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"On Empathy" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 4, 2018

posted Mar 5, 2018, 1:03 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Mar 6, 2018, 9:56 AM ]

The other day a short article appeared in the New York Times about the federal agency which issues green cards and citizenship.  President George Bush created the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services back in 2005.  The new agency reflected President Bush’s commitment to seeing our nation as a community of immigrants.

As he said shortly after creating the agency, “America's welcoming society is more than a cultural tradition, it is a fundamental promise of our democracy. Our Constitution does not limit citizenship by background or birth. Instead, our nation is bound together by a shared love of liberty and a conviction that all people are created with dignity and value. Through the generations, Americans have upheld that vision by welcoming new citizens from across the globe -- and that has made us stand apart.”

This commitment of President Bush to building a welcoming America came out in the mission statement of the agency, “Securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.”

But, as the New York Times recently reported, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service recently deleted all mention of our heritage as a “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement; instead the new language focuses on “protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”

Now I realize the language of America as a nation of immigrants doesn’t capture the experience of Native Americans and African-Americans.  But it feels to me like something significant got lost in this “update” to the mission statement.  How can an immigration agency forget we are a nation of immigrants?

What happens when we forget?  In this case, the act of forgetting the immigrant history of most Americans comes with a profound lack of empathy for current immigrants.  This same federal agency which forgets our immigrant histories now stranded over a hundred Iranian Christians and Zoroastrians in Austria: the families sold everything and left but now exist in limbo, unable to go home and unable to immigrate.  In some cases, immigration officials split up families - sending parents to America but detaining their 23-year old son, who said, “I wish this nightmare ends, that I can open my eyes and see my family.”  Forgetting costs us our empathy.

Turning from the news to the Bible, I find a moral vision rooted in remembering, an ethics built from empathetic memory.  Our first reading this Sunday recited the Ten Commandments, the great rules of God.  Often preachers focus on the Ten Commandments as a list of rules with the explicit question, “Did you keep this or that rule?”

But instead of a moral checklist, I want to look at the Ten Commandments for what they cause us to remember about ourselves and God.  The call to remember comes out directly in the commandment about resting on the Sabbath.  We heard, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”  People held in slavery never got rest; you can’t have free time if someone claims to own you. And so in the desert, free at last, the Israelite refugees from Egypt heard God make plain: honor the sabbath, take rest and give rest to all with you, because you remember what slavery was like.

Just as God evoked the memory of slavery specifically in the commandment to rest and provide rest to others, so too the experience of slavery shaped all of the Commandments. The connection to the experience of slavery can be seen in the last five commandments, the so-called “second tablet,” that primarily focus on relationships between people.  Thou shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.

When we first read these commandments, they may not sound like rules arising from the experience of slavery.  But then if you remember what happened in our own country, you realize these rules create the very kind of protections people held in slavery lacked.  Let one example from Frederick Douglass suffice; he wrote, “My own wife had a dear cousin who was terribly mangled in her sleep, while nursing the child of a Mrs. Hicks. Finding the girl asleep, Mrs. Hicks beat her to death with a billet of wood, and the woman has never been brought to justice.”  The Israelites experienced the same in Egypt; and so the slaves of Egypt, once they got free, heard God make plain this commandment: thou shall not kill.

Continuing to work our way backwards, we can see the insight of freed slaves in the fifth commandment, “honor your father and mother.”  Slaves knew that enslavers would honor no family relationships; the marketplace broke apart parents and children over and over again.  But in the desert, the women and men escaping bondage heard God say, “honor family relationships.”

I already talked about rest, the commandment most overtly connected to the experience of slavery.  But you might wonder how the remaining three commandments relate: thou shall have no other gods before me, thou shall not make graven images, or use my name in vain.  Even these commandments can not be separated from the experience of slavery.  The enslavers demanded devotion: honor me, bow down to me.  But in the desert the God of Freedom made clear: take no one as your master.

And to drill down on just one of these commandments, consider the rule against “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”  We often take this as a rule against cursing.  But just think about the way God’s name was invoked to support the practice of slavery.  Indeed, too often religion gets used to justify the otherwise unjustifiable.  And so, do not take the Lord’s name in vain, do not use God to justify the unjustifiable.

The Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt.  And in the desert they heard God shaping their moral universe based on the memory of their enslavement; remember you were slaves once, so do not call anyone master; remember you were slaves once, so rest and give rest to others too; remember that you were slaves once, so do not kill or covet like the enslavers do.

Memory can shape our empathy, but we ought to be clear about the challenges we face being empathetic.  Earlier this year I spoke about our ongoing need for Martin Luther King’s wisdom.  King once said, “Never let another man bring you so low as to hate him.”

After worship a church member stopped to acknowledge the challenge of King’s words.  Our political divisions can make hate seem rational.  The other side, whichever side, can move us to disgust.

I’m not offering a quick solution to this dilemma because I don’t have one; there are people I find it hard to feel empathy for, people I find difficult to hold in the light of God’s love.  And yet I see the spiritual danger of limiting my empathy. If our empathy rises from memory, we must ask, "What shall we remember?"

Recently I reread an old story that brought this problem home to me.  The story came from Dante’s lurid poems about hell, the Inferno.  I know a fascination with Dante may seem odd, especially since I don’t believe in a classic notion of hell.

In Dante’s telling, people get the afterlife their hearts desired; people like Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri.  These two leaders of Pisa schemed their way to power; but in a Game of Thrones plot twist, the Archbishop betrayed the Count.  Ruggieri then locked the Count in the Tower of Hunger along with his four sons, leaving them all to starve to death.

As one can imagine, the Count deeply desired revenge.  As Dante said, “I saw two souls together in a single hole, and so pinched in by the ice that one head made a helmet for the other.”  And pinched in tight, one head behind the other, Dante realized the Count chewed at the nape of the Archbishop, “a famished man… gnawing his loathsome dinner.”

Dante interrupted the meal of the count to hear his tale.  The Count wiped his mouth on the hair of the Archbishop and then described how the Archbishop betrayed him, his horror at the sound of the door locking him into an upper room of the tower.  The predicament froze the heart of the count, “I did not weep; I had turned to stone.”  Meanwhile his sons, seeing their father chew his hand, offer their own bodies, “Father, it would give us much less pain if you ate us: it was you who put upon us this sorry flesh; now strip it off again.”  In wretched order the Count saw his sons die, until the last son implores him, “Father, why don’t you help me!”  Desperate hunger blinded the Count, until he died groping along the floor to locate his dead sons.  Having told his story, the Count resumed his meal, as Dante said, “grinding it as a mastiff grinds a bone.”

This graphic moment captures the hell vengeance creates in our hearts - an insatiable hunger.  Indeed, the Count seems as locked inside a hunger of hatred as he once was in the tower.

And yet even as he told this story of unmitigated fury, Dante suggested another outcome could have been possible.  The Count told his story with allusions to the last night of Jesus - the upper room, the son offering his body, and the cry that resounded like Jesus’ from the cross, “Eli, Eli, Father, Father, lama sabachthani, why don’t you help me.”  Dante doesn’t suggest that the Count could have ended his sufferings by seeing his similarity to Jesus.  But he might not have died with the feeling of absolute abandonment, with bitterness freezing him into a locked embrace with the archbishop.  Could remembering Jesus on the cross moved his heart from vengeance?

But Dante didn’t tell this story for us to re-imagine the fate of the Count.  Instead, he pressed us to face the danger of our own unforgiving hearts.  And he did this by acting out his own rage.  The pilgrim of hell responded to the Count’s story by calling for retribution.  He denounced the city, “Ah Pisa! Foulest blemish on the land,” and called for River Arno to so flood the city that every last resident would perish.  Dante raged against Pisa for killing the Count’s innocent children; but now he wanted the residents of the city to pay for the Archbishop’s debauchery.

Dante’s condemnation of Pisa might strike us as justified: punish the city.  But I think he vented his over-the-top vengeance to call attention to our own hatreds, the ease as which we can slip into them, until we find ourselves, like the Count, locked in by the hunger of hatred.

In many ways a modern parable of hatred and empathy plays out in the new film, “Black Panther.”  (Last time I talked about a movie I got in trouble for spoiling the whole film; I’ll try to choose my words carefully.)  The movie centers on the conflict - and competing visions - of King T’Challa and his cousin Erik Killmonger.  Both must grapple with the reality and the memory of the Void, the loss caused by enslavers. An understandable anger burns in Erik Killmonger, driving him to seek vengeance; and this hatred destroys his relationships and turns him into the very people he despised, until at last he sounds like a British imperialist promising “The sun will never set on our empire.”  King T’Challa undergoes his own transformative quest - everyone must see this film so I can talk about it - in which he must decide what kind of man he will be: one ruled by fear or empathy.  Resolving that question didn’t come through the battle scenes but through confrontations with his past and learning how the memory of the Void would shape his future.

Like King T’Challa, we face choices between allowing hatred or empathy to rule in our hearts.  A woman recently wrote about her childhood bully, a boy who made her miserable for years.  She wanted him to have an awful life; even long after they ended up in different grades, she would occasionally google him, hoping for the worst, to savor the ways her life worked out and his fell apart.  And then one day she learned he had died at 25, killed in a drug deal gone bad.  She learned the details, “His friends said he was so terrified in the weeks leading up to his murder that he’d slept with a hammer under his pillow. I was haunted by what I imagined his final moments were like, by how scared he must have been. I cried for the boy who had made me so miserable.”  Now, instead of being satisfied by revenge or karmic justice, she’s realized that both the victim and the bully need help; she came to empathize.

As we face choices between hatred and empathy in our lives, what would it mean to take the Ten Commandments as our spiritual guide?  To remember in a way that enlarges our hearts?  To take our hardest moments not as sources of our greatest resentment but a call to our deepest love?  To allow empathy to arise from memory?



  • Douglass, Frederick, “My Slave Experience in Maryland,” National Antislavery Standard, 1845.

  • Hawkins, Peter S., Undiscovered Country: Imaging the World to Come (Hawkins’ commentary on Dante helped me find new meaning in the Inferno).

  • Jordan, Miriam, “Subtle Edit in Mission at Agency for Migrants,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 2018.

  • Ibid, “Spurned by U.S. and Facing Danger Back Home, Iranian Christians Fear the Worst,” New York Times, March 1, 2018.

  • USCIS, “Press Release,” Mar. 27, 2006 (PR quoted President Bush).

  • De, Ruiter, Geradline, “I thought my bully deserved an awful life. But then he had one,” Washington Post, February 22, 2018.