Empathy is quickly becoming a buzz word of the 21st century. I don't think that this is our intent, but I don't think we often consider what empathy truly requires of us.
Empathy requires moral courage. Moral courage means taking risks while knowing the consequences of doing so. It is not the risks or the consequences that make empathy an ethical choice. Knowing the risks and consequences and still acting is what makes empathy an ethical choice. [A short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hde8IHusgJ8 that can be helpful.]
Empathy requires moral imagination. Moral imagination means allowing the mind to communicate with your heart. This mind-heart communication means that you will not just hear about people starving at home and around the world, but you will seek to understand those persons' plight from their point of view and life circumstances. You will "see through their eyes" and "feel through their pain." This feeling and seeing emboldens one's moral courage.
So, why this talk about empathy right now? As I read the news and hear pronouncements from government officials (as well as some of our fellow citizens) about immigrants and the services we will no longer provide for children and families, I know that empathy is not among the social values and principles guiding our national conscience and domestic or international policy.
Likewise, as we become more and more embroiled in what is labeled the "abortion debate," we reveal again our failure to be a national moral community. Too many politicians and citizens are claiming religious moral high ground as they push to overturn Roe v. Wade. Calling this a debate about abortion rather than a struggle to keep in place just public policy for reproductive choice is one of many signs of the kind of absolutist morality--binary, rigid--that guides our national life. Empathy cannot thrive in the context of absolutist morality.
Some will say: "That's politics. You're being idealistic." If politics were disembodied from persons and groups making decisions, I might agree with you. People make political decisions. Politics can be guided by principles of empathy.
How are you engaging the world with empathy? Start where you are and don't limit the ways and means of your engagement. There is no one way to protest. There is no one way to educate others about controversial issues. There is no one way to be a witness to divine activity in the world.
Are you going to advocate and practice a politics of empathy?
Come out on a limb with me.
Womanist ethicist grappling with questions about religion, justice and peace in our time.