By Archbishop Philip Freier
3 June 2022
Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 to “love your enemies, do good to them who hate you” is profoundly challenging to many aspects of human behaviour. It is clear as we read through his teaching that it engages every aspect of life. His conclusion to this teaching is plain, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”. I’m sure that he isn’t just talking about a gritty determination to behave in an acceptable way but that our commitment to be merciful is deeply set as a moral principle. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is an invitation to develop empathy in all our interactions with other people.
The modern world presents such an overwhelming and unrelenting stream of human suffering before us, across all media platforms, that it becomes a risk that our empathy is not animated by these events. We can readily become overwhelmed and desensitised. I’m impressed how many of our schools have “service learning” programs in place that expose students to the lives and circumstances of others in Australia or overseas whom they might not otherwise encounter. I have personally taken part in programs of this type and am impressed by how much impact they have. One was with Brighton Grammar School in the work they have led at the Martyrs’ Memorial School in Popondetta, Papua New Guinea, over many years; another was the Urban Camp led by the Brotherhood of St Laurence here in Melbourne. Not just awareness but empathy itself is nurtured through these experiences.
The modern world knows the transformative power of empathy. We mainly see that, negatively, in the techniques of dehumanisation and misinformation that are readily evident in the conflicts around the world. We don’t need to look further than the Russian invasion of Ukraine to see this happening in real time around us. News services in Russia are increasingly under the control of the Russian government, independent journalism has been suppressed and narratives about a “Special Operation” to “denazify” Ukraine are treated as plausible by many of the Russian people. This serves to desensitise the natural aptitude we all have for empathy. Even the prophetic voice of the Russian Church appears to have been captured by this process. It is reported that Pope Francis has confronted Patriarch Kiril of Moscow on this very matter, saying, “Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus. We are pastors of the same holy people of God. Because of this, we must seek avenues of peace, to put an end to the firing of weapons.”
Empathy is the greatest subverter of these narratives. Empathy is best nurtured through knowledge, awareness and relationships. The community support for the “Biloela family” of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka is a good example of this. This particular family, known personally by the local community of a country town has survived various adverse treatments through the emphatic advocacy of people around the country, starting with the community of Biloela.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you” is a powerful life rule. It is powered by empathy and depends on the character of God’s mercy commending itself to be written in our hearts, deeply embedded in our character.