April 18, 2019, Maundy Thursday, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Empathy, which we can define as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, appears to be on the decline in the United States. In an article from April 15th of this year entitled, “The End of Empathy”, Hanna Rosin cites the work of Indiana University professor and researcher Sara Konrath on the topic and notes that since the late 1960s researchers have been surveying young people on their levels of empathy. They have done this by testing their agreement with such statements as “It’s not really my problem if others are in trouble or need help” or “Before criticizing somebody I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.” After analyzing decades of data Konrath noticed a pattern that starting around 2000 there was a drop in empathetic responses to these questions. So much so, that the data shows by 2009 young people measured 40% less empathetic than students measured in the late 1960s!
We might think that empathy as a natural human response would remain unchanged over time, however this data shows us otherwise. What has happened? It seems from their responses that young people today question why they should put themselves in the shoes of someone who is not them, especially someone they might think is a potential danger to them. And these interviews of the young people show that they view cutting someone off from empathy as a positive way to take a stand. It seems the new attitude is that empathy should be reserved solely for those who you view to be on your own side or team.
For example, in the beginning of the article Hanna Rosin tells the story of militia leader, Ammon Bundy, who you might remember led an armed standoff at a wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016. In November 2018 Ammon recorded a Facebook post saying that perhaps President Trump’s broad characterization of the migrant caravan on the US-Mexico border wasn’t totally correct. He wondered if some in the caravan might have come here out of reasons of need and not crime. He didn’t say he was breaking with President Trump at all, he only asked his followers to put themselves in the shoes of the fathers, mothers, and children who fled to the US to escape violence. However, his post was met with such a rapid and angry rejection by his community of followers, that within days Bundy left Facebook in retreat.
Given the polarization we have seen in our society today, this probably isn’t a surprise to us. We find ourselves in times where we are greatly divided upon political, social, and economic lines so that on a regular basis we see people lash out in anger at one another for having differing points of view. Yet, is this polarization a sign that we are losing our capacity for empathy?
Perhaps not as Fritz Breithaupt, another professor at Indiana University who studies empathy, thinks this might just be empathy in overdrive as research shows when witnessing a conflict, people tend to take a side and form a strong empathy for that one side they identify with, so that they can no longer even see the other side. Breithaupt suggests the solution to this empathy in overdrive and the polarization it creates is to give up on the idea that when we have empathy we are doing good or helping the other. Instead, he suggests the better idea is to view empathy as being solely self-serving. He says when we practice empathy we should view it as making us better people, so that in seeing it as a benefit to our self-interest we can see empathy as a good thing once again because of what we personally get out of it.
Perhaps this promotion of self-interest is one solution, however, I think that Jesus offers us a better way in our gospel tonight – the way of love. On this night that we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples we hear his mandate to them and us that we should follow his example and do as he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” His mandate to love isn’t a call to turn inward and seek only what is best for us personally out of selfish love though. Instead, it is a call to turn outward to the other in response to the love we have received from him. Jesus calls us to love because when he loves us we are transformed by that love and in turn we want others to know the same transforming power of that love too. And it is as that transforming love is shared that it is multiplied and changes the world.
Jesus shows us what that love looks like as he washes his disciples’ feet on that last night with them. As he bends down and serves them he shows them and us how the gospel flips the world’s ways upside down as the teacher washes the feet of the disciples, revealing a different kind of love than the love the world has known. Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche community with and for people with disabilities, says of that kind of love in his book, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, “Love implies proximity, mutuality. When people love, they need each other and are vulnerable to one another. With the incarnation, the all-powerful One becomes the little powerless one.” (pg. 225) In being present with and serving his disciples in this way Jesus flips the script and shows that when we change how we are in relationship to one another – not lording power over the other, but sharing a vulnerable presence and mutuality with the other – we reveal the power of love shared there in relationship to change us, the other, and the world.
This kind of love is risky as well. As Brene Brown, University of Houston professor, author, and vulnerability expert, writes in her book, Daring Greatly, “Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow – that is vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky.” We live in a world where in the midst of chaos we want security and stability. However, Jesus’ call to love one another won’t offer us that as Dr. Brown points out. Instead, it offers us a call to risk everything to live fully into that love.
That risky and vulnerable kind of love is what Jesus shows us on through his actions that we remember tonight. As he gets down on the floor and enters into service to his disciples – one who in just a few hours will betray him, one who will deny him three times, and the rest who will scatter from sight out of self-preservation. He knows this is how they will behave beforehand and yet he risks loving them in this new way anyway. And he calls his disciples and us to do the same, though that love is just as risky for us, as we too could end up hurt, betrayed, denied, and abandoned. Yet, he shows us that this love is worth the risk because this love is the only thing that has ever changed the world as it turns us inside out toward one another, upending the world’s ways with the way of love always ending up on top even when at times it looks otherwise.
Jesus’ example to us on this night is more than an example of how we should wash one another’s feet. Instead, it is an example of how he calls us to risk loving and serving the other. It is a call to be vulnerable and step outside of our comfort zones to meet each other in ways that will likely make us anxious and uncertain. Jesus’ call is a call to love as he loves and to remember as we follow his way, that his way is love and therefore love is our way too or as theologian Richard Rohr words it, “Love is who you are.” May we remember that and live fully into it as we follow his example, this night and always. Amen.