A call to empathy: Getting to know our neighbors

November 23, 2016

There’s no doubt that many tables will be divided during this holiday season for various reasons. But as the discussions begin and potential tempers flare, Christians can exercise self-control and remember there is a greater reason for our engagement on important topics.

There’s a great need for the display of empathy in this day. Empathy, by definition, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The Word of God describes this as love: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). As we exercise this radical and supernatural love, it leads us to act out of empathy, to rejoice and weep with others: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

Biblical love allows us to forgive and put-off offenses: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sin” (1 Peter 4:8). And this unique love keeps us from harming others: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).

But how do we grow in empathy, especially during tense times? How do we understand and share the feelings of another? James would say that part of our growth in loving others practically starts by being quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger (James. 1:20). Growing in empathy starts by listening to others.  In order to encourage you to exercise empathy, especially during this holiday season, here are the voices of five women and their empathetic reflections.

Christian Walker | Kids City Director | Redemption City Church

I’ve lived a very homogeneous life. Most of the people who have surrounded me look and think just like me. I’ve never actually had deep friendships with others from different racial backgrounds. I grew up thinking that minority struggles, particularly for African-Americans, were something to be glossed over. I’ve heard family members and friends say things like: “Those things happened so long ago; why are people still mad?”

It’s easy for me to see how people who have never had an honest conversation or relationship with a person of another race can be apathetic. If most people’s experiences are like my own, it wasn’t an intentional apathy. I guess that’s why indifference is a special type of sin, because it is blinding.

In 2016, we experienced an ugly election campaign, intense racial divides in communities all across the nation and a vote to remove the Confederate flag as a symbol of hatred at the Southern Baptist Convention. My sweet grandmother, who is very educated and intelligent, debated with me over the symbol of the Confederate flag. Her response to the Civil Rights Movement was, “I am very friendly to blacks. When I pass a black lady on the sidewalk, we smile at each other.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I realized her lack of understanding came directly from her lack of relationship. My grandmother is not a racist person; in fact, she’s tender-hearted and kind. But the distance between her and those around her is wide.

I realized that I might have said the same thing without my relationship with Trillia. She has opened up her heart and shared personal feelings with me. My understanding of pain and hurt for my African-American brothers and sisters comes directly from my personal friendship with a woman of another race.

I pray everyone would have the opportunity for a friendship with someone from another tribe and another tongue who could help us develop greater understanding and empathy for others.

Catherine Parks | Author of A Christ Centered Wedding

I don't think empathy comes naturally. It certainly hasn't for me. Proverbs 18:2 says, "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion." If that doesn't sum up the echo chamber of this past year, I don't know what does. The Philippian church had to be instructed to not just look out for their own interests, but also for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4), and Jesus was their example for the kind of humility required to do this. Humility is a necessity when we choose to set aside our own opinions in order to truly understand and hear one another.

Many wise people have said that empathy requires proximity. I certainly wouldn't understand some of the issues facing Mexican immigrants without my neighbors, the challenges to people with disabilities if it weren’t for my friends and the fears of some of my African-American brothers and sisters if it weren't for relationships with Trillia and others.

I have no doubt that each of these people have been patient and long suffering with my questions and ignorance at times. It isn’t an easy burden to bear—to be gently educating others constantly—but they have done it with love. Perhaps that is their Philippians 2:4 obedience. Maybe all along they have known something I didn't.

I always assume I'm the one looking out for their interests by understanding them, and I think that's somewhat true. But I've realized they are also looking out for my interests. When they open up and share about their experiences, they are giving me a glimpse of the grandness of God's design for humanity, and especially the beauty of his Body. They are giving me an opportunity to step outside my limited, self-absorbed, daily existence in order to participate in something far greater. 

Courtney Reissig | Author of Glory in the Ordinary and The Accidental Feminist

As Christians, our response to those who are different than us should never be fear. While our natural bent might be to retreat from otherness, Christ’s call on our lives is to empathy and understanding. In Christ, we have no need to fear.

First, to truly empathize we need to see our brothers and sisters as image bearers, not as “others” (Gen. 1:27). Bearing the image of God is our great leveler. Before the Lord, we are all created equal, we are all valued, and we all deserve to be heard. Our image bearing should drive us to seek to understand those who are different than us, not retreat from them.

But along with that, we must also recognize that the privilege and majority status of some of us does not make our vantage point the superior one. We should be compelled to use these things for good, not our own gain. We should treat others as we would like to be treated, which means listening, understanding and advocating for those who are oppressed and misunderstood (Luke 6:23). This privilege is a call to stewardship not prejudice. God didn’t create one ethnicity or cultural experience. He created many, and this forces us to confront our own biases as the majority. People of privilege have a responsibility to listen first, talk later (James 1:19)

In all of this, our greatest model for empathy is our Savior, Jesus. He went to people who were despised, rejected and outcasts of society. If image-bearing is the great leveler, the gospel levels us even more. In Christ, we have one Savior and one Church (1 Tim. 2:5). There is one way to be saved, and it’s on the basis of grace, not ethnicity, class or majority status (John 14:6; Gal. 3:28). The path to heaven is filled with people not like us, because God is calling all nations to himself. Let this fuel us to love and listen to those who aren’t like us, not turn away in fear or anger.

Kristie Anyabwile | Contributor to Women on Life and Word-Filled Women’s Ministry

Where is empathy? I wonder where others were when I poured out my heart about fears I felt for my own son in the wake of the deaths of young black boys and men. I felt the ache when I needed someone to grieve with me over faulty moral compasses that seem to value political parties and ideologies over people. I sensed the loneliness when I needed someone to listen, understand and validate—not negotiate—my feelings.

I didn’t need someone to assuage my grief; I just needed a friend to cry with me—to enter into my emotional space until my feelings became hers. When someone sits with me in that space, I feel safe, heard, loved and respected.

I’m often told to turn to Christ and remember the gospel, yet asking one another to help bear our burdens is turning to Christ. It’s using his appointed means to comfort and encourage his people. Are we not to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2)?

For too long, empathy has been locked away in the darkest caverns of apathy that can spawn pride, self-righteousness, impatience, disunity and even hate. But exercising empathy allows us to enter into the emotional center of another, to feel what they feel, to see what they see, to own with them their fear, hurt, anger, joy and love. It’s the ability to understand and share in the feelings and experiences of another. Empathy is rooted in the kind of love that listens in order to understand with the intent of growing into deeper, more genuine love and practical care for one another.

Where there’s no empathy, there’s no Christian love and fellowship. Our Christian witness is tarnished without it. How can we love each other this way—genuinely, deeply, tenderly, humbly, compassionately, patiently, meekly—if we don’t enter the sacred space of another’s feelings and circumstances? We can’t live out our calling as disciples if we don’t love one another (John 13:35).

Christ set the example for us clearly, calling us to love one another just as he has loved us with a sacrificial, everlasting love (John 13:34). He loved us when we were unlovely. He loved us by entering into our grief, our pain, our sorrows, taking the sins of others against us and our own sins to the cross. Empathy is the pathway to loving others as Christ has loved us. Would you join me in unlocking and freeing empathy and rolling a stone of forgetfulness over the cavern of apathy?

Katie Richards | Director of Development for Siloam Health

This past week, I sat in a room and listened to my coworkers share the disappointment and sadness they (and members of their community) were feeling about our country. My coworkers represent various immigrant and refugee communities in my city, and each brings a unique glimpse into what is happening in people’s lives and hearts that live just miles from me.

It struck me that the church has an opportunity in the coming days to engage immigrants and refugees in our communities in meaningful conversations. I kept thinking of people I’ve had conversations with over the past few months that I wish were in the room with me, listening to the rich cultural perspectives being shared. Those people may not change their stances, but they may be moved to change their tone.

In the coming days, the church has an opportunity to go to the immigrant community and to invite others to come to know these communities. The church can lead the way in embracing immigrants and refugees that are living in fear for whatever reasons. We can lead the way in humanizing an increasingly inhumane conversation happening in our culture around these populations. We can lead the way in validating their status as fellow men and women, boys and girls, who are made in God’s image.

Perhaps this holiday season will be the beginning of new, helpful and needed conversations with others. As we seek to grow in understanding, let’s also ask the Lord to teach us to empathize that in a way that will ultimately reflect his love.

Trillia Newbell

Trillia Newbell is the author of several books including A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Sacred Endurance, If God Is For Us, Fear and Faith,and the children’s books, Creative God, Colorful Us and  God’s Very Good Idea. When she isn’t writing, she’s encouraging and supporting other writers as an Acquisitions Editor at Moody … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24