empathy and culpability

This week I realized that my capacity for empathy is greatest when those who are hurting are the farthest removed from me. My sense of empathy can be debilitating at times. The murder of Michael Brown in Fergusen, Missouri, among many recent black victims of police violence has bummed me out. But all I've done with my sadness is retweet, write a blog, and pray. The situation in Gaza, same thing, including writing a blog. The Islamist fanatics in northern Iraq, same thing, the blog. I haven't really considered myself an empathetic guy until recently. I think I go through phases, then I harden up. It's very difficult to stay soft hearted, hopeful, and open-handed after a few weeks of evil in the news.

As I processed some of these thoughts with my wife, she reminded me that my empathy can be sparse at times at home. As I rode my bike home today, I wondered how it is possible for me to be so empathetic to those at a distance and not so much to those near. I think it has to do with my degree of guilt. The pain of those far away is simple. The pain of those near me is complicated, because I played a part in causing it. And if I am to blame, I need to defend myself, explaining away the extenuating circumstances that exonerate me, and shift the blame to those who are hurting.

At that point in my thinking, the scales fell from my eyes, so to speak. We are all doing this around the world. Some white Americans don't want to hear about white privilege. Some want to blame Mike Brown for jaywalking or shoplifting. Some want to talk about how the black community should be happy it's not the 1920's or the 1850's when the pain and injustice could have been even worse. They can't believe blacks are still complaining.

Israel with the most modern military technology in the region is defended by those who claim the fanatics on the reservation called Gaza have only themselves to blame. It's the same claim used to justify the genocide perpetuated in American history against Native Americans. God has given the land to us new folks and your pain of being resettled and dehumanized is not our problem. If only they would quit being upset about being dehumanized. Plus they are causing a great deal of stress here.

I am certain there are racist cops in Ferguson who are wonderful people, great to their families, and a positive contributor to their small slice of community, church, little league, charity. I am certain there are many wonderful Israelis. I am certain there are wonderful Palestinians. I am certain there are great family guys fighting for ISIL. There were great guys who fought for the Third Reich. The thing is we are capable of so much good and simultaneously so much evil. We can in equal measure bring joy and pain.

As a family man, now married twenty years, I'm still learning the most redemptive response to a cry of pain I cause is to own it and apologize for it. Defensiveness slows down healing. All the good things we do, do not replace an apology, an ownership of the pain causing, repentance and contrition.

This goes for megachurch pastors as well. Not every person crying "Ouch" is a demonic distraction. If our first presumption when people cry out is they are overreacting or pretending or whining instead of concern for their pain, we've lost touch with our common humanity. Jesus, the supposed God of most Americans, taught that to love our neighbor is to love him, to serve those in need it so serve him, to absorb their swings of anger is to emulate his sacrifice as humanity attacked him on Calvary.

It's hard to stay soft hearted, compassionate, and open handed. It's what I'm called to do. It's the path of irrationality. Self-preservation is rational. Love for our enemy is irrational. Sometimes loving our neighbor is irrational as well. But love changes the world for the better. Forgiveness changes the world for the better, see Rwanda and South Africa. Repentance changes the world for the better. Inclusion, no longer speaking of them but only speaking of us, changes the world for better. Irrationality changes the world for the better.

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