A series of recent events have highlighted the divisions in our society. In the church, we often see these divisions in the questions of women’s ordination, worship and music styles, even in our approach to Scripture and prophecy. In the world outside the church, this polarization has been evident both in Brexit, the British Exit From the European Union, and here in the United States, by our recent presidential election. It’s not just that people have differing opinions, but that they differ so radically from one another, and it generates such animus against the other side, against “them.”
What crystallized all this for me was an analysis by a young pastor of what motivated those who voted for Donald Trump for president. It was all about how deluded “they” were, much like the dominant media narrative. The dominant media were not merely shocked, they were traumatized by Trump’s election. The reaction of the dominant media culture in Britain reacted similarly to the Brexit vote. And I have seen a similar reaction among many in the church who favored women’s ordination. And judging by the General Conference’s “Unity” document, those who oppose it may be feeling the same. The gap between “us” and “them” has seldom been greater.
This presents the church, especially, with an almost existential challenge. “The church is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and his mission is to carry the gospel to the world.” Acts of the Apostles, page 9. How do we propose to reach the world with the gospel, to communicate with those who do not share our understanding of God effectively, when we cannot effectively communicate with our fellow church members who hold differing opinions on politics, on women’s ordination, on the basic approach to Scripture itself? Our existence is predicated upon “us” being able to reach out and connect with “them.”
The bridge between “us” and “them” is empathy.
By empathy, I mean the ability to see the world as the other person sees it. It is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy means to share that worldview, those feelings about reality. Empathy means that you understand it, but you may not share it. Let me give you an example.
It is possible to empathize with a suicide bomber — to understand what motivates him or her — while not at all sympathizing with the person. From their point of view, westernization, modernization, with its pornography, its sexual promiscuity, its alcohol consumption, and general irreverence for everything that is holy, threatens the very fabric of civilization. They believe Allah will punish society, and do so through human means, at least partially. They also believe that to be an instrument of that punishment will give them great reward. And the more they sacrifice in order to accomplish what they see as the will of Allah, the greater will be their reward in paradise. There is more to it, but this is the basic idea.
While I understand that point of view, I neither share it nor sympathize with it. But before I can begin to deal effectively with the suicide bomber, I need to understand what motivates him or her.
So again, the bridge between “us” and “them” is empathy. There is nothing new about this, but it is easy to lose sight of. For example, in seminary they teach that evangelism means meeting a person’s felt needs. The need they feel may not be their greatest need. And that is where we sometimes make a mistake. We want to tell them what their greatest need is, but they only want to hear how to deal with what they feel is the greatest need.
The same is true with our fellow church members. Whether you support women’s ordination or oppose it, we cannot move forward together until we build that bridge within the church itself. If you support women’s ordination, and you want that to eventually be realized, then you need to understand the opponents.
This need to empathize is literally at the heart of the gospel. Christ became a human being so that we could empathize with God, and so that we could realize that God fully empathized with us — he really understands us.
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are.
Note that Hebrews tells us that Jesus utterly empathizes of us, that is he not only understands our struggles, he has sympathized with us. He has shared those struggles by allowing himself to become a human being with all of our limitations and to suffer temptation. When it comes to sin, he does not sympathize with our reasons for sinning, but he does understand them. So when we face temptation he empathizes with us. When we fail, when we “miss the mark,” he can understand how in our weakness we fall short. And he gives us grace.
Empathy is not easy. If it were, we would not have many of the quarrels and the conflicts that we do within our church. And most of the ones we do have would be easier to reconcile. In the blogs that follow, I will sketch out how to build the bridge of empathy, and then how it may serve to empower individuals, and the church at large.
Authors note: I apologize for the delay in recent blogs. I have been finalizing details of a new book which I will be announcing very soon. This post is the first in a series on “The Bridge between Us and Them,” where I will explore in detail how we can become leaders in both achievement and reconciliation.