The Loss of Christian Empathy

Zachary Gappa
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Posted: Aug 29, 2014 12:01 AM
The Loss of Christian Empathy

Maclean's recently featured a compelling summary of our rapidly-deteriorating communities titled "The End of Neighbours." The expertly-written piece by Brian Bethune is one of the better articles you'll read this year, and it gets at a key tragedy that is particularly convicting for a Christian conservative: We have forsaken our neighbors.

"For decades, Americans and Canadians have been steadily less likely to vote, to play bridge, to volunteer, to invite people over for dinner, to join parent-teacher groups or local organizations the way previous generations did—from the Rotary Club to bowling leagues. Family remains strong, possibly because, in the solo age, even very close relatives are not living under one roof. Between the mid-1990s and 2008, the percentage of Americans who reported eating at least once a month with relatives with whom they didn't live rose from 52 to 59. Over a longer period (1974 to 2008), the percentage who spent an evening socializing with neighbours tumbled from 44 to 31, while the percentage who never did so rose from 20 to 30. The evolving modern definition of a good neighbour is no longer someone who is part of your life, someone you chat with over the fence, a reliable shoulder in good times and bad, but someone who doesn't bother you, either in your enjoyment of your home or by threatening its property value."

Within days of reading this article I encountered two highly-personal, emotional essays written by men taxed by the same moral burden. Thabiti Anyabwile at The Gospel Coalition laments what he takes to be the impotence of the Christian conservative:

"But it should also be the good Samaritan religion, a religion of justified people who demonstrate their justification in practical acts of compassion for its beaten, robbed and left-for-dead ethnic-other neighbors. Do we see that from national evangelical ministries and leaders? No, we don't. Ours appears to be the religion of the Pharisee who asks, 'Who then is my neighbor?'"

Meanwhile longtime-writer and RedState founder Erick Erickson explains how he increasingly finds "conflict between my faith and some conservative discourse." He wishes he had never implemented the comments section on his site, as it serves so often to publicize and magnify the views of the most hateful minority of readers. He is particularly troubled by the fearful and loveless response from many of his supposedly-conservative readers, including (1) hostility towards Christian conservatives who are privately trying to aid and comfort illegal immigrant children, (2) anger and fear over trying to save Dr. Brantly and his co-worker by bringing them back to the U.S. For treatment, and (3) a "rush to win a fight and lay blame instead of mourning a loss and praying" for the situation in Ferguson.

Both of these writers are getting at the same problem, the problem laid out in the Maclean's article: Our lack of connection to our neighbors. This is particularly troubling when we see it among Christian conservatives. Of all religious and political combinations, Americans claiming to be both Christian and conservative ought to be immensely other-oriented. After all, for the Christian, the second greatest commandment is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). And for the conservative, there are few things as important as a vibrant, thriving local community full of connected neighbors.

Yet today we seem to have less and less connection to our neighbors. Of course people are constantly communicating. Social media, email, and texting have created an unprecedented ease of access to other people. But the vast majority of these people are not our neighbors. They are friends, family, or people with whom we share a common interest (the Maclean's piece delves into this further). They are people like us, and it is easy to love ourselves. What makes loving your neighbor difficult is that our neighbors are often very unlike us. The "otherness" is a barrier to love, and, sadly, it's a barrier some Christian conservatives seem unwilling to cross.

How else can we explain some of the current contradictions in conservatism today? Conservatives are supposed to oppose "big government," right? Yet for many of today's conservatives that rule only applies to social programs. They vehemently oppose most forms of "big government" on a social level but are eager to embrace and defend government whenever it comes to military or police force (sometimes with almost-religious cries of loyalty and nationalism). Obamacare is horrible, welfare programs are unfair and destructive, redistribution of wealth is a cardinal sin, and all forms of government and taxes should be minimized. But you just can't get them united in opposition to NSA and TSA overreach, a massive military budget, never-ending wars (or an eternal "War on Terrorism"), and an increasingly militarized police force.

Perhaps this conservative policy contradiction makes more sense in the light of crumbling communities. Perhaps a good number of modern Christian conservatives are simply more concerned about "me and mine." They want the government to be hands off when it comes to their personal lives (lower taxes, fewer regulations, etc.), but they want a powerful government when it comes to protecting them from others (foreign or domestic). For these Christian conservatives, concern for their "neighbor" extends about as far as their property line. Beyond that they look to the government to take over.

Love for our neighbors is being replaced by distaste for or fear of our neighbors. The Good Samaritan found a man lying naked and half dead on the road and went over to help him, while the Levite and priest crossed the road and ignored him. I suspect many modern Americans (conservative and liberal alike) would not only ignore the man but call the police on him out of fear. There is little mercy or self-sacrificial love in our hearts. We are too busy being comfortable and secure.

Clearly this neglect of neighborliness is a cultural problem that affects Americans of every political and religious persuasion, but it is a particularly black mark when some Christian conservatives join in, because it goes against our core moral beliefs. A "me and mine" approach to society is the opposite of both the Gospel and true conservatism.