The word empathy is by its very nature a descriptor that sounds docile and tepid. A quiet and unassuming characteristic shown by people some might consider weak do-gooders operating on the fringes. People who kneel down to treat the afflicted. Devout Christians lifting their hands in supplication to the Almighty. Writers of delicate prose and poetry. People who tear up as they remember serving others.
Never fearless leaders who diligently and forthrightly overcome obstacles to accomplish clearly articulated goals. Triumphally. Courageously.
Empathy rarely inspires thousands of followers who, filled with great purpose and fortitude, achieve a mountain top experience. Never like the demeanor of heroes, conquerors, narcissistic entrepreneurs, and media personalities that revel in their fame and influence over others. No matter how misbegotten and egocentric.
As a movement, empathy frequently percolates up through the ranks until it cannot be ignored by even the most powerful.
Through the diligent and ongoing efforts of Saint Paul and others, the Christian phenomenon was accepted by Roman Emperor Constantine I as being so pervasive and influential it could not be ignored or defeated. A religious belief that features, at its core, empathetic interactions with others, was eating away the power of elite Roman leaders.
So, under the principle of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” Constantine issued a decree that Christians could not be persecuted. Then, using the success of Roman cultural absorption principles employed for centuries of territorial expansion, Constantine formalized the relationship through the Council of Nicaea. Which initiated the theological foundations of the church as we know it today. Modified throughout the centuries by influential leaders and various reformers.
The problem, as I see it, is that the Council of Nicaea not only formalized the Christian faith with specific interpretations of scripture, but created creeds and hierarchies that intertwined Roman governmental systems. Maybe that action was necessary for Christianity to survive all the centuries since. But the basics of Christ’s teachings were seriously compromised along the way. Empathy was systematically replaced with rules, governmental systems, indisputable policies, theological dictums, and prescribed ways of pious living.
Jesus never compromised away the value and need for empathy. He never envisioned a system that mirrored the values of the once pagan Roman Empire. Power, dominance, masculine imperatives that overshadowed feminine nurturing and love.
I often wonder what Jesus was thinking while in heaven, looking down at his theoretical followers as they created an institutional monster that eventually bestrode the Western World. Issuing fearsome directives and accumulating enormous wealth and power, such that the institution created in Christ’s name was itself corrupt to the core.
Empathy endures because it must. It endures today even when some Christian churches, emulating the structures and authority of the ancient church, try to push it down. It endures today even when political systems, using the rationale of the ancient church, attempt to spin more ways to convince us to be subservient. To accede to their notion of a dignified social order in which the power elite oversee our lives with actions emanating from their concept of wisdom. Their concept of correctness.
Today’s political and social environment is filled with media-amplified admonitions that call for our acquiescence, that bombastic and simplistic answers to complex issues are better than sensitivity. Better than solutions based on empathetic openness to others. Those behind such fervent invectives require us to respond intelligently, having considered the ways and means for doing more than the mere building of bulwarks.
Below is a list of discussion questions we might consider. To help us refine our arguments in favor of a more sensitive and empathetic world. An inclusive world. The following questions are not exhaustive. Others can be posed as our reflections expand and insights grow.
But for now, what can be done with these?
- Can one be trained to be empathetic? Or are some people naturally empathetic and others can never be?
- Is the sense of empathy characteristic of all those who call themselves TRUE Christians? If not, why not?
- Can a Christian community like a church become more empathetic? If so, how?
- Does understanding the effect a handicap has on a person make others empathetic and therefore more supportive?
- Are there handicaps that cause afflicted persons to be more sensitive and empathetic than others? Can you think of a situation in which a person overtly or covertly living with a handicap positively influenced others?
- Can handicaps cause people to achieve more in life than might have been the case without the handicap? If so, why does that happen?
- Are ordinary changes in life, like aging, a handicap?
- Are addictive behaviors classified as handicaps? Are they worthy of our sensitivity and empathetic feelings and actions?
- Can handicaps be ranked in terms of severity or significance, and therefore deserving of varying forms of empathy?
- Should handicapped people be ranked according to variances such as how the handicap developed, or the extent to which the problem was treated?
- What actions, if any, should Christian churches take to actively recognize and work with congregants and community members with handicaps? If actions are necessary, what should they be? Who in the church should provide them?
- Do some Americans disdain or fear feelings of empathy because in their minds they can diminish national values associated with ambition, competition, financial accomplishment, or the idea of Manifest Destiny based on intrepidness and free enterprise?
I am ready to hear your responses with pen in hand. Let us see where the discussion takes us.
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