By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  September 13, 2014

            As the phone rang in his Gaza home, Ahmed had no idea how profoundly his life was about to change. Ahmed’s son had been killed by an Israeli bullet in the conflict between his beloved Palestine and Israel. Moishe, an Israeli, was calling Ahmed from Jerusalem. Although the two men had never met and stood on opposite sides of a brutal war, they held something vital in common. Fighting back his tears, Moishe shared how his son had been killed in a bombing by a Palestinian teenager. Aside from stark religious, political, and ethnic differences, these two men connected on the level of genuine empathy.
            Empathy is a characteristic often lacking in religious life and Christian witness. Yet, it is a fundamental expression of the authentic witness of Scripture. God amazingly created our minds with the incredible ability to empathize. That is how we emotionally, spiritually, even physically connect with, and feel the experiences of another person in tangible ways. It is why we may be brought to tears when exposed to somebody else’s grief, we may grimace at someone else’s pain, and burst forth into joyous laughter at someone else’s triumph.
            When God created humanity, God breathed into the lifeless clay of the earth and created life—human life. As the image-bearers of our Creator, that breath of God unites all humanity on a deeply spiritual level that transcends distinctions of race, gender, religion, language, or nationality. Empathy is our God-breathed ability to resonate with the humanity of other humans throughout time and across the distance. Empathy unites us as human beings.
            Consider the behaviors, attitudes and expressions that most people label as evil. The brutal reality of murder, exploitation, abuse, slavery, racism, hatred, and inequality are easily justified when whole classes of people, or specific individuals, are reduced to less-than-human status. This is called dehumanization and it lies at the heart all evil. Dehumanization is the essential means by which we can justify treating people as things, exploit others for our personal gain, or kill people by personal choice. Yet, in order for dehumanization to take place, the spirit of empathy breathed into us by God, must be suppressed. It is impossible to harm one with whom we have empathy.
            Religion, even when well-intended, often negligently promotes the very evil it presumes to denounce simply because it seeks to divide and judge, rather than seek the empathy of our shared humanity. When we label someone as evil, reduce them to a status of being worthless due to sin or disgrace, relegate them to being lost because of their religious (or lack of religious) beliefs, or degrade them as less than deserving of God’s love, religion is turning off that God-breathed spirit of empathy.
            Empathy transcends the conflicts that leave us always so bitterly divided. It seeks understanding over conquest. It fuels mutuality over domination. It empowers love where hatred and ambivalence rule. Empathy is the pathway by which we can love one another as Christ first loved us and love our enemies as Christ commanded us to do. It helps us pray for those who persecute us as Christ demonstrated on the cross and minister to people imprisoned, impoverished, alone, and living in fear. Without empathy, there can be no genuine Christianity.
            When Moishe and Ahmed connected as two human fathers grieving the loss of their sons in a bitter war, they were able to see past the religious and political hatred that fueled the conflict and begin a campaign of genuine peace. Followers of Jesus Christ are no different. In this bitter and fragmented world, it is time we let Christ guide our empathy rather than our harsh judgment.