Can I tell you a story about myself that I don’t love? As you read, please keep in mind that this story happened ten years ago when I was a twenty-five-year-old youth pastor, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned and grown a lot in that span of time.
So if we can all agree that this is a safe place, here’s the story.
I once caught a girl in my youth group in possession of illegal drugs at church camp. Obviously, this was a massive violation of the camp’s rules. So I called the girl’s mother and asked her to drive the two hours to the camp to pick up her daughter. The girl broke the rules, and now she had to go home.
That’s not the part I feel embarrassed about. That comes next.
A few weeks later, our youth group was preparing to go on our annual summer mission trip, and I told the girl that because she brought drugs to camp, she was no longer allowed to come with us on the mission trip. She was upset, and she begged me to reconsider. I refused. Later that same evening, the girl’s mother called me at home and asked me to please let her daughter attend the mission trip. She assured me that the girl would not make the same mistake again. She also told me that her daughter had been struggling emotionally and socially throughout the past year, and a weeklong mission trip to serve other people would be exactly what she needed. I remained firm in my decision. Rules were rules, and that was that. The mother became angry, yelling at me over the phone and accusing me of being heartless and not caring about the students in my ministry. The more belligerent she became, the deeper I dug in my heels. By the time the phone call ended (she hung up on me), I was resolved that the girl would go on the mission trip over my dead body.
I stuck to my guns. The family left the church.
End of story.
It would be easy to tell this story and justify my response to this woman and her daughter by saying something like, “Of course I made the right choice. I couldn’t set a precedent for being lenient when kids bring drugs to camp. I had to send a message.” OR “That woman had no right to call me and yell about my being heartless. She should have been more aware of what her daughter was up to.”
Sure. I could justify my response, vilifying the girl or her mother or championing the all-important rules above all else. But I know that’s just my brain trying to protect me from a more terrible truth, which is this: The girl’s mother was right about me; I was heartless. I had no sympathy for her daughter’s struggles or her pain as a mother. I offered no grace, and I felt no pain on their behalf.
If I were to look back on my sixteen years of ministry work and list my top five biggest failures and regrets, that moment would be on the list.
So what went wrong? Why was my posture so rigid? Why was I so uncaring when someone whose genuine struggles came into conflict with my need to be right?
As I look back, the answer seems terribly simple: I harbored no empathy for the girl or her mother. Their struggle was not my struggle, and their problems were not my problems.
If there is anything we can glean from the teachings and ministry of Jesus, it is a deep sense of empathy for other people.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his followers about a time in the future when they will be praised for feeding him when he was hungry, clothing him when he was naked, visiting him when he was in prison. When his followers ask him when they did all those things, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). In other words, when we allow the problems of others to be our problems, we encounter God in that space.
In another place, Jesus says to his followers, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
One of the early leaders in the Jesus movement—a guy named Paul—famously wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
The New Testament—the teachings of Jesus as well as those of his earliest followers—is drenched in empathy. You could even argue that empathy is the great Christian mandate—to love others as we love ourselves (John 13:34-35). It’s pretty much indisputable that, if you are a follower of Jesus, empathy is a really big deal.
Which is why it is so regrettable that I blew it ten years ago with the girl and the mission trip—it’s the one part of my job (and the job of every Jesus follower) that is indispensable.
(You don’t have to point out the irony that I kicked somebody who needed help out of a mission trip when the whole point of a mission trip is to help people. I’ve already had that conversation with myself more than a few times.)
So what should I have done? I don’t know, but anything would have been better than what I did.
I could have listened a little more carefully, paying more attention to the pain and fear in the mother’s voice instead of the belligerence and anger that I heard.
I could have worked with the mother to create suitable compromise—perhaps she could come on the mission trip with us and spend time with her daughter in that environment.
I could have tried to see the situation through someone else’s eyes rather than just my own.
I’ve been thinking about what might create a lack of empathy in a person—or a group of people—and I have a few potential culprits. Keep in mind that I’m not a psychologist, and there are probably people who could provide a much more well-informed analysis of this than I could. More than anything, this simply comes from what I have observed.
So here are some things that I have witnessed create a lack of empathy in the hearts of individuals:
1. Moral Superiority
This was certainly the case for me in the story above. My problem with the girl and her mother began when I felt annoyed that the girl brought drugs to camp. I mentally accused the girl of being careless and selfish and the mother of being a negligent enabler. Of course, I have no idea if these classifications were accurate—I never tried to learn enough to know. I made up my mind and moved on with my life.
When I have observed people lacking in empathy, a sense of moral superiority is typically where it seems to begin. People say things like, “Well if folks would just follow the rules, they wouldn’t have these troubles,” or “I’m so tired of people always asking for a handout.” I’m sure you could add your own examples, but the result is the same: When we feel morally superior to other people, it is impossible to feel empathy for them.
2. Lack of Connection
This is linked with the first point—moral superiority and lack of connection both come from having little to no contact with the people we are observing. There is no nuance, no room for individual stories—we peddle in stereotypes and generalizations. It’s all we have time for.
Looking back at my own story, I had no idea what life was like at home for the girl and her mother. Truth be told, I had only met the mother one time, and it was at the pre-camp meeting where parents signed all of the permission slips and paid the camp fees. If she were standing in line behind me a Starbucks tomorrow, I wouldn’t know it. I had no connection with this family, and that’s how I treated them.
When I hear people making sweeping generalizations about people who are different from them—racially, religiously, sexually—my first assumption is that the person making the statement probably doesn’t know very many people who represent the group they are talking about.
Most homophobic people I know have very few—if any—LGBTQ family members.
Most people I’ve encountered who are afraid of Muslims don’t know any Muslims.
Most people I know who claim that racism isn’t a problem in their world don’t know anyone who has been the victim of racism.
It’s easy to assume that something isn’t a problem when it’s never been a problem for you.
I’ve never had a problem with drugs, so I didn’t bother to feel empathy for a young girl who did.
3. Fear of Culpability
I felt angry when the girl’s mother accused me of being heartless. She was trying to place some of the blame for the situation at my feet, and I resented it. But deep in my subconscious, I knew I felt angry because, as I said before, she was right about me. My heart was cold toward this family, but I did not want to admit it. I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s pain. Nobody made the girl bring drugs to camp, and I was not interested in carrying any of the blame for this situation. How dare this woman drag me into their family drama?
But I was responsible—I was responsible for my posture toward them. I had a certain amount of power, and I misused it.
When someone talks about social issues like racism or poverty, we often resist the discussion because, deep in our hearts, we don’t want to bear the blame for someone else’s struggles. If there is poverty, am I culpable because I am not poor? If there is racism, and I culpable because I am a member of the race that represents the majority (i.e., white)?
So those are the three things that seem to cause a lack of empathy, as far as I have observed.
This is all a big long way of saying that I’m starting a new blog series that I’m calling “Them.” I want to explore the different ways that we fail to empathize with people who are unlike us and then perhaps the ways we can seek to bridge those gaps. I’ve already written about this kind of thing in a couple of previous posts (“I Am Not the Gatekeeper” and “Tolerance is Weak”), but I’m hoping to take a deeper look at the whole thing. I’m not sure there will be any definitive solutions, but I would at least like to pose the questions and perhaps share a bit of what I’ve been learning.
Last week, blogger and founder of the Gay Christian Network Justin Lee tweeted this:
“Sometimes I think the hardest thing is to stand up for truth and justice without getting discouraged by some folks' lack of empathy.”
You realize he’s talking about Christians, right?
He’s talking about how Christians fail to see the needs and pains of other people because we often feel morally superior, lack connection with those who are suffering, and are attempting to avoid feeling culpable for their problems.
He’s talking about Christians who voice coldness or hostility toward people who are LGBTQ.
He’s talking about Christians who tell the victims of racism that they haven’t actually suffered.
He’s talking to Christians who seem far more interested in protecting their own way of life than in helping someone else improve theirs.
Essentially—as I read it—he seems to be talking about anyone who is more interested in protecting the “Us” than in serving the “Them.”
But that’s not how Jesus operates, and it should not be how his followers operate, either.
For Jesus, there is no such thing as “Us and Them”—for Jesus, there has only ever been “Us.”
That’s what this blog series will be about—seeking to find “Us” where there was once only “Them.”
So in the meantime, may we hold empathy for those who feel the cold sting of otherness, especially within the faith communities that should be places of safety and warmth.
May we step down from the moral high ground and instead see people as they are—as beloved children of God who are probably trying their best.
May we learn about the people we do not understand, to see the world as they see it and learn what they love, fear, hope for, and dream about. May we find connection where there has only been alienation.
And may we forfeit our need to avoid culpability and own our place in the story, even if it is uncomfortable for us to do so. May we admit when we have been wrong and when we have benefited from the struggles of others.
And may the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with us as we open our hearts to “Them” as they draw closer to being “Us.”