On learning to empathize

I have been feeling so much grief and anger over the past week. It feels like I’ve been carrying around the weight of years of injustice and racism over just the past few days. Sometimes I choose not to watch the videos of my brothers or sisters being killed unjustly by police officers because I just feel that I can’t take it anymore. But last week? Last week I watched them both back to back.

I watched as Alton Sterling was shot in the chest and then I watched his 15-year-old son break down during a press conference and cry out “I want my daddy.” I watched Philando Castile’s girlfriend recount the murder of her boyfriend as he died next to her from multiple gunshot wounds. All the while the officer continued to keep his gun pointed at Philando while yelling for her to keep her hands where he could see them. In the back seat, Philando’s 4-year-old daughter sat and watched the whole thing. My heart broke and I cried with them. How incredibly tragic.

In the following days, the defensiveness on Facebook, mostly from white conservatives, began with pointing out how black-on-black crime is what black people should really be concerned about and everyone was suddenly full of statistics which proved racism doesn’t exist in the police force.*

Sadly, Christians were among this group.

I’m not really sure why this happens every time video is released that shows another case of police brutality. I’m not sure why it surprises me every time it occurs but their defensiveness and inability to see what seems so obvious just increased my grief. Have some Christians become concerned with protecting a specific narrative instead of loving like Christ?

Why can’t they consider that there really is systemic racism in police departments? I’m in no way anti-police. Some of my friends are police officers and I know them to be good men. I’m thankful for the work of officers such as Tommy Norman who clearly care for the communities they serve. However, my understanding of human depravity leads me to believe that when you have organizations with such extreme amounts of power and almost no accountability you will likely also have sin of various kinds. Racism isn’t the only type of sin you will find within police departments but it is certainly one type and while some people are working so hard to ignore the facts, people are actually dying. Our Christian duty requires us to hate this and oppose it at every opportunity.

Jesus aligned himself with those who were being oppressed. Why is it so hard for us to do the same? How can we follow Christ if we refuse to see the pain of our brothers and sisters? Compassion begins with listening and understanding. After you’ve heard and understood the pain and fear of others, then you must enter into their suffering. Walk with them. Fight with them. Question 135 of the Westminster Larger Catechism make our duty clear.

Question 135: What are the duties required in the sixth commandment? Answer: The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.

It is crucial that all people realize this is not a black issue. It is not a poor people’s issue. It is not just an issue for the Black Lives Matter organization to worry about. This is an American issue. It affects all of us. Do you care? Does it break your heart or have you become cynical and cold? Are you watching your thoughts and checking yourself for prejudice toward the victims?

There is a difference between sympathy and empathy that I think we often forget. Sympathy is the easier of the two because it simply requires that we feel sorry for another. But don’t stop there. Work to empathize with others which requires actually sharing their feelings. Empathy requires you to work hard; to put actions behind your words and emotions and be willing to sacrifice. Empathy can be painful but it is necessary for all who call themselves Christians. This is the heart of Romans 12:15.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

In practical steps, empathizing will mean that after you hear of unjust events you refuse to just walk away. Now is not the time to turn your back and distract yourself from the suffering. Take action. Talk to your political leaders, fight and march when necessary, make calls, send emails to representatives, and vote according to your belief that black lives matter. Don’t put people in office that don’t have a track record of standing up for the rights of ALL people. It’s time for us to work hard to be a people known by our love.

Listen. Empathize. Fight.

There comes a time when silence is betrayal. – Martin Luther King Jr.

*Article from the Washington Post which explains how to interpret the statistics on police violence.

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