Losing and Finding Sheep: Empathy

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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