Empathy vs. Assimilation

My wife recently directed me to a wonderful blog post by Juan Lopez entitled Tortillas and Theology. In this post, Juan speaks of his recent discovery that tortillas originally had a different name but the conquistadors couldn’t pronounce it so they called them tortillas instead. Then he concludes the piece saying this:

We must learn from the mistakes of the European Church and not attempt to conquer and destroy those different from us. Instead we must see that Christ is all and is in all. We must not rename the bread and attempt to call it something we can pronounce. Let it remain a mystery. This is what makes us the Church, the body of Christ.

On the same day that my wife shared this with me, I had led a Bible study from Hebrews 13. Verse 3 of Hebrews 13 reads, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who were being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” As I held these two things up to one another, it led me to believe that empathy is a better approach to diversity than assimilation.

Now, I admit that when I see the word “assimilation” I can’t help but think of the Borg from Star Trek. “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” The interesting thing though is that historically the approach to Christian evangelism has often followed a similar strategy. Conquer the enemy and force them to worship your God. Assimilate them into your religion and your culture. In a perhaps less violent way, we continue to use this strategy in our churches. A visitor comes to our church and we expect them to do things “the way we’ve always done them.” They must be assimilated into our way of thinking, our way of worshiping. Assimilation requires change from the other.

The problem with empathy is that it requires change from us. It requires us to put ourselves into the shoes of the other and walk for a mile or so. It requires us to see through their eyes. And, frankly, we don’t want to do that. Because there is a distinct possibility that the experience will change us. And we’d prefer to stay in our safe, little bubbles. The problem with that is that it stands in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How can we do that if we don’t take time to understand our neighbor as we understand ourselves? Or forgive our neighbor as we forgive ourselves?

Rather than renaming what we don’t understand, how about we take more time learning and growing with the other. Perhaps we will pick up more of the language, more of the culture, more of the heart of the other. When we do that, it will most certainly change us. But it will change us for the better. Not just OUR better, but the better of ALL. Empathy requires time, connection, and understanding. But isn’t that how Jesus did ministry. When Jesus meets the woman at the well, he doesn’t simply tell her to change her ways. He gets to know her. He learns her story and connects that story to his own. That right there is the gospel…that our story connects to God’s story. And our job is not to connect others to God through our story, but to help them see how their story connects to God as well. This is what witnessing is all about.

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