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Empathy Gap
July 5, 2020


A college student once challenged the school’s chaplain, saying, “Christianity is just a crutch”, to which the chaplain replied, “Who says you don’t limp?”

Today, let’s look at one thorn in our shoe that keeps us limping because if we don’t acknowledge the thorn, we’ll keep limping.

I am a Christian, in fact I’m a pastor of a denomination that prides itself for being open, tolerant and empathetic toward people of all walks of life.


You all saw the video that President Trump re-tweeted the other day from the Villages retirement development in Florida.

It actually was a rather cartoonish scene, a bunch of privileged old white people driving golf carts at about 3 mph as they shouted “White power” at people demonstrating against police abuses.

I want to be open, tolerant and empathetic; I really do.

But while I wring my hands in frustration at the hostile polarization we live in today, not only do I feel no empathy for those folks, but I took secret pleasure in lingering in my contempt for them.

Maybe I even allowed the thought to linger a bit that the world would be a little better off without them and their kind.

That’s the thorn in my shoe I need to recognize and we must begin by seeing it is a spiritual issue – and like all spiritual issues, it plays out at our personal level before playing out in our society as a whole.

Try as I might to be a tolerant person – seeing everybody as a loved child of God – sometimes I can’t help but to stay comfortable, even take pleasure, in my contempt for people like those … not surprising, according to the Apostle Paul:

Romans 7:21-22 It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight.

No matter how open and empathetic I may want to be, sin will lead me elsewhere – and it is sin because those folks are cherished by God.

I don’t have magic cures to offer for our national crisis, but if we’re serious about living with love then it is important for us to understand how a cycle of hate can unfold within us so that we can intervene and stop it before it grows.

Mina Cikara has no interest in baseball, she’d never even been to a game until she started dating Cary and acquiesced to attend a New York Yankees home game with him.

Cary is from Boston and so wore his Red Sox cap.

While getting off the subway at Dodger Stadium he got a lot of good-natured ribbing and a few jokes from Yankee fans.

But as the game proceeded, Mina noticed that the jokes stopped and the ribbing became less good-natured.

Then as the game’s score tightened, ribbing became threats and Cary himself became more aggressive.

To calm the escalating tension, she snatched the cap off his head, but not having anywhere to put it, she stuck it on her own head.

But then the aggression turned on her and she suddenly heard herself reacting in kind, screaming profanity at the Yankees fans.

Cary actually had to step in to restrain her from getting into a fistfight … this over a game she didn’t even care about.

Everyone escaped the park unscathed that day, but the incident left such an impression on Mina that she eventually got her PhD to explore how our inter-group biases can so easily morph into hate, violence and even genocide.

Something happens in our brains as we shift from “you and me” to “us and them”, from the personal to the stereotype.

It’s estimated that about 200-million civilians – not soldiers, civilians – perished in the last century due to group violence.

As Christians, we understand how such evil that plays out in the world begins within each of us.

Mina is now a professor at Harvard University where she did experiments focusing on a small neuro-network deep in our brain called the ventral striatum that is part of our learning and reward circuit.

Using brain scans and other technologies, she found that it is actually stimulated when we witness someone from an opposing group experience misfortune, humiliation or pain.

As with other pleasure centers in our mental circuitry, once it gets a hit of dopamine, it begins to crave additional hits of dopamine pleasure, and if we continue to indulge it, we eventually learn to enjoy inflicting humiliation and pain on them ourselves.

There’s more interesting science behind this, but I want to stop right here because this is where it is important in a practical way for you and me, because this is a point where we have control.

Most people do not like inflicting pain on another person, but each of us has the capacity to commit what under normal circumstances we’d consider unspeakable violence.

Each of us.

In part, this is because we have that piece of our brain that can learn to enjoy inflicting harm on people we consider to belong to the “other” group.

Am I overstating this?

Well, consider that another reason Mina chose her field of study was because she had watched this dynamic firsthand in her homeland of Yugoslavia.

It was there that she saw what her former neighbors who had been friends at school, attended one another’s graduations and weddings, and had later raised children together had done.

As Yugoslavia’s politics solidified their identities as either Bosnian or Serbian, her neighbors went out and murdered one another – often in the most ghastly of ways.

Peaceful towns became scenes of genocide.

There was minimal outrage over the President’s retweet the other day of two white people pointing guns at protestors walking past their house in a gated community in St. Louis.

The marchers were protesting that the Mayor had made public the names and home addresses of people who were advocating for police reform, making them targets of violence.

Are we becoming immunized to violence against fellow Americans – and where will it end when our leaders are complicit in this?

Honestly, I feel no connection and little compassion for those “white power” folks down at the Villages – and I suspect they feel the same about me.

This is sometimes called the inter-group “empathy gap” – and it can be dangerous.

Frankly, speaking of empathy and kindness these days feels naïve – we’re likely dismissed as “snowflakes” for doing so.

But people who develop the most empathy for others tend to be the happiest, least stressed and depressed, and experience the best relationships.

Be that as it may, empathy in America has shown a steady decline during the past forty years, especially since 2016, and, unfortunately, the church has played a big role in this.

Russel Moore is the president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in the United States.

When recently asked about the precipitous decline in church attendance, he said that when talking with people who have left the church, he often hears them say that they still believe what the church had taught them, but that they don’t think the church believes what it has taught.

And the focus of their indictment is often how the church, rather than being a voice of reconciliation, has been at the forefront of social divisiveness.

But that decline in empathy shows that empathy is malleable.

That means that you and I can choose to let our empathy deteriorate until we see “them” as enemies deserving pain, or we can build empathy until we find common ground through the life narratives of people who are different.

But as our scripture reminds us, sin is powerful and ever present.

Romans 7:15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

Josh Kalla of Yale University oversaw a bold new approach to political canvassing.

Canvassing is usually one-way with the canvasser spouting facts to support their position, but people are so locked into their beliefs that this seldom changes any minds.

Instead, Kalla trained canvassers to begin by sharing a personal story and prompting the voter to tell a related story.

This deep-canvassing helps people step back from stereotyping typical of the “us-them” divide, and it’s shown to actually make long-term changes in people’s minds.

In one of his favorite examples, a transgender man in Florida was canvassing for transgender rights.

He showed up at a house with a big American flag and pick-up in the front.

He braced himself for a difficult encounter but went ahead sharing his own story of the prejudice and misunderstanding he faces every day.

In particular, he shared a story about being made fun of and being called an animal.

Then he asked the macho guy in the doorway if he’d ever faced anything like that.

He thought and then said, what you’ve faced is not that much different from what I’ve faced.

Then he shared his story of being dissed and misunderstood by his family after he returned from Afghanistan with PTSD.

They had said that he was crazy.

That’s what can bring us together – our stories of shared loss, grief, fear, and hopes for our children.

We’re constantly bated by social media and FOX News and CNN to return for another hit of exposés and insults of those ignorant Americans or those liberal snowflakes – and it can be hard to resist.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…. We never find out the strength of an evil impulse until we try to fight it.”

My invitation to you this week is simple:

Watch your own mind at work as you relish the latest exposure of the other group’s ignorance, selfishness or naivete.

You may see a subtle dynamic at work – if so, stop it right there.

Stop, pray for the cycle to halt.

James 4:7-8 So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud “no” to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. 

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: The Sacrament brings Christ’s presence to us so we can purify our inner life to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor – all our neighbors – as ourselves.