During my recent tour to Israel the group visited Bethlehem. While there we went to a gift shop run by Palestinian Christians. Tim, our guide, told us that Palestinian Christians have a hard life. Tim didn’t mention the conditions under which Palestinians in general live, but just by looking out the bus windows we could see that things aren’t so good. Compared to Israeli areas, buildings are more dilapidated, cars are older and fewer in number, and more rubbish is visible. “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” but, from what we saw, at least some of its residents may find bread hard to come by.

It was apt in a way that the place of Jesus’ birth is relatively impoverished. He is the one who, as Philippians 2 puts it,

“though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.”

He was not born to royalty, or even to a well-established family in reasonably prosperous circumstances, but, as Deborah Smith Douglas puts it, “to a transient girl in an occupied country in an improvised shelter not even meant for human habitation” (‘The Poverty of God,’ Weavings, Nov./Dec. 2003). The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were surely intentional. As Douglas puts it,

“The whole amazing mystery of the Incarnation is about nothing else: out of unimaginable love God desires the deepest imaginable solidarity with our radical and inescapable insecurity.”

We all are insecure, of course, even though we defend against our lack of security by denial. Evading awareness of how little security we have is part of the modernist project: Charles Taylor describes us as having constructed “buffered selves” that minimize our sense of vulnerability. We Americans have taken this project of buffering to extremes, using both wealth and empire to quell the discomfort inherent in being creatures for whom our next breath could be the last. Douglas asks how such strategies affect our ability to appreciate what God has done:

“How can we, who go to such lengths to deny our own vulnerability, hope to see the astounding vulnerability of God in the Incarnation? Can we even want to encounter divinity become powerless? Can we even begin to imagine the total ‘self-emptying’ (see Phil 2:7) that Jesus undertook in love in order to ‘live and die as one of us’?”

Our tour may have brought us closer to Jesus in some respects–by showing us the land in which he lived, by taking us places important in his narrative, and by teaching us about his culture. This trip didn’t overcome the gap between the vulnerability we avoid and the vulnerability he embraced, though. One problem was that we traveled as first-world tourists who were provided with accommodations at the opposite extreme from the humble stable celebrated in the nativity story. Fortunately, we were occasionally reminded of the privilege which surrounded us. The bathroom accommodations were often enough so primitive (men were regularly sent behind one set of bushes, women behind another; in one emergency, the facility was two umbrellas by the side of the road) that we became very grateful whenever an actual toilet was available. One day in Jerusalem we took a shortcut through an area where trucks were unloading garbage. We hurried past as quickly as possible, but I was glad that my nose had the opportunity to sniff aromas that were probably much more like what Jesus smelled than anything I’ll ever encounter in church. Of course, these brief episodes didn’t expose us to poverty in anything like the way that Jesus encountered it.

One question I’m left with after the trip is what am I going to do about that? Am I going to respond to Christ’s vulnerability on our behalf by becoming more vulnerable myself?  I’m not thinking so much here about risking my safety as I am about being willing to look unflinchingly at the sufferings of others, even when doing so discomforts me. Am I willing to reach out to them in love? I’ve certainly done some of this, but nowhere like what Jesus did. I certainly can do more. To follow him is to tag along even when he’s on his way to be with the poor, weak, and needy.

"The Nativity" by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.

“The Nativity” by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.

 

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

I’ve been thinking some about empathy recently. I read an article written a few years ago by Paul Bloom arguing that empathy is an inadequate guide for morality.  I also ran across an Atlantic article by Coner Friedersdorf about barriers to empathy in an age of social media. Finally, in reading the Passion account during Holy week, I was reminded of Jesus’ empathic response upon entering Jerusalem. This post will focus on the first of these sources, Paul Bloom’s account of the limitations of empathy.

Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, describes empathy as being “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate.” In other words, we are more likely to respond empathically to those like us, we ignore most instances of suffering, and our empathic responses aren’t proportionate to the number of victims. Bloom notes that empathy is easily evoked by the presence of an identifiable sufferer–Baby Jessica, for instance, or Natalee Holloway–but is less likely to occur if there is no tear-stained or otherwise troubled victim. If empathy is our only way of determining what problems we care about, the absence of such a sufferer may leave us indifferent to important issues. Will Californians care about the water crisis if no one is actually thirsty, for example? Will we address climate change when the victims are mostly those who haven’t been born yet?

Bloom acknowledges that experiencing some small measure of empathy does motivate us to help others. He thinks we have enough empathy for this purpose, but are instead lacking in good sense. Thus, tons of toys were sent to Newtown after the school shooting there, even though the town officials had no use for them and asked that no more be sent. Yet children are suffering in countless other ways–hunger, homelessness, abuse, sex trafficking, pollution–and most of us don’t feel moved to help in any way. Rather than increasing empathy, Bloom wants us to increase our deliberation and calculation concerning the needs that surround us.

I wonder, though, whether Bloom isn’t thinking of empathy too narrowly. Primatologist Frans DeWaal, in The Age of Empathy, distinguishes between the basic responses that serve as a foundation for empathy even in primitive mammals (mimicry and emotional contagion) somewhat less basic responses (concern for others and consolation of those in distress), and the advanced capacities that only humans and a few other species are capable of (perspective-taking, helping targeted to the sufferer’s needs). Aren’t the limitations that Bloom describes largely characteristic of empathy shorn of these advanced capacities, that is, without sufficient perspective-taking or properly targeted helping?  The more advanced empathic capacities would for the most part keep us from sending toys where they aren’t needed or rushing to disaster sites unequipped to offer help.

I have not done well recently at providing relief for those in distress (or, as Bloom would have it, at addressing the larger societal issues that are impacting or will impact the quality of life, even if they don’t produce clearly identifiable victims). I did much better when I was a caretaker for my father during his last few years of mental and physical deterioration. Since his death, all I’ve done is make an occasional donation to organizations like World Renew and Christ House. Is my inaction due to lack of empathy? Or am I just not deliberating carefuly about how best to help?

In the past several months, I have in fact deliberated some and have done some planning. I know where the local food bank is, and how to volunteer. I am familiar with a local homeless ministry that would welcome my help. Why haven’t I taken the next step? I’ve told myself it’s because I’m busy. I’m starting to think that it has more to do with insufficient empathy, though. I know there are hungry and homeless people in the community, but I haven’t met any of them personally. When I think of them, my emotional response is less an empathic ‘feeling with’ them in their suffering and more a dull guilt over having pushed them out of my mind.

So, my plan at this point is not to deliberate more about why volunteering would be a good thing. Instead, I’ll regularly bring to mind images of the homeless or hungry and think about what it must be like to be them. Will that produce sufficient empathy to get me to do something for them? We’ll see. I just know that thinking about what I could do hasn’t gotten me anywhere