July 19, 2020
The past few weeks I’ve been preaching on the Liberation that Jesus and the Holy Spirit let loose in our world. Our Creator has set within our hearts a desire to love and to be loved. But it is easy to get worn out caring. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the powers of Sin in our world, to feel powerless in the face of systems of oppression and white supremacy. It’s much easier to try to keep ourselves, and those closest to us safe, to try and make our little corner of the world the best it can be, while letting chaos reign.
I’ve felt that tension the past few weeks in my own life and ministry. My emotions have felt pretty raw as the pandemic has continued to rage on, as the economic fallout continues to impact our Black neighbors who have been impacted by racist policies and the excesses of capitalism, I’ve found myself feeling a little worn down. Apathy can creep in when we’re feeling pretty well established in our lives.
I also get to spend a fair amount of time virtually, and with our ministries making sure our neighbors have access to nutritious food in person, with folks who also care for others. There are a lot of people to love in small, tangible ways these days. I think about so many of you who care for family members, spouses, friends, those of you who are therapists and teachers, parents and so many roles where you show love and concern for others. Sometimes when we are sitting with others in times of difficult emotions and struggles, when were directly serving and loving, we can get fatigued. Compassion fatigue is a real experience. We can begin to feel annoyed, on edge, a little raw. The pain of our neighbors feels overwhelming, not to mention our own sadness, grief and fear. Two times in the past few weeks, as I’ve been driving back to our apartment from a day of working on our new house, I’ve came across NPR stores that made me wonder if God was the program manager at WYPR. The first was a on the show “Here and Now,” exploring empathy, and why it can be hard sometimes for those with power to care about those they can positively impact the lives of. The conversation was with Stanford University psychology professor Jamil Zaki, author of The War For Kindness.
Professor Zaki shares that Empathy and power have an inverse relationship. The more powerful people are, the less likely they are to have empathy because they’re less likely to need other people.
On the flip side, people who come from a lower socioeconomic status or underrepresented backgrounds face disadvantages and vulnerabilities that “make it obvious how much people need each other. Folks in a society with less status and power often work on being able to understand others, and this practice helps them improve, while those of us with power to spare often focus less on the plight of others. Oddly enough, its also a survival mechanism. When those of us, like myself, who have relatively more status and power practice empathy, we often realize that we are benefitting from systems that hurt others.
Professor Zaki says that “When someone feels that they are the culprit for the harm of somebody else, that’s a threat to them. We want to view ourselves as good people, and when you’re forced to see yourself as a perpetrator or as part of a group of perpetrators, that damages your ability to continue seeing yourself as good.”
King David has an incredible amount of power by the time we get to our story from scripture this morning. He’s found that he needs others less and less. Early on, he knew the importance of relationships to survive. His love for Jonathan, a love he shares is stronger than the love he has for women, gives him life. Jonathan saves his life, and David’s relationships with folks in King Saul’s court keeps him from being killed. But now the King has lost his way, and he takes advantage of his power to have an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman whose husband’s life he has control over. When she is found to be pregnant, he has her husband killed in battle.
And so the prophet Nathan comes to confront him, at the behest of God. Now, he could have come right out and said it, but he knows that the King’s empathy is lower these days. And so he tells a story, exercising King David’s empathy, by inviting him to take on a different perspective. He realizes King David’s not aware of his power and how he’s abused it. And Nathan doesn’t go in alone. It’s not all for him to fix. David has to come to terms with disturbing parts of who he is, and Nathan invites him to talk it through with God.
It’s easy for us to look at how people acted in the past, or at how others behave, and be angry at them, to feel our sense of justice boil up. But when it’s us? Well, we get defensive. This is why conversations with Americans who are white can be so difficult; when we feel implicated in systemic racism, when systems that hurt others, we realize benefit us, we can start to feel like we’re bad. And no one wants to feel that. So we get defensive. It’s a natural, human response. But sometimes our first reaction, our gut reaction, it’s not the fullness of who we are. Sitting with discomfort, hearing others stories, that can open us up to a new way of living together, of being able to experience empathy, and deploy our power for good.
Our faith tradition is full of stories like these, of people being called to realize they are a part of something that they don’t actually agree with. Jesus himself finds himself in situations like this, and learns to turn from ways of being in the world that lessen those around him. The early Apostles realize that their exclusion of Gentiles, Non-Jewish converts to the faith isn’t what God hopes for the Church. And they change. They learn that God’s empathy and love is wider than our initial responses that are more designed to keep us comfortable than love God and Neighbor.
So how do we strengthen our Empathy, so we can be freed to use the power we have, and be in relationship with others? Or when we’re feeling a deep sense of compassion fatigue, how can we love ourselves so we can love others?
According to professor Jamil Zaki, “We tend to think of a lot of features of our inner lives, like how outgoing we are or how empathic we are as just something that will never change, something that you either have or you don’t,” Zaki says. “But it turns out that empathy is like a skill. It’s like a muscle. We can practice it like any other skill and get better at connecting with people.”
We can hear stories from those with different experiences, and imagine ourselves looking at the world from their perspective. That’s where the second NPR story got me this week. It was about evictions, and their racist history in America. From the promise of 40 acres and a mule that was made to formerly enslaved Black citizens, land that was given and then taken away, to the racist policies of share cropping, to the predatory practices of creating elevated prices for homes, and sham mortgages that did not grow home equity and resulted in foreclosures in America’s cities, to the fact that most rent prices for Black and Brown Americans are as high as far better maintained properties but that are not available for folks who have experienced evictions. The history, the situation, the invitation to empathy and taking the perspective of someone else, it was stunning to me. I’d invite you to listen to On the Media’s four part series on evictions. I’ll put a link up on our Facebook, and when this sermon goes up on our website it will have a link.
I found myself realizing, you know, there are people in power who could change this. And I know some folks, who know some folks, and maybe, just maybe, we could be just a little bit of Nathan’s, and write our elected officials. Maybe we could advocate on behalf of those facing eviction and foreclosure.
When we face compassion fatigue, when we feel overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world, we can remind ourselves that we are not in this alone. It’s not up to us to heal all of the world’s pain. Sometimes we need others. And oftentimes, we also can invite God into our work for the love of neighbor, for creativity, for ways to help those with power to take on a new perspective. For us to realize we also need others to move the world from how it is, to how it should be. Sometimes when my compassion is getting low, it’s helpful not to look only at what I can do, but to look at the history that has brought us here. To look at the root causes. This is more work, but it’s also a way of working both with the symptoms, and the root cause. At short term and long term solutions, resting in the hope that God doesn’t leave us to our own devices, and doesn’t leave us alone in the cause of love, compassion, and justice.
So friends, let us be willing to take an honest look at ourselves. Are we worn down and in need of reaching out to others for support and mutual power? Are we defensive about the ways we’ve benefited from unjust systems? Are we being invited to experience new perspectives and the Holy Spirit’s work of opening us up to hear the perspectives of neighbors long silenced? Wherever we are this day, my prayer is that we hear that we are loved, that forgiveness is possible, and that the Holy One is with us, among us, bringing about transformation. Amen.