“Excel in Empathy”

By Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy

II Corinthians 8:7-15


Paul believes the church should excel in everything. How’s that for a church’s job description? This is what is expected of a senior pastor. Most churches are looking for superman and have to settle for strange flightless “birds” like me. Still the church seems to say, “We want you to be a fantastic preacher, visit all the sick and homebound, administer the business of the church, attend all denominational functions, bring in new members, especially young married with children, be involved in the community, promote social justice, serve on various boards, be a member of the Rotary Club, the Interfaith Group, attend all church social functions, teach classes, and dance a jig in the local talent show, and you should take a day off every week.” Well not so fast because Paul wants the church to excel in everything.


When I look at Paul’s list of what the church should excel in doing, I confess to some confusion. Listen to what he says: “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you*—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”


But look at the churches. Instead of excelling in faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness, and love we are excelling in bullying, browbeating, judging, and demeaning. Does Paul say excel in judging the faith of others as deficient? Does Paul say excel in condemning Muslims, Mormons, pagans, liberals, and socialists? Does Paul say excel in hard-hearted mean spirits? Does Paul say excel in being conservative or liberal? Excel in protesting cultural issues? Excel in sending hate mail to people you think are being less than Christian? Excel in condemning people for not agreeing with your assertions about abortion, gay marriage, immigration, the environment? No. No. No. *


Paul’s real interest is excelling in empathy. And by and large, the church has taken Paul’s teaching to heart. We are a people well known for caring for others. The church that has spent centuries caring for others and the motivation for this work is a single moral value: Empathy. From St. Francis to Mother Teresa, Christians have always been a caring people. David Bentley Hart, in The Atheist Delusions recounts Christianity’s twenty centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs – its care of widows and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, and housing projects. Randall Balmer, historian, in Thy Kingdom Come, tells us that empathy “is responsible for everything from Social Security, civil rights, public education, and equality for women to the existence of the republic itself” When the church has been self-centered it has created an empathy deficit – a failure to care, both about others and each other. “Caring is not just feeling empathy; it is taking responsibility, acting powerfully and courageously. You have to be strong to care, and to act on that care with success” (George Lakoff, The Political Mind, 47). Let’s own it: The ethics of empathy shape the life of the church.


The church has always taken to heart the teachings of Jesus to love. Love one another. Love enemies. Love the poor. Look, we know love. One of the important principles I have learned is to use Scripture to interpret Scripture so I want to ask John from I John, the love epistle, to help us understand what Paul means in I Corinthians about excelling in love. John, like Paul, clearly intends for Christians to excel in love. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”


John has strong language for Christians who stray from excelling in love. 15All who hate a brother or sister* are murderers. 1617How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister* in need and yet refuses help?”


20Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters,* are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister* whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters* also.”


“Perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” The opposite of fear is perfect love. Fear keeps folks from sharing because we are afraid there will not be enough. Fear causes folks to create enemies and demonize others. This is Christianity 101. It doesn’t get any more basic than this.


I think we have been seduced by the word “love” and use it to legitimate the way we treat opponents, enemies, and others with whom we are in disagreement. We have learned to hate others with passion and still call it love. We have convinced ourselves that we are free to do whatever it takes to win and we label that love. How have we managed to turn love into an excuse for the worst of practices? If liberals have turned love into an excuse for anything goes as long as we “love” the conservatives have turned love into an excuse for anything goes in politics and economics and our treatment of the poor.


The shootings in Alexandria Virginia last week should sharpen our historical senses of how fragile the line is between civilization and chaos. We are always only a small distance from people thinking that love means killing heretics, pagans, and Christians who are different. It wasn’t that long ago that Protestants and Catholics were killing one another in the name of love. I sometimes apologize at ecumenical meetings for having a nervous twitch, because I know how Protestants and Catholics once were both killing Baptists in the name of love.


Charles Taylor says that proponents on all sides are throwing “huger rocks than are safe for dwellers in glass houses” and “both sides need a good dose of humility” concerning “how fragile” their positions are and how deeply each is implicated in histories of violence. Rather than trying to score political points against our opponents when an act of violence occurs (having a final word is itself an act of violence) we should be on our knees confessing our common human failure and asking how we can “respond most profoundly and convincingly to what are ultimately common” to all humanity.

I was impressed with Democrats and Republicans kneeling for prayer on the baseball diamond last week but I am repulsed that the prayer meeting quickly devolved into our usual mud-slinging, accusing, hateful rhetoric. But the fact that we still know how to kneel in prayer gives me hope for our future.  


The politics of violence associated with the use of the word “love” boggles the imagination. This is made concrete when a preacher spends an entire sermon condemning and calling down the wrath of God on some group like gays or Muslims or welfare recipients and then at the end tacks on “Now, I want you to know that I love everyone.” How did we ever manage to trick the mind into believing that we can say the word “love” as a way to underwrite the violence of our ways? This is a “protective demonizing stance and a lazy idolatrous caving in to hard, fast rules” to be used against the weak, the seemingly unlovable, the outcast, the immoral, and the poor.


If Paul and John are right and I certainly believe they are, if we are going to serve the church well we must excel in love. I challenge us to this task of excelling in love because I think the current hostility in our country is the result of the church (“the salt of the earth) losing our ability to love one another. When the community called into existence by the love of God, commanded to love as its primary witness, when that community forsakes love for bullying behavior, we can only shudder at what the culture steeped in histories of violence will do.


Did you know that “perfect love” is the answer to the fear-based culture in which we are living? Our fear is a clear indicator that we are not excelling in love. I am ashamed that Scripture condemns my own strident spirit against fundamentalist Christians. The prayer of confession of the church must be on my lips constantly: “I have not loved my neighbor as myself.”


A church that preaches a moral vision of empathy and responsibility is necessary in our greed-dominated, self-centered nation. We can’t get to empathy from self-interest. And a nation that worries there will not be enough to go around is a nation trapped in fear and lack of compassion. Empathy is not about interest; it’s about doing what is right for the right reasons.


There is a deep reservoir of empathy in the American DNA. Empathy is often in full display. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans we saw massive empathy as Americans sent money, volunteered to help, offered their homes to house the victims. Empathy is in our national character and the church has always been the incubator of that powerful human attribute. The more we activate empathy in the public eye, the more people will be attracted to the mission of the church.


The human race evolved for empathy, for cooperation, for connection to each other and to the earth. We cannot exist alone. Empathy is at the heart of a great nation. It is a positive force for human society. It causes us to care about fundamental human rights. Without empathy there would be no America. Historian Lynn Hunt reminds us that American democracy is rooted in empathy. I will go so far as to claim that empathy is what made America a thriving democracy. Ordinary people had no dignity in those European monarchies; but in America ordinary people have standing.


Historian Gordon Wood of Brown University teaches us that in the course of little more than a decade, the American Revolution shattered the intricate ties of obligation, deference, and respect that bound the prerevolutionary social order in America. America changed from a people little different from the hierarchical societies of European monarchies to one that took up the radical notion that individuals are both the source of a government’s legitimacy and its greatest hope for progress. America is home to independent-minded individuals for whom a primary virtue is disrespect for hierarchical authority. But something has gone haywire. Americans still have a healthy disrespect for all forms of authority, but we are now part of a movement to reinstitute a hierarchical culture on the basis of wealth and the people without wealth are mobilized to use their disrespect for all our anchor institutions – schools, churches, government, the free press – to enable the very, very, very rich to control our democracy. It’s not a matter of monarchs; it’s a matter of billionaires. The very, very, very rich are getting very, very, very richer and along the way they are in charge at the highest levels of political authority in our nation. Our very strength of rebellion and disrespect is now being used against us to push ideas that are not in our best interests.


Americans, according to historian Robert McElvaine, swing back and forth between empathy for the poor and disgust with the poor. We are currently in one of our disgusting moods and we want people working and paying for everything. We are obsessed these days with those who are undeserving versus those we consider undeserving. How odd of Christians to talk this way. Theologically we have always been convinced that all are undeserving. We would rather God be good than fair. Listen to our own Baptist theology: Salvation is a matter of free grace. No one deserves salvation. No one can earn salvation. It’s all grace, God’s grace. But listen to us when the subject turns to economics. The old category of deserving/undeserving is raised from the dead. We go back to demanding fairness.


When it comes to salvation, we are undeserving but we gratefully accept the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. So when it comes to economics, we should apply the same theological standard. Yet this seems almost impossible for so many Christians. John Hagee, television evangelist, says that people on welfare should get their nasty selves off the couch and get a job. He quotes from the Bible that you shouldn’t eat unless you work. He labels this God’s position. Hagee is wrong about this but millions of Christians go along with this harsh, cold, cruel insistence that people are not to be fed unless they work. At the church in Thessalonica, some Christians got the idea that since Jesus was coming back any day now, they should quit their jobs and sit around waiting for the rapture. Paul moves quickly to squash the danger: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” Paul is not making welfare policy; he is encouraging Christians not to get carried away about when Jesus is coming back to earth. It’s a biblical corrective for excessive zeal about the second coming of Jesus. It’s needed in every generation.   


Look, we are born with as much capacity for empathy as we are with propensity for sinfulness. “There is a neural mechanism that says in your very nervous system: You will feel better if you do unto others as they would have you do unto them” (Lakoff, 101). We are pre-wired for altruism, empathy, and cooperation. So when handed an opportunity to demonstrate empahy, why not do it? If we have a history of empathy, a capacity for empathy, a chance at empathy, why not take it every time, every single time?


I believe that the Holy Spirit is here, hovering over America and her churches and she’s calling to us: “At my command, unleash empathy and generosity!”