Buildings are burning, businesses are devastated, cities are destroyed, lives are being ruined, and it’s all the looters and the rioters’ fault. The protests are ridiculous, racism plays no part in this matter, and it’s all being blown out of proportion. Someone needs to put an end to this unfounded madness.
…Have you found yourself thinking this way or saying some of these things? Looking back on the last 10 years of my life, I don’t think that I can pinpoint a significant span of time where some kind of tumultuous event wasn’t taking place. I have thought these things. I have felt these feelings. I have said these words. But then I read the words of Luke describing Jesus of Nazareth:
“But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts…” – Luke 9:47
Jesus didn’t only know the intentions of men’s hearts, but also the reasoning that led to their intentions that fueled their actions. I wonder if this is why Jesus was so patient and compassionate with those He encountered, especially the commoners and laypeople. He didn’t judge them solely by their irreverent actions, their misguided questions, or their incorrect beliefs—He understood why they did those things. Their reasoning was faulty, so, like He did with the disciples over and over, He taught them. He showed them a better way. Jesus’ harsh words were instead reserved for those who acted against the reason they knew to be true, namely the religious elite of His day.
Jesus shows us a better way. I speak as a Christian mainly to other Christians, but am also making a broader appeal. We are too quick to speak with so much certainty regarding those we disagree with. It’s unfair how we paint our opponents (although I don’t really like that word) with such a disparaging brush at even the slightest hint of disagreement, but without ever stopping to try and consider the reasoning behind why they believe what they believe, do what they do, and are who they are. Cultivating sympathy for one another will help us with this.
In his masterful work, “Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be: A breviary of Sin”, Cornelius Plantinga speaks about how sin patterns and behaviors can be exacerbated through unjust political and societal structures. To illustrate his point, he quotes James Tunstead Burtchaell:
“If a man has seen his children die from malnutrition because of medical aid withheld, his village ravished by industry that underpaid and sickened the workers, his voice stifled by a dictatorship that tortured patriots, his priests shot for preaching justice and his wife raped by a plain-clothes death squad–if, after all this, he rises in wrath and bombs the vehicle of a government official with the official’s innocent family inside, who has broken the peace? And can we, by military reprisal, restore the peace? Or will our reprisal only justify the rightness of his rage in his neighbors’ minds and raise up ten more in his place?”
The point of Plantiga and Burthchaell’s concern is not with the “source” of sin, they both firmly plant that within the inherent depravity of mankind, but with the motivations and catalysts of sin. The terrorist in Burtchaell’s scenario was not the first perpetrator of violence and sin, he was provoked to wrath. Who couldn’t sympathize with the man? And for those who are rioting and protesting today, although their actions should not be condoned, their motivations and concerns must be seen, heard, and sympathized with.
Burtchaell’s illustration also shows us how sin can trickle from the top down through poor leadership. Violence, that began with those in power abusing it, begets violence which begets more violence. None of it is right, but in light of the biblical witness of both the depravity of man and the frustrations of the oppressed, can’t we sympathize with the actual concerns that are underneath the actions? Somewhere along the way, the cycle has to end, and who else should be willing to bring an end to that cycle than those who know what it’s like to receive what we don’t deserve?
After a few years of being a pastor, of being in the “people” business, I’ve learned that communication with those you disagree with is such an effective disarming mechanism. After you take the time to truly understand another person, when you are intentional about listening with the goal of understanding them, you find they become more human. They’re not a moral monster, a corrupt foe, or some deluded idiot. They are a human being that bears the image of your Creator, just as you do. They have hopes, dreams, and desires, just as you do. And they are pursuing Joy the best way they know how, just as you are, perhaps they just need to be shown a better way. Sympathy has a humanizing effect on those you share it with.
The Holy Spirit used sympathy to convict me of my prejudiced thoughts, my careless attitude, and my turning a blind eye to the plight of people of color in our nation. The Holy Spirit used sympathy to convict me and drive me to repentance. We must not condone violence of any kind, we must not condone racism or injustice of any kind, but we must also not condone cold and unsympathetic hearts as we try and navigate this moment. We must repent, and do the hard work of sympathizing with the other. Putting ourselves in one another’s shoes, imagining ourselves as being in the other’s position, contemplating what it might be like for us if our skin had more or less pigmentation, these are all necessary steps we must take if we are to truly sympathize with one another and move through this world in unity.
We want others to do this for us, but our Lord’s golden rule puts the requirement on us to do it for others first. I know I need this, and I think the Church, our nation, and the world need this, too.