Unflinching Empathy

TMC Digging A Deeper Well

Our post two weeks ago, on the fact that most Americans feel like they are on “the losing side” of politics, garnered many responses.  Pastors and lay leaders told us they are struggling with the ways tribalism is causing tension and division in their churches.  At the same time, in many congregations, even mentioning the word ‘politics’ (as the Pew research we had cited does, repeatedly) would be like touching the third rail; not every church board can do it and survive.

So here is another resource for church board reflection on the mounting costs of tribalism — this time from a veteran writing instructor.

In a recent opinion piece titled “The Most Important Writing Exercise I’ve Ever Assigned,” Rachel Kadish, a teacher with over two decades of classroom experience, says she often begins her class with the following assignment:  

Write down a phrase you find abhorrent — something you yourself would never say.

Students startle at the request but quietly comply. Then Kadish ups the ante.  She asks them to spend 10 minutes writing a monologue, in the first person, that’s spoken by a fictitious character who makes that upsetting statement.  The statement must appear in the monologue, and (here’s the kicker) somewhere in the monologue there must be “an instant — even a fleeting phrase — in which we can feel empathy for the speaker.”  In other words, she is asking her students to find the humanity of someone whose values and opinions they despise.

Kadish has assigned this exercise for decades in diverse educational contexts and with students ranging in age from 7 to 70, and across the years she has seen students struggle yet also succeed in feeling what she calls “unflinching empathy.”  But of late, she observes, something has changed.

[I]n recent years openness to this exercise and to the imaginative leap it’s designed to teach has shrunk to a pinprick. As our country’s public conversation has gotten angrier, I’ve noticed that students’ approach to the exercise has become more brittle, regardless of whether students lean right or left.

In response, Kadish has adapted.

Worrying that I’d been too sanguine about possible pitfalls, I made it entirely silent, so no student would have to hear another’s troubling statement or fear being judged for their own. Any students who wanted to share their monologues with me could stay after class rather than read to the group. Later, I added another caveat: If your troubling statement is so offensive, you can’t imagine the person who says it as a full human being, choose something less troubling. I narrowed the parameters: No politics. The pandemic’s virtual classes made risk taking harder; I moved the exercise deeper into the semester so students would feel more at ease.

Kadish is forced to wonder “whether the aperture through which we allow empathy has so drastically narrowed as to foreclose a full view of our fellow human being.”  She ends by making an impassioned case for literature as an empathy-builder.  But we wonder if there isn’t also a case to be made here for congregational life as an empathy-builder—if church boards can lead the way.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson renders a portion of Matthew 5:

38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. God gives God’s best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Part of the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount is that it can sound poetic and inspiring, but practicing what it preaches with fellow congregants is hard.  Much as practicing unflinching empathy in the presence of fellow students is hard.

Living ‘generously and graciously’ requires a risk-taking spirit of empathy.  This is work worthy of congregations in our time.



Can you think of a time in your life when you felt “unflinching empathy” for someone whose views you despised?  How did you get there?


Can you think of a time when someone expressed such empathy for you?


What would it feel like to use Kadish’s writing exercise in a church board meeting?  What worries you most?


Can you name ways in which your congregation has adapted to avoid possible pitfalls of polarization?  How about your church board?


Who in your congregation suffers the most as collective capacity for empathy declines?  Who in your community suffers the most?


How might you, as a church board, help your congregation (and community) to widen the aperture of empathy as we walk through this election year?  What are two steps you could take this month?

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