Empathy: A Bridge to Unity

By Dave Sanders

Our nation and world are divided, deeply split on issues that include the environment, race, immigration, crime, gender, women’s rights and abortion, guns, COVID, and even faith. Volumes have been written about our divisions and spread through social media. As people of faith, the intensity of these divisions trouble us for many reasons, but mostly because Jesus wants us to live in harmony and love. We imagine unity for the greater good and ask ourselves, “Is unity possible?”

The concept of empathy may be helpful. The American Heritage Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings. Yet, in these divided times, it should come as no surprise we are even divided about how to apply empathy. On the one hand, there are those who focus their empathy solely on the plight of the individual who, for example, might be hurt by the inflationary effects of some initiatives. On the other, big-picture advocates say directing our empathy too narrowly on the adverse situation of a single person or family could stall some important and urgent needs, like climate change, that benefit millions.

This begs the question: can we possibly find unity through empathy? It is not exaggeration to say most are skeptical and argue that our divisions are unbridgeable. Thankfully our faith tells us otherwise. We know “Nothing [is] impossible for God” (Luke 1:37). The word empathy was coined early last century so it is not found in the Bible, but the concept lives in scripture. We are told “All of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble” (1Peter 3:8). Of course, Jesus tells us “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

Employing empathy as a unifier, we are called to rise above the complexity of our divisions and differences long enough for honest reflection. Otherwise, our deeply held positions may overpower any hope for unity. Empathy is relational. It puts us on a level with all who are struggling with the many sufferings and challenges of day-to-day human existence, like paying bills, staying healthy, providing for basic family needs, or otherwise just surviving the day. Human suffering knows no boundary or side; neither should empathy. For those of us blessed to have time and talent to pursue our ideals, the reality of those in more challenging circumstances should give us pause. In fact, we should pause and self-examine our ability to be empathetic to all.

The uncomfortable truth is our divisions are deep-rooted and touch our emotions and passions, making honest self-reflection difficult. The questions we might ask ourselves are hard: Do we have the capacity, as people of faith, to have empathy for those whom we dislike or those with whom we disagree? Can we be more broadly empathetic, in the interest of unity and healing to everyone’s betterment?

The Springfield Dominican Sisters’ Prayer for the Life of the World asks God to “Free our hearts to recognize and attend to Christ in hidden and unexpected places.” There is no doubt that Jesus would urge us to be empathetic to bring our divided nation and world closer—to find Christ hidden within those with whom we differ. Because of our Christian hope we can trust that somewhere in our division lies a bridge to unity. Empathy may be that bridge. It allows us to move beyond just words to compassionate response. Which brings us to the ultimate question: do we care enough about unity to try?

Dave is a Dominican Associate, member of the JUST Words editorial board, and a volunteer pastoral visitor at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Chatham, Ill.

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