As I’m writing this column, on the evening of Easter Sunday, reports are coming in of a suicide bombing in Lahore, Pakistan. Those claiming responsibility for the bombing have confirmed their timing it to coincide with the most important solemnity of the Christian year.
In my previous column I reported on a February worship service, held at the Greek Orthodox Church in Springfield, and dedicated to prayers for persecuted Christians around the world. This bombing, along with other atrocities with which we are all too familiar, is just the sort of thing which moves us to prayer and action for those who share our faith.
I was just reading a report on a psychological study regarding empathy. If you are familiar with the concept of “emotional intelligence,” which has been a topic of scholarly and popular writing for more than 20 years (although a much older precursor is the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith, better known for his economic treatise, The Wealth of Nations), you may remember that empathy is understood to be at the heart of the development of sane and wise human relationships and interactions. If we can appreciate another human being as someone possessing the same sort of feelings as ourselves, we have made a great step forward in our human development. We fulfill in some way the Biblical command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” found first in Leviticus 19: 18 and repeated in several places in the New Testament by Jesus, St. Paul, St. John, and the Letter of James.
The recent psychological study (reported in The New York Times, March 22, 2016), however, points out some drawbacks to empathy. Each of us can go only so far with our powers of empathy. In fact, empathy for one particular group of people may well exist alongside our demonizing some other group. We tend to be able to exercise empathy toward an individual, but not as much toward a group. We tend to empathize with people who somehow resemble us.
We empathize with families trying to enjoy an afternoon in a local park. If they are in a country we have not visited and with which we are not familiar, we might be less empathetic. If, however, it appears that these families were targeted because of religious hatred, that they were predominantly Christian, and that the atrocity occurred on the most important day of the Christian calendar, we quickly find ourselves profoundly empathetic, and alongside our empathy we rev up our demonization of the killers and those who appear to have any link with them — even the most tenuous of links, such as sharing a religion with them.
We are, indeed, limited human beings. We have natural limits. We also limit ourselves as we organize our outlook on life in terms of what exalts ourselves. Yes, we pray for fellow Christians. But we may be surprised by who turns out to be reaching out to us as “neighbor,” as Jesus reminds us in his “Jericho road story” at Luke 10: 25-37. Our daily prayer must move us to question the boundaries we impose upon the world and its peoples.