I wrote recently about empathy–specifically, about psychologist Paul Bloom’s delineation of the limits of empathy in prompting responses to human suffering. In that post I referenced an article on empathy by Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic. I’ll discuss that article in this post.

Unlike Bloom, Friedersdorf thinks we lack sufficient empathy for others. In particular, he notes that traditionalist Christians tend to lack understanding and compassion for homosexuals, and vice-versa. He notes the damage sustained in both groups–traditionalist Christians being denounced as bigots and told they can’t act on their beliefs, homosexuals being harassed and subject to hate crimes. Each group is prone to empathize only with sufferers in their camp. Friedersdorf thinks this is understandable:

“What everyone ought to be able to understand is why some members of both groups feel under siege—and why members of both groups understandably don’t always empathize with one another. It is due to the fact that there is no such thing as a fully shared American culture: Life here is an amalgam of lots of subcultures that only partially overlap. People pay disproportionate attention to what affects them personally.”

As members of  a particular subculture, we are likely to have much more information about the travails of those in our subculture than of those outside it. Trying to understand the mindset of religious conservatives, Friedersdorf remarks that “your notion of America’s cultural landscape is shaped by stories of traditionalists being denounced as bigots, compared to segregationists, and having their ability to provide for their families threatened for publicly opposing gay marriage. Many sitcoms, dramas, and newscasts you watch on national television portray social liberals as enlightened and relatable, and religious people as hateful yokels.” Turning to those in the LGBT community, he notes that their Facebook feeds are likely to give information about hate crimes and other acts of discrimination against gays and lesbians but not about the struggles of Christians targeted for their beliefs.

Friedersdorf is certainly right that each of us is much more likely to receive information that our subculture considers important that information of primary interest to other societal groups. We tend to receive the Facebook feeds and blog posts of those with whom we are likely to agree; we consult news sources slanted towards our view of the world. The particular information we receive drastically affects our perception of what is happening in society. Additionally, each of us interprets whatever information we receive on the basis of our beliefs. When a few weeks ago I explained to a very conservative woman that Baltimore was rioting because a young black man had died in police custody, she replied that the riots were ridiculous because everybody knows that such young men die all the time of things like drug abuse. It took some effort to counter her preconceived notion that Freddie Gray was not responsible for his own death.

So, we see and empathize with those like us, but seldom see or empathize with the plight of the other–the one whose race or gender or beliefs or affiliations are different from ours. The limited range to which our empathy extends manifests itself again and again in our conversations and actions. The irony is that one of the groups described by Friedersdorf–conservative Christians–are disciples of one who both taught and practiced otherwise.

“But I tell you, love your enemies,” said Jesus, “and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44).” Shortly before his crucifixion at the hands of the religious authorities and their followers, Jesus expressed his compassion for the city where his death would occur: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matt. 23:37).” I can hardly imagine having such compassion for those plotting to kill me. As disinclined as I am to try to understand and empathize with those unlike me, how can I turn away from Christ’s example? I pray that God will teach me how to have this sort of love for everyone. Then perhaps my empathy will extend its range far beyond the fence line bounding my ingroup.

Hen and Chicks Mosaic, Church of Dominus Flevit, Mount of Olives

Hen and Chicks Mosaic, Church of Dominus Flevit, Mount of Olives

Goodness is harder to portray convincingly than is wickedness. Actors playing evildoers can revile in coarseness and decadence, but those playing good characters often seem inauthentic, shallow, or boring. I recently saw Philomena, the recent Stephen Fears film about an elderly Irish woman’s quest to find the son that she lost to adoption. As portrayed by Judy Dench, Philomena Lee, the title character, is a truly good person who is at the same time genuine, deep, and interesting.

Philomena is a retired nurse who harbors a painful secret. As a teenager she had become pregnant—a result of innocence more than carnality—and was sent away, to an abbey. The nuns forced her to toil in the abbey’s laundry, restricted access to her son, and eventually adopted him out without even informing her that they were doing so. As the movie opens, she laments that it has been 50 years since her son’s birth and she has no idea of what happened to him.

Philomena has sought information about her son from the abbey, but is told that the records about his adoption were destroyed in a fire. It takes Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist who reluctantly agrees to help her look for her son so that he can write a human interest story about their search, to learn that the abbey actually burned the records intentionally. He also learns that most adoptions from the abbey in the early 50s were to Americans, so the two of them head the US to find her son.


Sixsmith looks down on Philomena, seeing her as simple and uncultivated. Admittedly, her taste in books and television is lowbrow, and she is awestruck by the sort of hotel and airline amenities that Sixsmith takes for granted. Her virtues become increasingly evident, though, so that even the jaded Sixsmith comes to respect and appreciate them.

She has a firm faith in God, unshaken by the injustices she suffered at the hands of the nuns, who were supposedly the agents of God. She thinks the sex she had as a young girl was sinful—no surprise there—but she speculates that hiding the fact that she had an illegitimate child is a bigger sin. This suggests that she views God as less concerned with legalism and more with forthrightness. She is kind to everyone she meets, including the porters and wait-staff that Sixsmith ignores. Though she doesn’t minimize the harm done her in the abbey, on a number of occasions she defends the nuns and recalls kindnesses that had been shown her. She seems to be practicing what Paul Farmer calls a “hermeneutic of generosity.” Eventually it becomes evident that one nun in particular had kept Philomena and her son from reuniting. Ignoring that nun’s vitriol, Philomena says “I forgive you.” Sixsmith is astounded, saying “You can’t just say that.” She replies, “Do you think that was easy?” She adds that she doesn’t want to live with bitterness and resentment.

It’s marvelous to see a person of such faith, one who displays the fruits of the Spirit, on film. Despite Sixsmith’s sophistication and Philomena’s simplicity, it is he who ends up being changed the most by their relationship. True goodness can be transformative. Would that all of us who, like Philomena, profess the Christian faith would manifest the effects of our faith as well as she does.