Paris and the Need for Better Christian Empathy

The coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris were tragic and terrible events. In a way, it’s heartwarming to see so many people around the world offering their prayers and support. Facebook even made it easy to change our profile pictures to signify our concern, though we should always be wary of confusing symbolic gestures on our part for more than they are.

As people started to ask additional questions about these attacks, a second round of stories surfaced challenging the popular sentiment that we cared about Paris because of our shared humanity. Just the day before the attacks in Paris, a bombing in Beirut took 43 lives and barely registered a blip on our collective radar. No Facebook Safety Check-in or easy profile picture effects provided.

And it’s really not that hard to find numerous other terrible events that failed to register much collection concern. For example, just a month ago a US drone errantly targeted a Doctors without Borders hospital killing 12 staff and 10 patients. While that incident did garner some headlines, it quickly devolved into a political conversation, and dissipated; the human element barely registered. Do we even need to mention how numb to gun violence we have all become? Is it not possible that our enmeshed way of feeling these things is to blame, in part, for our inability to substantively and constructively respond?

By all this, I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t care about what has happened in Paris. We should. But I do think it is a healthy and good thing to consider how much of ourselves we project upon any given tragedy in order to produce the feelings that occur. And after we’ve done that, we need to ask whether we are truly empathizing with those who were harmed, and the families left behind, or are we disturbed primarily with the realization that it could happen to us?

I’ve written before about the church’s potential role in building healthy empathy in the disciples it nurtures.  I believe that an increased empathetic capacity leads to more balance in how we see such events when then take place around the world, and allows us feel them in ways that are less about us and more about them. Our sympathy may be appreciated but it is rarely what is needed.

Practicing empathy in the church is important because without it we are incapable of being the loving disciples we are called to be.

To develop empathy for another, we need to listen, place share, and role play what it would be like to be the other. For some churches this may mean a shift from low-committment volunteer opportunities toward ones that ask more of people, requiring them to develop healthy relationships with those who are served.

We also need to nurture the emotional intelligence, and spiritual maturity, necessary to be self-critical, suppress quick judgment, and be properly emotional. Some churches are finding space to do this with purposeful small groups just as some Christians are finding this in the (re)discovery of contemplative spiritual practices.

With better empathy, we could exchange the false pretense of grieving from a shared humanity for a real experience of the same. Our subsequent responses could only be improved by this as fear and sympathy are replaced by love of the other as the primal motivator for change. God knows that our foreign policy could benefit from more empathy for those who don’t look, live, or believe as we do. The exchanges we have in our day to day lives could profit in a similar fashion.

The problem, as I see it, is that building empathy isn’t sexy or flashy work. And situations like Paris, when all of our emotions are in turmoil, are the last places to develop such skills even as they are the perfect ones to benefit from them.

If we are honest, we need to acknowledge that the church has much work to do in forming emotionally and spiritually mature disciples. Instead of being known as people who love better, the news provides many examples of “Christians” who seem to exhibit less empathy than the average individual.  But the struggle to love others with the mind of Christ is not isolated to the angry, loud and entitled; it is a problem that resides in all of us to varying degrees.

For the church, doing better isn’t just an opportunity, it is our urgent calling.

May we yearn to love always as Jesus does. And may we give ourselves (and others) the grace needed to get better.

Image Credit: “Paris Skyline” by Joe deSousa,

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