Empathy

Sometimes I wonder if some of my fellow citizens live in an alternate universe from the
one I inhabit.
I keep hearing people deny the existence of white privilege, describe Donald Trump as
“honest and straightforward,” claim that discrimination is a thing of the past, make
excuses for young men who rape unconscious women, and basically try to tell me that
down is up, east is west, and day is night. It’s hard to tell if these people are deliberate
liars, delusional, or just culturally tone-deaf.
Take what happened in Chillicothe, Ohio, last night. The city council had scheduled a
period for public comments on a proposed ordinance that would prevent discrimination
against the LGBTQ community. Around 200 people showed up to make their opinions
on the subject known.
People like Trish Gisvold, who, according to the story in today’s Columbus Dispatch,
compared the ordinance to Sharia law and warned that its implementation would “shut
down Christian churches across Chillicothe.” Or Keith Richter, who called the ordinance
“an attempt of Big Brother government to micromanage and look into every nook and
cranny of each of us in our daily lives” (Tate, “Plenty to Say,” A11).
But the one that really got me was the comment from Diane Carnes, who apparently
does not believe the problem of discrimination exists in Chillicothe. She said, “I have
never needed a law to treat people fairly” (Tate, “Plenty to Say,” A11).
Well, that’s admirable, Ms. Carnes, but unfortunately not everyone in the world is as
broad-minded as you are. Not everyone even in that small town, as it turns out. Another
speaker at the council meeting, Sarah Wagner, who spoke in support of the ordinance,
said unequivocally, “Chillicothe does have a problem with discrimination.” She should
know. As a lesbian, she has experienced it firsthand. She told the council that owners of
restaurants have asked her and her wife to leave. Others have described them as
“abominations,” and told them their mothers should have aborted them. And the ill
treatment has not been reserved to the adults in the family. Wagner described how a
boy physically assaulted her daughter, saying he wanted her to “prove that she was not
a lesbian, too” (Tate, “Plenty to Say,” A11).
Another story in the same issue of the Dispatch described the scathing Justice
Department report on racial bias in the Baltimore Police Department. The death of
Freddie Gray in the back of a police van, for which no one was deemed responsible,
may have been anomalous in its severity, but it was part of a larger pattern in which
black citizens account for a disproportionately high percentage of arrests. The article
states, “In Baltimore, a city that is 63 percent black, the Justice Department found that
91 percent of those arrested on discretionary offenses like “failure to obey” or
“trespassing” were African-American. Blacks make up 60 percent of Baltimore’s drivers
but account for 82 percent of traffic stops. Of the 410 pedestrians who were stopped at
least 10 times in the 5 1/2 years of data reviewed, 95 percent were black” (Stolberg,
“Findings,” A3).
What these two stories say to me is that we who do not face discrimination or
persecution on a regular basis must not assume that our experience is shared by all.
We need to listen to and take seriously the stories of those who have had these
experiences, and try to put ourselves in their shoes. How would I feel if someone called
me an abomination, or refused to serve my family in a restaurant while the other patrons
looked on, some of them snickering and whispering, while others shot us daggers with
their eyes? How would I feel when I saw the red and blue lights in my rear view mirror
for the third time this month, knowing that I had done nothing wrong but wondering if
this would be the night my life would end when I reached for my wallet? How would I
respond if my brother or cousin or son wound up dead while in police custody and I had
to watch the slow parade of acquittals and dropped charges for the officers involved?
As disciples of Jesus, we must be about the business of developing empathy for those
whose circumstances differ from ours. We must listen and learn without offering
arguments or solutions. We must seek out opportunities to have these conversations,
knowing that while they may not be pleasant, they are necessary if we are ever to move
beyond the suspicion and fear that characterizes far too big a swath of our society. We
must support any initiative that provides reasonable protections for those most at risk of
unequal treatment. We must not fall back on the canard that we cannot legislate
morality, remembering what Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It may be true that the law
cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s
pretty important.”
We must do these things because every Sunday in worship, we pray, “Thy kingdom
come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” To allow injustice to persist because
it does not touch us personally would put the lie to this prayer. We ask for God’s will to
be done on earth, not merely in our safe neighborhoods and gated communities.
God became incarnate in Jesus in order to understand the lives of human beings from
the inside out. It was the quintessential act of empathy.
Now it’s our turn.
___________________
Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. August 11, 2016. “Findings of Police Bias Validate What Many
Have Long Suspected.” The New York Times. Reprinted in the Columbus Dispatch, p.
A3.
Tate, Emily. August 11, 2016. “Plenty to Say.” The Columbus Dispatch, p. A1, 11.

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