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Empathy (May 2022)

Photo of Minister, Reverend Neil Thorogood. Dear Friends

Whatever the true stories of “Partygate” are, and I suspect we’ll never know all of the details, amongst the things that are depressing and distressing I want to ponder this: empathy.

This was brought home to me as the fines emerged in a brief Tweet by a good friend of mine. For those of you who have never encountered the online universe that is Twitter, it’s a way of communicating by sharing and commenting upon things shared limited to just 280 characters (a character being a letter, number or punctuation). Anna Rowlands is an associate professor at the Divinity Faculty of the University of Durham, a world expert on Catholic Social Teaching and deeply involved in work with refugees. We taught together for a few years in Cambridge.

Responding to the responses as the fines started to be revealed, Anna tweeted: “The not-getting-it thing is huge: the depth of feeling amongst people who will live for life with the difficult decisions or simple conformity to rules during lockdown. It’s the not getting it evident in the statements, words of individuals sent out to defend them. It’s staggering.”

When empathy evaporates, the gulf between people yawns into a chasm. The failure to truly, honestly and openly acknowledge the hurt lingering in the wake of Downing Street’s lockdown reality matters. Of course, there aren’t going to be resignations. Those days seem to have passed. Maybe that era has passed. But more disturbing to me is the brutal truth that we seem to be witnessing a collective shrug of the shoulders and a sense that this needn’t detain us too much longer. It has almost felt, listening to some of the defenders, as if it is actually my problem that I’m appalled; some failure on my part to live in the real world or some wickedness of my own that I can’t forgive and forget a few insignificant slip ups.

But these things matter to me precisely because I know how hard I, and millions, tried never to slip up as we faced the biggest health emergency of our lifetime. I know, a little, what that cost some of us. I think of the agonies of nursing homes where visits ceased and suffering accumulated daily. I think of all who sustained our health and emergency services with the odds often stacked against them; giving more than could ever be expected or acknowledged. I think of the funerals we had where so few could come. I remember the sheer scale and challenge we faced in our churches as we negotiated the regulations and tried to be careful. I think of what we didn’t do, people we didn’t meet or, meeting them, never hugged. I think of those we lost and could not say goodbye to.

I think I am coming to understand more that what I long for in politics and amongst those who lead us is empathy. This is the ability to appreciate things from the perspective of another human being; to stand in their shoes and to sit where they sit. Empathy does not mean that I need to agree with the other’s perspective. But it does encourage me to devote myself to trying to get inside that perspective, seeing its own integrity and understanding more of where it comes from and why it is as it is. Empathy guards me against dismissing others and the ways others feel about stuff.

I sense a profoundly disturbing absence of empathy at the heart of our nation’s politics. I want something better.

These agonies over our own politics are, of course, put into horrible perspective by the politics of violence and war playing out across the world. Ukraine and Russia dominate the headlines, but we mustn’t forget the ongoing struggles in such places as Yemen. Again and again, empathy evaporates and vanishes like the morning’s dew. It is a terribly vulnerable and fragile gift, it seems.

So, thank God for empathy! We know it when it embraces us. It comes as glorious blessing and renewing kindness. It meets us when someone takes the time, and makes the effort, to truly listen to us beyond sympathy. Sympathy is lovely, but empathy reaches deeper and goes further. Empathy flows across congregations and floods the world when we are getting our discipleship right. Remember all of that body imagery that Paul dwells upon in 1 Corinthians? That’s empathy talk I think.

Empathy has been the heart of our journey through Lent, on into Holy Week and thence to Easter Sunday. In Christ, God’s empathy for humanity takes flesh and blood and goes as far as it is possible to go with us. The cross marks empathy’s ultimate expression; God being bereft so that we might not be.
Dear old Isaac Watts said it right:
“When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.”

Empathy can be in short supply. Too short. I am so grateful to you for the countless ways in which you share it and show it. In doing so, you bring Christ’s life to the world.

With my prayers and good wishes,