It’s all too easy to engage in caustic, unproductive church-bashing. My prayers is that this piece avoids this, and that readers take my words to heart. I love the Church, because the Church is Christ’s body. It is precisely because I love the Church that I feel as I do.
The current American church is anemic, and the vital nutrient it desperately seems to lack is that of empathy. I recognize this is a broad, sweeping remark, and that many of us can immediately conjure up counter-examples, but there is indeed a sickness pervading American Christianity. The tricky bit is that the antidote to this disease is tough to swallow, and its side effects frequently keep people from daring to take it.
The arena in which the Church seems to confront this illness most frequently and intensely revolves around politics. Arguments are made based on allegiances to what individuals so often believe to be the greatest, most perfect way. Any who oppose these views or affiliate with a different group are seen as idiotic, bigoted, evil, or insane. These attacks pull believers into despicable wars of words, devoid of the character of Christ. I myself have been guilty as any in this regard.
I propose empathy is a salve to the vitriol. But to truly envision and attempt to understand the experience of another, there are several mental steps that need to be followed.
1. Describe, don’t judge.
So often, we understand people, cultures, and beliefs through thoughts that are laden with judgments. Whether accurate or inaccurate, judgments can often obscure the truth or the core of the matter. To increase empathy, practice describing things without judging them.
2. Ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?”
Stubbornness and refusal to thoughtfully consider other options are indicative of a lack of engagement in empathy. You may or may not end up changing your opinion, but by at least opening yourself up to the opportunity of change, you may begin to understand where other people are coming from.
3. Don’t buy cheap narratives
It is so easy to buy into the cheap narratives that infect our rhetoric. “Immigrants are dangerous thugs.” “All Republicans are racist.” Putting too much stock in cheap beliefs create dangerous, rigid opinions that leave no room for compassion or understanding toward people who disagree with you.
4. Remember the dignity of all people
Everyone is made in the image of God and therefore retains dignity and worth that is not based on their beliefs, their merit, or their attitude. Their dignity stems from and remains rooted in the Creator. If you find yourself justifying your policy decisions because they stem from rhetoric that belittles, mocks, and devalues entire groups of people, rethink things. Do you support reducing entitlement programs because you genuinely believe there are better, more sustainable options? Or is it because you are bitter towards communities of people—whom you have not met—who supposedly cavort to game the system and deprive you of what’s yours? Likewise, do you wish to expand entitlements through tax increases to the rich because you believe it brings aid to the needy? Or do you support it because it you have internalized a vicious hatred for those who hold power and believe that you’re morally superior to the evil wealthy tyrants?
Empathy is costly. It asks that we exhaust mental and emotional energy on behalf of others who are enduring hardship and suffering. It asks that we this not only for friends, allies, or members of our own group; it asks that we do this for everyone. The next time you find yourself belittling or mocking someone different, ask and pray for an empathic response to their experience. If it spreads, maybe this cure will catch.
Matt Coldagelli (’14) majored in English writing and psychology at Calvin. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He watches an absurd amount of TV and is a certified craft beer snob. Matt lives with his lovely wife in Oak Park, IL.