Empathy in the information age: how much is too much?

Lucas Cranach the Elder - Christ blessing the Children (1545-50)

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Christ blessing the Children (1545-50)

by Calum Samuelson, 16th March 2017

The idea of studying with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other still holds weight as a paradigm for Christian engagement with culture, but is increasingly becoming outdated practically. Long gone are the days when one could expect to be up to date by simply reading the Sunday paper. The fact is that news is now distributed by the hour, with new updates only a click away. In addition to the immediacy of news, there is an overwhelming variety of issues to be concerned about… prison violence in Brazil, the murder of Kim Jong-nam, and the imminent extinction of the vaquita porpoise.

The fact is that social media and all its online derivatives represent a leap in communications technology not seen since the invention of the printing press.[1] The increasing immediacy and variety of news raises important questions for Christians: How much time should we devote to keeping up with current events? How should we respond to events that are genuinely foreign to us (whether geographically, culturally, or ideologically)? How can we be loving, compassionate followers of Christ if we are unaware of the ways that the world around us is hurting? I would like to briefly offer some thoughts about these concerns.

First, we should remember that empathy is absolutely vital for the healthy functioning of families, communities, and societies. The Incarnation of Jesus can be understood as the archetype of empathy[2] and thus necessitates the need for all Christians to enter into the pain of others to some degree. But not all Christians are equally endowed with the capacity to empathise. This is not a bad thing, of course, for we recognise that different gifts are given to different members of the Body for the benefit of the whole. Nonetheless, less-empathetic people may still feel pressured to respond somehow (a comment on Facebook?) to the daily flood of sobering news, and in so doing can actually use the pain of others as a means to an end. The habit of ‘scrolling’ through negative news on social media can even act as a numbing agent for one’s own pain or guilt.[3] While we could debate the correct understanding of ‘empathy’, we cannot discount the incredible way social media is increasingly acting as a vehicle for news. We should think carefully about the implications of this in relation to empathy and compassion.

Jesus was obviously aware of current events[4] and the hurts of the common person. And although he is often remembered for his selfless compassion on the crowds, he also had limits. For instance, we read in several places how Jesus retreated in order to pray and rest. More than just placing limits on the time he gave to the people, Jesus was also selective with how he used his time and energy. This is seen in Mark 1:38, where Jesus says, ‘Let us go somewhere else’, seemingly ignoring those who were seeking him. As Christians, we must strive to understand both how and how often we should act compassionately based upon our giftings, resources, and calling.

Second, we must understand our own giftings in relation to our community and local context. Here, 2 Corinthians 8-9 is instructive. Paul asked both the church in Macedonia and the church in Corinth to help the Christians in Jerusalem via financial gifts. Despite the geographic separation, there was a shared sense of identity that gave context to Paul’s request and thus increased the sense of responsibility. But vitally, Paul emphasises the importance of sincerity and cheerfulness; reluctance and compulsion is probably a sign of the wrong motives.

No matter how hard we try to stay informed about events in the world, we will inevitably be confronted by ‘important’ stories about which we have little or no context. Although perhaps a source of anxiety for some, this can actually be a great opportunity for Christians to respond in humility and demonstrate a willingness to learn. However, this aim will be fruitless if we as Christians are also unaware of, unengaged with, or disinterested in important issues in our local communities, regions, and countries. There is truth to the saying, ‘Charity begins at home’, not least because this is where we have the greatest responsibility to help others directly.

While the stream of news may seem unlimited, our capacity to genuinely engage has clear limits. When seeking to discern ‘how much is too much?’, we should recognise that breadth of awareness is not evidence of the depth of our engagement. Ultimately, empathy that doesn’t actually lead to some form of compassionate action is unfulfilled and incomplete—benefitting neither involved party—so we should always consider the connection between our awareness and our actions.

[1] For a brief history of social media see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00393.x/full.

[2] Hebrews 4:15.

[3] For an interesting comparison see http://reason.com/blog/2017/03/01/moral-outrage-is-self-serving.

[4] See Luke 13:4 for an interesting example.

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Category: Blogs

March, 2017

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