Race, Religion, and Empathy

Donald Trump at his June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The National Catholic Reporter reports that Trump support declines among white and Hispanic Catholics. From my perspective, that’s a good thing. This indicates that the president’s support among Catholics is trending in the right direction. But … and there’s always a “but” … that story’s sub-heading is not so positive: But poll finds he would still win the white Catholic vote. Based on a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, it seems that 57% of White Catholics still say they would “vote for/lean toward voting for” Trump. Though different conclusions may be drawn from the same data, these data continue to paint a picture that says this: White Catholics tend to value their “Whiteness” more than their “Catholicity.”

As a White Catholic who is also gay and of Irish heritage (today would be the 108th birthday of my Dublin-born maternal grandmother!), this is what I find so troubling: I and those who came before me know what it feels like to be “othered,” to be excluded, to be on the outside looking in. Thankfully, great progress has been made for Irish-Americans, though there was a period not too long ago when there was significant anti-Irish sentiment in America, and “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply”) signs often accompanied employers’ Help Wanted advertisements. Even more recently, the increased acceptance in American society of LGBTQ people has been a beacon of hope for those who, less than a generation ago, were often compelled to remain closeted about a fundamental aspect of who they/we are. The great promise of America is that there is no such thing as the “other.” Our national motto — E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) — enshrines the more folksy sentiment that in this country, every stranger is simply “a friend I haven’t yet met.” Americans’ greatness becomes real when we practice what we preach, when we welcome with open arms the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses “yearning to breathe free.”

And yet … when we look at our current president, and especially at our fellow citizens who so vocally support him at his rallies and online, we hear nothing but “othering” language which tries to build walls between the false dichotomy of “us and them.” Trump’s entire presidency (some might say his entire life) has been marked by using race, religion, sex, gender and ethnicity to “other” any and all who might challenge him, disagree with him, or see things differently than he. As humans, the experience of having been “excluded” is an experience that should increase our empathy, not propagate discord, disdain, and division. Empathy is the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through their eyes, and recognize that their experience is valid and valuable. Empathy opens my mind and my heart, and leads me to embrace more deeply the truth that we are much more alike than we are different. Empathy — and my faith — tell me that, deep down, there really is no “us and them,” there’s only US.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 8, 2009
Dignity NoVA

As you know, a new justice to the US Supreme Court was confirmed by the US Senate this past week. Earlier today in fact, Judge Sonia Sotomayor actually took the oath of her new office and become Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the newest member of one world’s most select group of people – one of only nine people who, in our judicial system, have a voice in that Authority which can decide whether existing laws and their applications are or are not consistent with our Constitution. Now, I’m not an attorney or any sort of legal expert, and so it doesn’t matter whether I do agree or don’t agree with her selection and confirmation or what I think about any of the varied legal and other issues that were raised during that process.

What I found fascinating, however, was one of the main reasons – perhaps THE main reason – that was given by many in the Senate who voted against her. In explaining their vote of disapproval, several senators cited what they believe is her commitment to a so-called “empathy” standard and that this would inappropriately sway her one way or another in making sound legal judgments.

As I said, I’m not an attorney, and I don’t know whether it’s appropriate or not for “empathy” to play a role in the making judicial judgments. Nonetheless, this little drama in our national life can provide us an opportunity to think about what exactly empathy is and how it does or does not fit with our own lives. Empathy comes from the Greek – empathes, with its roots em and pathos, meaning feeling, or emotion. As it’s currently defined in English, empathy (according to Merriam Webster) is: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another [of either the past or present] without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Empathy is different from sympathy; although they’re similar and related, empathy has a little bit more of a sense of “I know where you’re coming from,” “I can relate,” “I’ve been there, too.”

In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we hear very clear and explicit guidance on how the followers of Jesus – members of the Christian community – are called upon to act and to treat not only one another, but all others. Even though the specific word “empathy” is not used here, it certainly is consistent with that list of Christian virtues about which Paul writes – kindness, compassion, tenderness, forgiveness. As followers of Jesus, Paul reminds us that we are not to be characterized by bitterness, by anger, by shouting at one another and having malice toward others, as I’m sure we all feel like, on occasion. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all felt like Elijah does – like throwing in the towel and calling it a day. Even though he has just successfully defeated the prophets of Baal and demonstrated that the God of Israel is indeed the one true God, nonetheless Elijah is dejected and worn out as others are trying to have him killed.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not always easy to be kind and compassionate, to be upbeat and positive. It’s not always easy in the day to day lives that we live to go on with the journey of life that God has given us. I’m from New England, and I’m what you might call your typical “Boston driver.” For some reason, all the patience I have goes out the window when I’m driving and dealing with other drivers who – from my perspective (!), would probably be much happier walking or taking public transportation! I’m sure many of us would rather not have to deal with certain colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, or others with whom we interact with regularly.

Likewise, I’m sure that each of you can easily call to mind someone with whom you occasionally get angry or frustrated; perhaps someone you’ve even had words with and shouted at. I’m sure you’re aware of those situations which cause you to be less than patient, less than kind, less than understanding and compassionate.

Today’s readings not only remind us of how we are called as followers of Jesus to be in the world and to act toward one another, they also remind us how we are able to do this. Left to our own devices, who knows what our lives and our world would look like. But as followers of Jesus, as ones who believe that God so loved the world that God took on our very humanity, our flesh and our bones to become, as we say, “One like us in all things but sin,” we are nourished and strengthened every time we come together in prayer to break bread and share in the Eucharist.

The sacramentality of our Catholic Christianity is perhaps most characterized by the Eucharist. This is what we DO as Catholic Christians … we gather together, we listen over and over to the stories that have formed us, we break bread and share the cup, and by doing so are not only nourished and strengthened to live as Paul encourages us, but we in fact become that which we celebrate. We become Christ’s living presence in the world, in every contact with the incompetent driver, in every encounter with the frustrating colleague, the troublesome neighbor, the aggravating person in the grocery store checkout line. John reminds us, in the words of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It is indeed our prayer and our hope that not only will our sharing in this same Bread from heaven bring us to the fullness of eternal life, but that we can in some small way be the living presence of Jesus in our world – a world in which just a little more empathy probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.