On The Church, Empathy and Our Desperate Search for a New Way Forward

we cant
Note: This was written prior to grand jury decision regarding the death of Eric Garner. While he’s not specifically mentioned in this essay, his death is certainly on my heart as I post this now. May we find a new way forward. Together.

As many of you know, I grew up in Ferguson.

The school I attended was a mile from the now smoldering ruins of one of the twelve burned out buildings that inhabit this beautiful city. These buildings are a visual reminder of racial division and systemic injustice, and these frustrations have spilled out onto our streets in the forms of riots and peaceful protests.

As the city I was reared in was in upheaval, and as I followed social media, one thing became more and more apparent to me; our country, and our church is losing the ability to empathize with others.

to killEmpathy. The unique ability that humanity possesses to, as Harper Lee once wrote in her classic To Kill A Mockingbird, “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.”

As a 3rd generation pastor and a 4th generation Christian, on an ever-increasing basis, I am experiencing this lack of empathy within the Church Universal.

Over and over again, our pastors and laity find themselves, on so many issues, getting caught into the mindset that there is “us” and “them.” As we continually divide ourselves, the gap between us grows deeper and wider.

When the world is black and white, we cannot empathize.

We can only segregate.

We can only isolate.

We can only divide into two camps; each camp tossing labels and generalizations like hand grenades with the innocent ones getting injured by the shrapnel created by our words and actions.

We, however, are not a people of verbal and theological violence. We are a church of peace, and empathy must become, once more, the cornerstone of our faith. For it’s empathy that will allow us to have a reasonable and gracious dialogue because it’s empathy which allows us to find common ground.

Empathy takes us from the black and white and into a world filled with color and beauty.

We must make empathy a priority.

Western culture is changing quickly, and the good people who fill her seats have been caught up in this cultural shift. What once worked and made sense to the church no longer does. Our future, once secure, known, and comfortable has become unknown with fear replacing security.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other.

In recent years, I have watched as denominations and churches begin the endless process of fortification.

These being the church’s attempts to protect ourselves against the threats outside our walls, and being fueled by a blind determination to defend our “rights.” The difficulty in this lay within the Biblical reality that rights are not promised, and instead we are commanded only to love and forgive.

We follow a God who gave up his throne to become lower than the lowest servant. We serve a Savior who ignored cleanliness and sabbath rules to heal, restore and empathize with those on the margins.

My tradition, the Church of the Nazarene was formed out of this empathy. Our forefathers and mothers filled the streets through a determination to listen to the songs of the suffering. Only a Christ-filled empathy drives people to this.

Only the light of the Gospel can drive away the fear of the other, which keeps us from our command to go and make disciples. For what on this earth should we fear?

We are promised that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Rom 8:38-39)

Do we actually believe this?

So may we be a church which chooses empathy over condemnation. May we remember people are not to be feared. May we invite those who think, believe or behave differently than us to speak in our midst. May we listen to their stories, because the only way to drive out fear is to replace labels with names.

For in learning names and hearing stories, we are reminded once more that we are not surrounded by enemies but fellow-humans- men and women-who are all created in the image of God.

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