The idea of loving our neighbors brings to mind the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told this parable to expand his followers’ understanding of who our neighbors are. The Samaritan put the interests of others above his own. Likewise, Jesus himself provided the ultimate example of understanding, loving, and caring for others. As this passage from Philippians says, Jesus looked not to his own interests but rather humbled and emptied himself, taking on human form to save humanity. If we are supposed to have “the same mind… that was in Christ Jesus,” what would that look like for us today? Who are the “others” whose interests we should protect? What neighbors have we overlooked? What selfish interests or fears might prevent us from following Christ’s example?
Among the many neighbors that Christ calls us to engage are the Muslims in our community, who make up a tiny percentage of the US population but are often feared and ridiculed. Those APC members who have joined our summer Sunday School sessions know that I teach and write about Christian-Muslim relations. In my work, the key ingredient for interreligious understanding is also a critical Christian concept:
. Knowing how to love our neighbors requires empathy and not just sympathy. Sympathy recognizes sameness (so that I feel your pain because I’ve had a similar experience). Sympathy can also help us recognize the humanity in our neighbor. This is an important starting point for interfaith relations and for building friendships across all lines of difference, but it’s only the first step.
Empathy goes even deeper. It recognizes differences and allows us to understand experiences, feelings, and values that we may not share. Empathy enables us to treat our neighbors as they themselves would want to be treated. Of course, if more of us would just treat our neighbors with sympathy, our society would be a better place. But to live faithfully in this diverse world God made, we need to cultivate empathy too: listen attentively, be sensitive to the other person’s emotions, reconsider our own assumptions, use our understanding of the other person’s perspective to guide our actions. So let’s follow the example of Jesus, who came to know humanity intimately by dwelling among us. When we practice Christian empathy, we come to know our neighbors of all faiths, cultures, and nationalities by emptying ourselves and looking to the interests of others.