Empathy: Seeing beyond the bars

This week’s guest blog is by Stephen Siemens.  Stephen recently completed four years as Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada. These reflections are adapted from a presentation he made last spring in Ottawa at an event sponsored by the Christian Council on Justice and Corrections (CCJC) during National Victims of Crime Awareness Week.

The parable of the Good Samaritan has become one of Jesus’ most famous parables. It teaches us about empathy – empathy coming from an unlikely situation and an unlikely person.

We all know the story. A man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beat up and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest came by – a likely helper – but he saw the injured man and passed by. A Levite, another religious leader, also came and also passed by. Then a Samaritan came along. He bound the injured man’s wounds, took him to a nearby inn and provided money to the innkeeper to tend to the man’s needs. He promised to pay more when he returned.

Photo Credit Radio Canada

Photo Credit Radio Canada

Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach his Jewish listeners about being neighbourly.  Importantly, the story did not portray their religious leaders – the priest or the Levite – as those who were neighbourly. Quite the opposite. The neighbourly person was a Samaritan — their enemy, the one they considered devoid of basic humanity, the “absolute other.” It was the Samaritan who felt empathy for the injured man and acted to help him.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see clearly that empathy can come from an unlikely situation and an unlikely person. One of the important lessons that we have learned in the Church Council on Justice and Corrections is that offenders – unlikely people – can in fact demonstrate profound empathy for victims. Indeed, as they recognize their own victimization, offenders can offer deep and sincere empathy to victims of crime.

Planting Peace 1

Photo credit MCC Alberta

But the scandal in the parable is not only that empathy can be found in an unlikely place and in an unlikely person, but that the category of neighbour is boundless, permeable, and it extends to the ultimate “other.” Our calling is to love our neighbours—anyone and everyone—without any wiggle room, without any loopholes. Jesus made it clear that “neighbour” means anyone and everyone. There are no exceptions, including those we want to write off or consider as “other.”

This biblical imperative calls CCJC to pay attention to empathy because the Christian story itself hinges on empathy. God coming in Christ was itself victim empathy work with offenders, indeed with humanity.

Ann Jervis says it well, in “Empathy and the New Testament”:

The New Testament believes that God is an empathetic God; that God’s
empathy extends beyond the capacity to understand human experience to
actively entering into human experience. The New Testament presents Jesus
as the supreme example of empathy, as one who fully understands both the
experience of God and the experience of humanity.  And Paul challenges
followers of Jesus to empathize fully with Jesus’ faith and Jesus’ death, and to hope for his resurrection.

So ultimately CCJC is interested in nurturing empathy because God, in sending Jesus, has offered empathy to all humanity. Our motivation compels us to provide opportunities for empathy with victims, and to nurture empathy in places and among people who society would rather not entertain, such as federal offenders. When we help offenders to recognize their own victimization, we enable them to develop empathy for victims and take responsibility for their actions.

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