Sunday with Ron Rolheiser: Empathy for the World

Downtown Indianapolis (2016)

Sunday with Ron Rolheiser
Empathy for the World

There’s a story told, more legend perhaps than fact, about a mayor of a large American city in the late 1960s. It wasn’t a good time for his city: It was facing financial bankruptcy, crime rates were spiraling, its public transportation system was no longer safe at night, the river supplying its drinking water was dangerously polluted, the air was rife with racial tension, and there were strikes and street protests almost weekly.

As the story goes, the mayor was flying over the city in a helicopter at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. As the rush-hour bustle and traffic drowned out most everything else, he looked down at what seemed a teeming mess and said to one of his aides: “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was plunger and we could flush this whole mess into the ocean!”

He was being facetious, but I worry that we sometimes subtly think the same thing about our world. Too often we and our churches tend to see the world precisely as a mess, as caught up in mindless trivialization, as self-indulgent, as narcissistic, as short-sighted, as no longer having values that demand self-sacrifice, of worshipping fame, of being addicted to material goods, and of being anti-church and anti-Christian. Indeed, it is common today in our churches to see the world as our enemy.

And, far from feeling heartbroken about it, we feel smug and righteousness as we gleefully witness its downfall: The world is getting what it deserves! Godlessness is its own punishment! That’s what it gets for not listening to us! In this, our attitude is the antithesis of Jesus’ attitude towards the world.

Jesus loved the world. Really? Yes. Is this what the Gospels teach? Yes.

Here’s how the Gospels describe Jesus’ reaction towards the world that rejected him: As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it saying: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus sees what happens when people try to live without God, the mess, the pain, the heartbreak, and, far from rejoicing that the world isn’t working, his heart aches with empathy: If only you could see what you’re doing!

Looking at a world that’s breaking down because of its self-absorption, Jesus responds with empathy, not glee; with understanding, not judgment; with heartache, not rubbing salt in the wounds; and with tears, not good riddance.

Loving parents and loving friends understand exactly what Jesus was feeling at the moment when he wept over Jerusalem. What frustrated, heartbroken parent hasn’t looked at a son or daughter caught up in wrong choices and self-destructive behavior and wept inside as the words spontaneously formed: If only you could see what you’re doing! If only I could do something to spare you the damage you’re doing to your life by this blindness! If only you could recognize the things that make for peace! But you can’t see, and it breaks my heart!

The same is true among friends. True friends don’t rejoice and become gleeful when their friends make bad choices and their lives begin to collapse. Instead there are tears, mingled with anxious empathy, with heartache, with pleading, with prayers. Genuine love is empathic and empathy is never gleeful at someone else’s downfall.

We are asked by our Christian faith to have a genuine love for the world. The world isn’t our enemy. It’s our wayward child and our loved friend who is breaking our heart. That can be hard to see and accept when in fact the world is often belligerent and arrogant in its attitude towards us, when it’s angry with us, when it wrongly judges us, and when it scapegoats us. But that’s exactly what suffering children often do to their parents and friends when they make bad choices and suffer the consequences of that. They impute and scapegoat. This can feel very unfair to us, but Jesus attitude towards those who rejected and crucified him invites us to an empathy beyond that.

27 thoughts on “Sunday with Ron Rolheiser: Empathy for the World

  1. Love the world as a creation of God, but not inordinately, with the love that belongs to God alone.

    Sounds very Jewish.


  2. Ever heard of the phrase “Of the World but Not In It”?

    Usually speaking of a parallel Christianese Bubble Culture where you can go from Birth or Altar Call to Homegoing without ever encountering a Heathen (other than drive-by Witnessing expeditions) but still have ALL the Christianese knockoffs of contemporary pop culture. (Including all the Corruption, but entirely within the Church.)


  3. It is interesting that kosmos is used most often by John (he does use oikoumenes 3 times in Revelation). In Paul ‘world’ is much less ‘negative’; it is what it is – where we live, good and bad. John, too, sees the ‘world’ as both where we live, and the enemy of God, and God’s people. But God does love the world (in John). ‘kosmos’ does cover a lot of semantic ground and apparently was about the only word to cover the whole range. John is famous for using synonyms (or near synonyms) for stylistic reasons (e.g. the famous ‘agape’ vs. ‘phile’ distinction without a difference – by the first century ‘agape’ was the run of the mill word for ‘love’ used by pretty much everyone, and is used interchangeably by John). That John doesn’t come up with another word for either the ‘world’ God loves or the ‘world’ that is the enemy of God suggests there simply weren’t any. It is also worth noting that John’s style is also black or white – there is no middle ground. Everything is absolute.


  4. John wrote of the world becoming ‘the neighborhood of God’ by way of the Incarnation. I suppose if we are ‘Christ-followers’, we are not fearful to go out INTO the world as He did, rather than to seek ‘defense’ from a world where no storms have been calmed or people healed or the dead brought back to life again. (?)

    Having seen the touch of Our Lord’s feet on the soil and the waters and the mountains, the Earth itself awaits His return as a part of ‘all Creation’ . . . . ‘Go. You are ‘sent’.’ So many have gone and many more will go likely. But for those who cower in Upper Rooms, frightened and feeling persecuted, I suppose ‘the World’ is as though Our Lord never came, and they are ‘on their own’ to fend off ‘evil’ which is ‘all around them’ . . . . goodness, I’d rather be free out in the danger zone than locked up inside a place where there was no hope and certainly no love for them what exists in a world ‘outside’ the walls of the prison.


  5. No problem, Bob. I was going to try and answer you but was unable to get to my computer today. Seems like BCK answered you well.

    I would have said that we should not get hung up on specific Greek words, thinking they have a single meaning. As in every language, words have a basic connotation but then receive their specific meaning from the context in which they are used. In the 1John 2 passage, in particular, the specific sense of world becomes clear when the author describes “all that is in the world,” and then lists the particular corruptions and vices in the text. “World” here, then, in Greek or in English, is describing the corrupted culture of people who are living apart from God and who are under the powers of sin, the flesh, and the devil. If you read through all the writings attributed to John you will see that the word “world” is used in various ways, and the context will tell how to interpret it specifically.


  6. rhymeswithplague, the simplest explanation tends to be the best one. In this case it is highly doubtful that the gospel and the letters attributed to John were written by John or even by the same person. Many scholars envisage a Johannine “community” behind these works. This would explain the various textual problems with the gospel. It was written by committee!


  7. I suspect the ‘difference’ involves what is ‘transient’ versus what is ‘transcendent’.


  8. Yes, thank you, BCKemp for digging into the meanings of bothe words, love and world, in those passages that seemed to say opposite things in English. Your explanation helps tremendously.


  9. Which, BTW, is also the advice one would receive from any Life Coach worth his or her salt.

    From any competent Buddhist, as well. And I’m pretty sure ancient Epictetus would’ve been on the same page. It’s a good piece of advice from universally available human wisdom, no special revelation necessary.


  10. Well, my speculation turned out to be sort of right, though for the wrong linguistic reason: Love the world as a creation of God, but not inordinately, with the love that belongs to God alone. At least I got somebody who knows some Greek to help clear things up! Thanks, BCKemp.


  11. Not a Greek expert, but have had enough to be dangerous. Kosmon is one of those words that can have multiple meanings depending upon the context. In the case of John 3:16-17, the underlying meaning I have heard most often interpreted is “the whole world, all that exists” – which in that context has some pretty interesting theological implications. In other cases, it has a meaning of “order,” in the sense that the world the Greeks could perceive seemed an orderly, harmonious system. I would suggest that’s the distinction, though in the reverse of the way you heard it. God’s love is not simply for created beings (people) but for all that He has created. It was, after all, “very good.” Similarly, and in line with the command to Adam and Eve, we are to love what has been created, but be wary of the order we can perceive.

    The use of agape in the 1 John verses is also instructive – do not love the “order” of the world with the love reserved for God.


  12. They key term is “inordinate”, which in the hands of a Fundamentalist someone becomes “any”.


  13. > they should not have an inordinate attachment to the world or anything in it

    Which, BTW, is also the advice one would receive from any Life Coach worth his or her salt.


  14. I believe it’s possible that John was just having a bad day. On the other hand, although I don’t know the Greek, in English the word love, beyond its denotation, has among its connotations one that means having an inordinate attachment to something. Is it possible that John is using the word love in something like this meaning, telling those to whom he is writing that they should not have an inordinate attachment to the world or anything in it? If so, then the use of the same word in the different Biblical texts would not mean exactly the same thing, but depend on context and situation, and intent of the author. But the experts in Koine Greek would have to say if it’s possible for the word love to have, or if there are cases of it having, this variant shade of meaning in the original language.


  15. ATW, I don’t believe that John misspoke or that the author screwed up. It must be the way I was raised. Good try, though. Anyone else?


  16. My answer is simple: John misspoke, or the author screwed up. Reference more or less all the rest of Scripture from the Sermon on the Mount, to the “least of these”, to “love thy neighbor as…”, etc… John’s little screed represents a minority perspective; maybe he was having a bad day.


  17. Yep, And after you say that a few times commuters stop complaining when you’re around! 🙂

    Works notably less well on religious folks. 😦

    Contempt requires Othering, it is much easier to address the Othering than the Contempt..


  18. I have always struggled with Jesus saying ( and John recording in John 3:16) that God so loved the world kosmos but John later wrote in 1John 2:15 to love not the world, neither the things that are in the world, and that if any one loved the world the love of the Father was not in him. And he used the same word, kosmos.

    Someone once explained this to me that we were not to love the “world system” (kosmos) but the inhabitants of the world (oikumene). And yet John 3:16 used kosmos.

    CM, or somebody, please enlighten me.


  19. > The world isn’t our enemy.

    Not at all.
    The Church talking about The World is like listening to q commuter complain about Traffic Congestion.
    The proper response is: “You do realize you are not IN the traffic, but that you ARE the traffic.”
    The Church responds to that just as thoughtfully as the typical commuter; spitting and sputtering.


  20. Jesus told us, according to John, that God so loved the kosmos but John himself later told us to love not the kosmos , neither the things that are in the kosmos and that if any man loved the kosmos the love of the Father was not in him. I have heard this disparity explained that God did not love the “world system” (kosmos ) but “the people of the inhabited world” (oikumene). And yet John 3:16 and 1John 2:15 both use the word kosmos.

    CM, or somebody, can you enlighten me, please?


  21. “That sounds as much like the Church as the world to me. I’m really uncomfortable with dichotomizing Church and world at this point, because the two overlap to such an enormous degree, in terms of values, behaviors, lifestyle, ambitions, and everything else.”

    Much as Jesus said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Just as Paul said, “You who judge others have no excuse, for whatever you condemn the world of, you yourselves do the exact same things.”


  22. …a mess, as caught up in mindless trivialization, as self-indulgent, as narcissistic, as short-sighted, as no longer having values that demand self-sacrifice, of worshiping fame, of being addicted to material goods…

    That sounds as much like the Church as the world to me. I’m really uncomfortable with dichotomizing Church and world at this point, because the two overlap to such an enormous degree, in terms of values, behaviors, lifestyle, ambitions, and everything else. I frankly think the last paragraph of Rolheiser’s post, in which he compares the Church to a stable, loving parent being mistreated, judged and ignored by a rebellious teenager/non-Christian world is way off the mark, patronizing and just wrong-headed: the Church actually exhibits so little superiority to in comparison to the non-Christian world in terms of maturity, wisdom and behavior that the non-Christian world would be foolish to emulate it. The Church should learn some humility vis-a-vis “the world”, and face up to the facts of its own juvenile status, and its hypocrisy.


  23. A thoughtful post . . . . to see a world that seems hostile through empathic eyes

    my own thought is that for some years now, the Church has failed the world because of pride, because of lack of humility, because it was easier to point the finger than to embrace the leper

    the high point of ridiculous for me is seeing fundamentalist-evangelicals complaining because they don’t have the full legal ‘religious freedom’ to treat ‘the others’ with open contempt

    Chaplain Mike, this current post calls to mind another Imonk post and I cannot but think that the two are related in some important ways:


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