Empathy for a world that is still maturing

  • November 29, 2011

There’s a story told, more legend perhaps than fact, about a mayor of a large American city in the late 1960s. It wasn’t a good time for his city. It was facing financial bankruptcy, crime rates were spiralling, its public transportation system was no longer safe at night, the river supplying its drinking water was dangerously polluted, the air was rife with racial tension and there were strikes and street protests almost weekly.

As the story goes, the mayor was flying over the city in a helicopter at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. As the rush-hour bustle and traffic drowned out most everything else, he looked down at what seemed a teeming mess and said to one of his aides: “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a plunger and we could flush this whole mess into the ocean!”

He was being facetious, but I worry that we sometimes subtly think the same thing about our world. Too often we and our churches tend to see the world precisely as a mess, as caught up in mindless trivialization, as self-indulgent, as narcissistic, as short-sighted, as no longer having values that demand self-sacrifice, of worshipping fame, of being addicted to material goods and of being anti-Church and anti-Christian. Indeed, it is common today in our churches to see the world as our enemy.

And, far from feeling heartbroken about it, we feel smug and righteousness as we gleefully witness its downfall: The world is getting what it deserves! Godlessness is its own punishment! That’s what it gets for not listening to us! In this, our attitude is the antithesis of Jesus’ attitude towards the world.

Jesus loved the world. Really? Yes. Is this what the Gospels teach? Yes.

Here’s how the Gospels describe Jesus’ reaction towards the world that rejected Him: As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it saying: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus sees what happens when people try to live without God, the mess, the pain, the heartbreak and, far from rejoicing that the world isn’t working, His heart aches with empathy: If only you could see what you’re doing!

Looking at a world that’s breaking down because of its self-absorption, Jesus responds with empathy, not glee; with understanding, not judgment; with heartache, not rubbing salt in the wounds; and with tears, not good riddance.

Loving parents and loving friends understand exactly what Jesus was feeling at the moment when He wept over Jerusalem. What frustrated, heartbroken parent hasn’t looked at a son or daughter caught up in wrong choices and self-destructive behaviour and wept inside as the words spontaneously formed: If only you could see what you’re doing! If only I could do something to spare you the damage you’re doing to your life by this blindness! If only you could recognize the things that make for peace! But you can’t, and it breaks my heart!

The same is true among friends. True friends don’t rejoice and become gleeful when their friends make bad choices and their lives begin to collapse. Instead there are tears, mingled with anxious empathy, with heartache, with pleading, with prayers. Genuine love is empathic; empathy is never gleeful at someone else’s downfall.

We are asked by our Christian faith to have a genuine love for the world. The world isn’t our enemy. It’s our wayward child and our loved friend who is breaking our heart. That can be hard to see and accept when in fact the world is often belligerent and arrogant in its attitude towards us, when it’s angry with us, when it wrongly judges us and when it scapegoats us. But that’s exactly what suffering children often do to their parents and friends when they make bad choices and suffer the consequences of that. They impute and scapegoat. This can feel very unfair to us, but Jesus’ attitude towards those who rejected and crucified Him invites us to an empathy beyond that.

Kathleen Norris suggests that we look at the world, when it opposes us, in the same way as we look at an angry 17-year-old girl dealing with her parents. At that moment of anger, her parents become a symbolic lightning rod (a safe place) for her to vent her anger and to scapegoat. But absorbing this is a function of adult loving. Good parents don’t respond to the anger of an adolescent child by declaring her their enemy. They respond like Jesus did, by weeping over her.

Moreover, a genuine empathy for the world isn’t just predicated on mature sympathy. Mature sympathy is itself predicated on better seeing the world for what it is. The 17-year-old standing belligerent and angry before her parents isn’t a bad person, she’s just not yet fully grown up.

That’s true too for our world: It’s not a bad place; it’s just far from being a finished and mature one.