In Part 1, we looked at the gap between reactions to the current heroin epidemic among whites and the 1980s crack epidemic among blacks. This is but one variation on a universal theme. We could trace historic reactions to welfare, education, AIDS, immigration, and a dozen other issues to see how problems within one’s tribe are viewed and addressed with much more compassion than problems outside one’s tribe. The response is only natural.
The church, however, is not a natural community. Its members are born of God, created new in Christ, transferred into a kingdom that is not of this world. This supernatural character means that relationships in the church must rise above natural categories of this age. There can be no “other” in God’s family, where being one in Christ Jesus transcends ethnicity, class, and gender (Galatians 3:28). When Peter and Barnabas placed their Jewish identity above their identity in Christ–refusing to share a meal with Gentile Christians–Paul charged them with conducting themselves “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).
Our outreach to unbelieving neighbors must also transcend natural dividing lines. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the prime horizontal command God gave us. When asked whether this applies across all boundaries, Jesus chose the most acrimonious ethnic relationship of his context–Samaritans and Jews–to show that it does (Luke 10:25-37). To make the point bolder, he did not tell of a righteous Jewish man condescending to a poor half-breed Samaritan. Rather, the character his audience would identify with was the bludgeoned Jew who would have died apart from the intervention of the despised “other.”
This issue of identification lies at the heart of closing the empathy gap. Do I identify only with the Samaritan who must decide whether to help? Or do I also identify with the man who would die apart from the mercy of another? Because at a secondary level, the story functions as a parable of the incarnation in which we are the man left for dead. The Son of God is Spirit, while we are flesh. He exists eternally, while we are finite. He is holy, we are sinful. He only loves, we often hate. The distance between God the Son and God’s rebellious sons is an ocean to the Samaritan–Jew creek. Yet he closed the gap when he became flesh and dwelt among us.
Think of the gap between yourself and the brother or sister at church with differing ethnic or educational backgrounds, opposing political affiliations, sexual struggles you do not understand, or stories of abuse or neglect you cannot imagine. Think about our church’s neighbors who are crammed into trailers that are crammed onto a concrete lot, whose language and citizenship status make their experience of Phoenix much different than ours. How do we close the gap?
Let us take our cues from the incarnation. The best starting place is by inhabiting someone else’s world. Find simple ways for your life to intersect with the life of that neighbor, that brother or sister in Christ about whom you have more assumptions and stereotypes than first-hand knowledge. Do a lot of listening. In the words of the Samaritan story, cross the road to see what is wrong, for that is surely how Jesus loved you.