it. We see it often in the Old Testament, especially when God commanded the Israelites to look after the foreigner or the alien—what we might call the immigrant. When God asks His people to care for the foreigner or the alien, He often gives a specific reason such as in these verses:
Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the
cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves
in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That
is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17–18)
God knows that remembrance of Israel’s own past will provide a way to empathize with vulnerable people in their own land. God legislated rules for the nation of Israel to ensure that such vulnerable and dislocated people were treated fairly and had their needs met, based on Israel’s own empathetic understanding of what it is like to live on the margins of a society.
The repeated theme of remembrance was vital.
There is a great deal of empathy in the world. Some have characterized this generation as a “social justice generation,” and in many ways it is easier than ever before to empathize with the victims of injustice in the world.
We need to be cautious of a potential downside, however: empathy can be something we settle for. Empathy is not the goal; it simply carries us into actions that are just. Empathy, when used well, leads to unity and partnership while merely feeling another’s pain can result in paternalistic pity. When that feeling motivates us to extend a hand in friendship, rather than extending handouts, empathy is acting as a means toward the proper end of justice and shalom.
The danger is that we view empathy as the end of our engagement with injustice, rather than the entry point. We can believe that simply feeling another’s pain is the extent of our call.
The connection between empathy and ongoing action is clear in the life of Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Prize–winning author Elie Wiesel. Wiesel has spent his life fighting for justice, writing more than fifty books, speaking, and conducting leadership camps for students designed to break down the ethnic or national barriers that exist between them.
Wiesel has been instrumental in galvanizing the message of genocide prevention around the act of remembering. He believes that some things that happened cannot be allowed to happen again; we cannot stand by and watch. “My goal is always the same,” he has said: “to invoke the past as a shield for the future.”
This is made explicit in a striking piece of art embedded in the stone exterior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The bold text implores,
Think about what you saw
(While smaller lines of text spell out our responsibility to remember.)
The next time you witness hatred
The next time you see injustice
The next time you hear about genocide . . .
Think about what you saw
Wiesel understands the importance of empathy as we address injustices in all their forms. There is no finish line where we can stop thinking about others, stop empathizing with others.
Empathy is an engine that powers justice. It is ingrained in us because God placed it there, and it is designed to help carry justice forward.