By Ryan Phipps
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”
(The Gospel of Matthew)
I was taking out the recycling late last evening. Like many buildings in New York, there is a room at the end of the hall on each floor where the residents take their recyclables. There, they separate the paper from the plastic, then the building staff make their rounds and gather it to take out to the street.
There’s a certain ethical code that residents and building staff share. It’s considered rude for residents to leave disposed plastics filled with liquids or food, to discard broken glass, or to leave boxes in the recycling area without disassembling them first.
I try my very best to abide by this code. I feel that this is respectful and part of being a good resident of my building.
Tonight, I found the recycling area on our floor filled with boxes that were not disassembled. I worried that maybe Andrea or the nanny got in a hurry earlier in the day and decided not to abide by the code, so I picked up one of the boxes and looked at the shipping address on it to make sure that they weren’t ours.
When I saw that they weren’t, I thought, “How rude! Why didn’t this person show some consideration to the building staff who take out the garbage? They’re just making more work for someone else! How dare they!”
Then I thought to myself, “Well, not my boxes, therefore not my problem.” So I left the boxes as I found them.
On the way back to the apartment, I heard a voice in my conscience say, “This is exactly how you are responding to what’s going on in Aleppo. You think it’s someone else’s transgression, and therefore not your problem.”
I turned around, walked back to the recycling area, and disassembled the boxes.
Thank God for those boxes.
SYMPATHY OR EMPATHY?
We are people of feeling. We are people of conscience. We give love, we receive love, but we often fail to really feel another’s pain by placing ourselves in their shoes.
Why? Because it hurts. It takes work.
We share shocking images of all that’s going on in Aleppo with our opinions housed in the captions on social media, and in doing so, we feel (strangely) absolved, as if we’ve done our part by clicking “share, post, or tweet.”
Thus, the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Sympathy is inactive. Empathy is active.
My spouse sent me this video the minute it was released and said, “This is what the church ought to be busy with.” And she’s right.
But all too often, we, the church of the glorious West are too busy managing our own Christian comforts. Did I like the sermon? Did the music give me tingles? Was the coffee good? Was my seat comfortable? Was the sanctuary at the right temperature?
We pray our prayers, we read our books, and wonder why God doesn’t feel close any longer, so we just keep scavenging for the Divine in all the same places.
Here’s a thought.
Maybe God isn’t close in those moments where we’re all wrapped up in the spiritual circus that is Western Evangelicalism.
Maybe God is over there where all the pain is.
Like the ethical code of recycling in my building, there’s also certain ethical code to being human.
We are to look out for each other. We are our brother’s keeper.
We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to oppression and suffering, but we shouldn’t just stare at it without getting involved either. The staring ought to tug at that spot deep within us- that spot from which we fall in love, hurt for another, and feel things that are far deeper than superficial comforts.
Prayer is good. We should be praying for the people of Aleppo, but if all our praying doesn’t move us to act in compassion, then what avails it?
P.S. - Our family has decided that the best way we can help those suffering in Aleppo is by lending support with our dollars to organizations who are fighting the good fight there. If you are moved to do so, here are some organizations doing good work there, right now.
P.P.S. - I also highly recommend taking a look at this article that is filled with other ways that you can help.
Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, New York City, a vibrant, growing faith community dedicated to cultivating a just and generous expression of the Christian Faith in New York and around the world. He also serves as the National Communications Director for Convergence, the umbrella organization comprising The Center for Progressive Renewal, The OPEN Network, The FORM Network, and The Catholic Network. Learn more about Ryan at ryanphipps.com