“The Contours of Empathy” – Dr. Steve Clements

June 26, 2017

Bless those who persecute you.  Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.  Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with each other.  Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people.  And don’t think you know it all!” – Romans 12:14-16

The apostle Paul launches his famous 12th chapter of Romans with a discourse on the elements of holy living.  About half way through the chapter, and echoing Jesus’s message in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul urges Christ followers to offer blessings and prayers for their persecutors.  This counter-perspective is always jarring to read, especially when juxtaposed to the many Psalms wherein the poet cries for vengeance against the enemies of Israel.

Paul then offers further teaching about the nature of empathy that is to suffuse the Christian life of the individual, and of the church.  He instructs us to be happy with those who are delighting in their current successes, and to share in the mourning of those who weep out of failure or loss.  Live harmoniously with others, he says, and share in the successes, foibles, and sorrows of “ordinary people.”  Diligently avoid the temptation to think you know more than others, or that your ideas about a given situation should simply be imposed on others.  This summons a picture of church bodies as an eclectic mix of the wealthy and poor, professionals and blue collar workers, those caring for the young, the infirm, and the helpless, those seeing life’s successes and failures, all together and seeking to love and buttress one another.

Does this description mesh with your own experiences of living and working as a part of a body of believers?  Sadly, this ideal seems to apply to relatively few congregations in our time, especially given the cultural “distance” in the modern world between the educated elite in most communities and those in lowest rungs of the social order.  Yet this view of the empathetic Christian life stands as the model for all of us to emulate.


- Dr. Steve Clements, Dean of College of Arts & Sciences, Associate Professor of Political Science

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