An NPR article by Hanna Rosin titled “The End of Empathy” recently noted that, “Americans these days seem to be losing their appetite for empathy, especially the walk-a-mile-in-someone’s-shoes Easter Sunday morning kind.”
She’s not alone in her observation. In my hometown of Ann Arbor, University of Michigan researchers found empathy levels among students in sharp decline. Figuring out why is above my pay grade but, as a progressive pastor, I do think Rosin is onto something when she describes walking in someone else’s shoes as being an “Easter Sunday morning kind” of compassion. In my faith tradition, we practice building empathy by placing ourselves in the stories of Scripture — including the Passion story, when Jesus was arrested, beaten, mocked, dehumanized, and killed as a vulnerable scapegoat within an anxious political system.
Even if you’re not of the Christian persuasion, I think we can all benefit by spending 20–30 minutes on Good Friday meditating on what it might be like to be a persecuted scapegoat. Here are some options for how to do that:
- Meditate on the story of a recent immigrant. Imagine what circumstances would drive you to leave your home and walk hundreds of miles — perhaps with your young children — to try and find a safer life in the United States. Imagine the journey. Imagine the emotions, the smells, the aches, the weather, the fears, the hope. Imagine standing in line at the border, waiting. Imagine being questioned by officials who may or may not speak your language. Imagine being hungry and tired and thirsty. Imagine being placed on a bus and taken to a detention center where you’re locked in a cold cage with other people who are also tired, smelly, hungry, and scared. Imagine sleeping there. Imagine being shuffled to a tent camp city.
- Meditate on the story of a queer teenager whose family thinks being gay is a sin. Imagine feeling desperately alone, thinking about what might happen should you tell a trusted adult about your attractions — your youth group leader, your mom and dad, your pastor, your teacher at your small conservative Christian school. Imagine sharing your first kiss with someone you like, but not having a single person with whom you can talk with about it. Imagine having kids at your school make fun of you for being effeminate, or “butchy.” Imagine falling in love and, realizing you’re not going to get away with hiding your relationship from your family, coming out to them. Imagine they cry. Imagine they tell you they’re scared you’re going to hell, and that they can’t tolerate you living with them so long as you’re dating. Imagine going to bed that night and crying your eyes out, not knowing what to do. Imagine feeling suicidal. Imagine the mixture of suffocating silence and dehumanizing accusations masked by “concern” you’d have to endure for months — maybe years. Imagine deciding to leave your home, sleeping on friend’s couches (40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+, many of whom were kicked out of their conservative Christian homes).
- Meditate on what it’s like to be a young black man walking in an American city at night. Meditate on what it’s like to be a Muslim family living in a white suburban neighborhood. Meditate on what it’s like to be differently-abled or neurodiverse. Meditate on what it’s like to be hyper-famous and have lies about you splashed all over magazine covers. Imainge being anyone else and what it might be like to live in their skin.
Good Friday is when my tradition remembers how God intimately identified with the suffering of humans. We remember how easy it is for groups of humans to project their own fears, sins, and anxieties onto a vulnerable person or minority and exile, isolate, fire, deport, beat, and/or kill them. We remember how humans so often declare the innocent guilty, just as we declared Jesus guilty.
Easter is when my tradition remembers how God overturned our human verdit of guilty and declared all scapegoats, everywhere, innocent. We remember that we’re not to treat others as we, ourselves, wouldn’t want to be treated. And we remember the death of Jesus until he comes again — that his death should be the final sacrifice. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.