The world is on fire. Maybe not on the surface, and it may not be visible all the time, but there is a spinning and burning tornado of flame under the surface and anything that gets close to it has a chance of burning. The smallest step, the slightest wrong, the wrong turn of phrase will ignite and burn up as the world's furnace gets hotter and hotter. We have done this to ourselves, as we are seemingly unable to coexist with other human beings who look, believe, act, or feel differently than we do. It's a shame.
A few days ago a black man was killed by a police officer in Minnesota. His name was Philando Castile and he was shot when a policeman overreacted to his possession of a firearm at a routine traffic stop. In America, his possession of a firearm was completely legal and within his rights. The police officer made a terrible mistake, or was a terrible person. In a world on fire, you don't get to make mistakes. Especially the kind that cost someone his life.
Conclusions were jumped to, lines were drawn, sides were taken, photos were found to prove Castile was this or that type of person--as if any type of person deserves to be shot at point-blank range in front of his girlfriend.
The very next day a peaceful protest of the police killings of black men in America was taking place in Dallas, one of my home towns. The world is on fire, and peaceful protests rarely stay that way when they get too close to the flames. A madman opened fire into the crowd, targeting police officers as some sort of retribution for the killings of black men in America.
There's a myth called Redemptive Violence. It is as old as humanity and is deeply rooted in even the earliest stories we told ourselves around ancient campfires. If there is chaos or suffering, then violence can solve the problem. The hero can knock enough heads in to free the princess or the bad guys will always be beaten by the good guy whose guns are super cool. We even name our missiles Peacemakers. We truly believe, down to our core, that violence can bring about peace and justice. We believe that fire can be fought with fire.
Any progress made at the peaceful protest--any brotherhood or forgiveness made possible by the selfies with cops and handholding street songs sung by the protesters was eliminated faster than a speeding bullet. The protest was hiding the fire, but fire burns everything eventually.
Empathy is impossible when we're yelling. When the fire is burning, we can't see the Other for who he or she is. We can't see that even when we are not at fault directly, we are at fault. Life is not black and white, Us and Them, because the world isn't that way. Living dualistically will only lead you to become more judgmental, more angry, and more convinced you are right and those people are wrong.
In the book of John, Jesus in confronted by some people who are convinced they are right. They have caught a woman in adultery (it isn't clear what happened to the man she was caught with, but it's likely not much because life stunk for women back then) and have the right to execute her. She was wrong. She made a mistake. The world was on fire and she got too close. These men were going to show her and everyone else what happens when you aren't right enough.
Jesus starts writing in the dirt.
Some say he was writing scriptures, or listing the sins of the accusers, some say he was writing the names of the women they committed adultery with. No matter what he wrote, his next statement is enough to instantly extinguish the fire. "Let anyone who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her." Immediately he injected empathy into the situation. He allowed the men to see themselves and their sin in her. They were the woman caught in adultery and they couldn't condemn themselves to death.
What empathy does is it allows you to understand how infinitely capable you are of wrong. You can hate with the best of them. A few decisions separate you from the worst person in prison. The difference between having an impulse and acting on it is the difference between many of us and many of the people behind bars today. Understanding and embracing that is how empathy can begin working itself into the system of the world, putting out the fires.
Empathy only happens effectively when we listen to stories different from our own. When we understand people aren't making up their shared experiences. There is a problem in race-relations in the United States. There is a problem in policing in the United States. There is a problem with Hate in the United States. There is a we and them problem and we see how connected we are to them, and how connected our happiness is to theirs, we will begin to see the flames die down around us.
I am Philando Castile, and I am the cop who killed him. I am the cops shot in Dallas, and I am the murderer who killed them. We are connected because we are all human. Empathy has to rule the day, or we will all be burned up in the fire. We are all guilty and we are all crazy and we are all wrong and, because of the merciful Love at the center of all things, we are alright.