You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
Of the Bible’s many commandments, variations on this one about empathy for the stranger recur some thirty-six times, far more often than any other. Why the repetition because the Bible knows two things. Empathy is hard to sustain and empathy is essential for civilized society. Headlines are beginning to sound the same warning: “Extending Empathy is Key to Human Survival!”[i]
So what makes empathy so difficult to maintain?
Here are 4 factors to consider:
- There are ultimate limits in our ability to understand the other. Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher, offers a pointed reminder. “The relationship with the other is not an idyllic and harmonious relationship of communion, nor a sympathy by which we are put in the other’s place, we recognize the other as similar to us, but outside of us, the relationship to the other is a relationship with a Mystery.”[ii] If you forget that, you can start treating others as a reflection of yourself, which runs the risk of diminishing their uniqueness.
- Empathy involves listening and deepening your understanding of “the other.” In our busy, sound bite driven lives, where more and more communication is virtual and where we tend to have relationships with people from our own circles, we don’t have much opportunity for getting to know “the other.” How many Jews, Christians, and Muslims have made sustained efforts of encounter and dialogue with one another?
- Prejudice diminishes empathy. Researchers have found that whether or not you see someone as belonging to your group or to a different group, and how you feel about that group, affects how your brain reacts to that person.[iii]
- Personal suffering doesn’t guarantee empathy. The Bible often links the injunction to treat the stranger fairly to the experience of Israelites suffering in Egypt. Because you know what pain is, don’t inflict it on others. The trouble is that you can use your painful memories in one of two ways, as a source either for compassion or for knowing where to hurt someone where it will sting the most. Scratch a child abuser, and you’ll often find an abused child. Or as the Bible observes, “The earth shudders … [when] a slave becomes king” (Proverbs 30:21–22).
Moments of tragedy unleash torrents of empathy. But as time passes empathy dries up. If everyone who said or felt “Je suis Charlie” would commit themselves to a year of interfaith dialogue empathy would begin to strike deeper roots.
[ii] Emmanuel Levinas, Le Temps et l’autre (Paris: Quaridge, 2011), 63.
[iii] Jennifer N. Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht, “Empathy Constrained: Prejudice Predicts Reduced Mental Simulation of Actions During Observation of Outgroups,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2010), http://www.michaelinzlicht.com/research/publications/Gutsell%20&%20Inzlicht,%20in%20press.pdf.