In case the tweet gets deleted: an embedded tweet from John Rogers (@jonrog1) saying: “People mocking 1/6 cops’ emotions and Simone Biles Olympic decision really brings home that we’re way past partisan divide and dealing with the fact that somehow, over the last half century, our predominantly religious culture raised a hundred million Americans without empathy.”
This tweet has made the viral rounds in just the past 24 hours, and it’s got me thinking, because I resonate strongly with the message. I have seen it very frequently among the Christian circles—particularly the evangelical Christian circles—that I have lived in my entire life. The disdainful comments about people on food stamps. The anger at immigrants that “won’t learn the language”. Snarky, hateful comments about “the gays”. An insistence that poor mothers should get benefits cut off if they keep having children. And on and on and on.
What makes it more jarring is that these same Christians, when provided with a specific in-person opportunity to show empathy, will almost always respond in very compassionate, empathetic ways. They will give money, make meals, house people, literally give you the shirt off their back. But when talking about a generic “them”, or an individual that they don’t know personally, that sense of compassion and empathy quickly disappears.
Why is this so? Why do we have such a failure of compassionate imagination that when we think of the generic other, we assume the worst and by default make a critique?
As I ponder this question, my mind is drawn to the incongruity that has nagged at me a thousand times in a thousand different sermons and ‘gospel presentations’. Why is it that the same people who will insist that salvation is 100% God’s work, that we are wretched, helpless, despicable people, and that every act is determined by God, will also be the loud voices preaching that you better shape up your life, and that if your sin doesn’t bother you enough, you’d better think hard and long about whether you’re “really saved”? (As if that theological framework would allow that you could do anything about that status, anyway.)
Then I connect a dot or two related to the predominant theme of “the gospel” from that vein of evangelical Christianity: penal substitutionary atonement. Specifically, that God’s wrath against sin is burning so hot that if you (yes, you) don’t accept the gift of salvation He offers, He is right and just and praiseworthy to torture you for all eternity. (Sure, there’s a hint more nuance in the systematic theology books, but this is the way you hear it from the pulpit. And Sunday School. And VBS. And AWANA. And on and on.)
So what happens when an evangelical tries to make all of these line up? Maybe evangelicals, when they look at these “other” people, subconsciously find it easier to live with the belief that God will torture those “other” people eternally if they can point to reasons why those “other” people are bad. They will deserve it, after all—that little Gospel presentation tells me so. After all, there has to be something different between me and them, right? Because even though that Gospel presentation tells me it’s 100% God and 0% me, there has to be something better about me, right? Because otherwise why is it great and good and praiseworthy that God arbitrarily chose to reward me, but to eternally torture millions of others?
An alternative idea…
What if, on the other hand, I understand salvation as being a part of God’s redemptive story for all people and creation? An act of restoration that will, in C. S. Lewis’ words from Narnia, make all sad things become untrue? A cosmic work of reconciliation that will restore right relationships between all living things? And that Jesus’ death was not God punishing God to pay for some select few a penalty that God arbitrarily set in place, but rather was a demonstration of God’s love for all creation, proof that the effects of sin in the world will bring death to even the most undeserving, but that God’s redemptive power is stronger even than death itself?
With that view in mind, might I (who up until very recently claimed to be an evangelical Christian) have more empathy and compassion for those struggling with the effects of a broken world? Might I see them — even the general, “other” them — first and foremost as image bearers in need of restoration? Might I see that the good works I can do to help those in need are not some work of “social justice” at odds with “the gospel” but rather the very foreworking of reconciliation and restoration that Jesus will eventually return to complete?
A closing comparison
Ever since dispensationalism took hold, the evangelical church has looked askance at themes of environmental care. Not everyone would say it so bluntly, but the underlying theme is something like this: if it’s all going to burn eventually anyway, why does it matter so much if we take care of it? It doesn’t feel like a stretch to think that for many, the same principle might unconsciously apply to the general “other” person: if they’re going to burn in hell for eternity anyway, why should we care now?
May the church repent and return to compassion, empathy, and care for everyone who God loves — which is to say, for everyone.