This week has been full of heartbreak and devastation. When I read and hear and see the hateful invective of those who call ourselves Christians, I feel sick. If you are not a Christian, I politely ask you to consider reading this because I want you to know what this Christian ardently believes her role is during your or anyone’s suffering. If you are a Christian, I would ask you to extend grace to me; I am not a theologian in an academic sense and I am here very publicly displaying my understanding or lack thereof. This post is long – about 2500 words – but please don’t let that deter you from reading and engaging.
In the book of Matthew in the Bible, there is a section referred to as the beatitudes. If you read on, you will see those verses. If I were naming the section, I would have named it ‘Blessed are the Empathizers’. And while I believe the Bible speaks for itself, I also believe we can become so forgetful of verses or so familiar with them that we need to revisit them and ferret out the application for today. That’s an exercise I’m working on this week amid all the terrors and sadness of the world.
The dictionary defines the word beatitude as ‘supreme blessedness’. In a sermon or lesson at some point, a teacher (I wish I knew who) said that the word translated ‘blessed’ is, in Greek, ‘markarious’ which means ‘complete fulfillment’. I’m not a scholar of Greek, so please correct me if my understanding is incorrect.
If we say that ‘blessed’ is complete fulfillment, then what can we do to bring that to ourselves? Let’s read Matthew 5: 3-11 [Yes, I include verse eleven and yes, I am aware that others do not]:
- Blessed the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
- Blessed the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
- Blessed they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
- Blessed the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
- Blessed the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
- Blessed the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
- Blessed they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are you, when men revile you, and persecute, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.
At first glance, the first seven beatitudes say nothing about externalities. We are not told to be poor in spirit when xyz happens or to mourn for abc. Only the last two talk about when things happen to the individual, namely persecution and false accusations. This leads me to consider whether the blessings come from consistency.
I don’t always have cause to mourn in my own life. I don’t always have opportunity for meekness, peacemaking, mercy. Or do I? I could assume the blessing is transient, here when I have opportunity and absent when I don’t. Or I could assume the blessing holds if done even once; for example, I once mourned and will be forever comforted.
Neither of these satisfies my understanding of my God.
I believe, and I can be wrong, that the blessings come from a constant and consistent pattern of self-action. And I believe we can live through all these blessings even if our own lives seem charmed, without constant opportunities to mourn and give mercy.
It is through empathy that we can share in these first seven blessings every single day.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
The first seems pretty straightforward: rely on God for everything. Be poor in our own spirits and rich in his Spirit. Straightforward is not the same thing as easy. I think it can be difficult to rely on God when we have so many divergent opportunities to rely on ourselves and others. I also think that we can trip over deliverance God provides through friends, family, science, the church, employment, and on and on. It’s like the man on the top of a house waiting for God to save him from the flood but refusing the boat that comes by. Relying on God means having empathy toward others, enough that we can determine when God’s richness comes through others.
Blessed are the ones who mourn.
I’ve done quite a lot of mourning in the last week. The senseless deaths around the world. The endless name calling. The hopelessness of delivering weapons of war around the world. The family who lost their boy to an alligator. The families whose people died or were traumatized in the worst ways. The people receiving diagnoses that represent loss. The people whose lives are turned upside-down by hurt and devastation from other people, from disease, from sin, from existing here in this place in this time. I don’t feel happy about a single harm to a single one of these. I don’t feel smug and I’m not telling myself or my God, “Man, I’m so glad I’m not like them.” What am I doing? What I hope all are doing. I’m mourning. I’m mourning those gone and for those left behind. I’m mourning the state of the world. I’m mourning.
Blessed are the meek.
In today’s English language, meek means quiet and gentle. Its synonyms might include submissive, yielding, obedient, compliant, tame, humble, deferential, unprotesting. One author says that the word meek comes from the Greek word ‘praus’ which was used to describe soothing medicine, a gentle breeze for sailing, or a broken colt. That, I think, is very useful.
We know from other passages that God does not call us to conform to the world, so we know that yielding to the world is not the blessing here. As Christians, we must not yield to and comply with the world. But can we be a soothing medicine? Can we be a gentle breeze that sojourners so need? Can we be the broken colt who is strong and simultaneously gentle with others?
That is, to me, the very definition of empathy. To understand that hurts demand medicine – not harsh but soothing. To understand that all people can sail better under a gentle breeze. To understand how to exhibit both strength and gentleness. The blessing doesn’t come in yielding to the Lord only but in seeing the hurt and exhaustion and need in others and meeting it as a soothing medicine, a gentle breeze, and a broken colt.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
The blessing does not designate a day or time of day to do this. It does not speak to hangry responses launched to those we deem unrighteous. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness, will we not do the greatest command? Will we not love voraciously? Will we not fill ourselves with God so that we can fill others with love? This is the height of empathy.
Blessed are the merciful.
Today’s definition of merciful: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. I adore the word compassion. It comes from Middle English through Old French and Latin roots meaning ‘suffer with’. It is a deep feeling of sympathy and sorrow for another person accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate suffering.
When it is within our power to punish or harm someone but we show compassion instead – that is, we see that person’s suffering, we feel sorrow, and we want to alleviate the suffering – that is being merciful. To the family whose child entered the zoo exhibit and to the zoo workers who made a decision. To the people murdered, the people who survived, all their family and friends, the law enforcement personnel, and the family and friends of the murderer. To an entire community. To an entire country. To an entire world. Of suffering people. To see, even for the briefest moment, their suffering and to want to alleviate it – that is empathy. To do so and further to refrain from any act of punishment or harm, be it by words or actions, that is empathy personified.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
One definition of pure in today’s language is ‘clean and not harmful in any way’. Is it possible, truly, to have a pure heart while threatening others? While sitting behind a keyboard and launching brutality against people? While wishing rape, murder, and other atrocities on others? While hoping your neighbor fails? While playing the tune ‘I told you so’ to those who have lost and are suffering? While rewriting history to make ourselves feel better? While placing distinctions on humans when God never did?
Is it possible to have a pure heart while seething against those we are called to love? While judging their actions and inactions? While dehumanizing them? While degodding them?
To be clean, one must take great care to determine what cleanliness is. As Christians, we can find that in the Bible. To be not harmful in any way requires us to be situationally aware. It demands that we look into the faces of those around us – a surprisingly large number given today’s technology – and to determine whether our actions cause harm. It commands our empathy, our feeling what others feel and acting with love.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
We can cultivate peace within ourselves, our families and friends, and so forth. This is an ongoing act. Today’s language says that peacemaker is synonymous with arbiter, mediator, conciliator, intermediary – all words that also define the Christ. We are very like Christ when we are peacemakers. While we can make peace without leading the world into sin, the same cannot be said of war. We cannot argue with vitriol and spite and ever expect to make peace. We must set forth to reconcile adversaries whenever we can.
Any mediator worth her salt is by nature empathetic. She must be able to see and understand multiple sides of any dispute or situation before she can be of any use. She must not choose a side. Her goal is to reconcile the adversaries. She learns their stories, their suffering, their pain, their anger. She then sets out to speak to all sides as one who understands and wants to bring the pieces back together. Not because she forces them. Not because she leads them where she wants them to go. But because she counsels them well from the center, seeking the sides to see each other’s grief and loss, pain and hurt. In the absence of empathy, there is no way to reconcile a free people. And we are all made free, inherently.
Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake
Blessed are those who men revile, persecute, and say false evil things about you for Christ’s sake
The last two blessings are directly tied to harms induced by others, particularly persecution and accusations. Yet even these are qualified. We are not blessed because we are persecuted, period. We are blessed when persecuted for the sake of righteousness. What rises to that level? Spats? Ugly words? And are the things leveled against us aimed at our own failings in empathy, mercy, meekness, peacemaking, or are they truly aimed at a righteousness not our own? The blessing is not for those who spit acidic words and thoughts and prayers at others. That much, I know.
Accusations – of what? Of anything false and pertaining to Christ. Of lies. The blessing comes through false accusations, through lies, said about us when we are about Christ’s business. What if the accusations are truthful? What if I am being judgmental? What if I am being unkind, unloving? What if the accusations are lies but have nothing to do with my life for Christ? Those accusations must be used to transform me not to bless me. I must seek transformation to greater righteousness when called out truthfully.
I think we must be careful not to tack on our own qualifiers. We must ensure we are not reforming the blessings to:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit as along as they have a job, don’t require welfare, and stop having babies they can’t afford.
- Blessed are those who mourn for the harms they experience but only when I believe they didn’t deserve the harm.
- Blessed are the meek but even Jesus used a whip in the Temple court.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for self-righteousness at least at one weekly service and only then when it suits their political aims.
- Blessed are the people who give mercy to their children, their pets, themselves.
- Blessed are those with pure hearts as applies to the God we want but not to the humanity he created.
- Blessed are the peacemakers when they make peace by proving they’re right and showing everyone else is wrong.
- Blessed are those who are called out on the book of Faces for hate mongering, because that must be persecution.
When we apply earthly qualifiers to the beatitudes, we can shape them however suits us. We can almost make them say anything. We can almost grant ourselves all the blessing from none of the heart of God.
I feel. I feel angry. I feel distraught. I feel tired. I feel sad. I feel so much and I sometimes forget how to possibly channel it. Then I return to the beatitudes. I’d love to say I have figured it all out, that I’m a perfect example of empathy as preached through the beatitudes. But we all know that’s untrue. Sometimes I feel for others and act in a thoroughly un-beatitudinal manner. Those are the times to recenter.
To return to what my place truly can and should be:
- an empathizer who acts on full reliance of God and the gifts he has given me and others in this world to change our lots,
- who mourns with the mourning whatever the distance physically or socially or politically,
- who becomes meek like a soothing medicine – helpful and calming,
- who hungers and thirsts for righteousness not withholding it from others,
- who washes her world in mercy and compassion and the strong desire to alleviate others’ pain,
- who purifies her heart making it uncontaminated and never harmful,
- who makes peace through the thoughtful understanding and gentle mediation of all sides,
- who will risk persecution for the sake of righteousness without playing the victim,
- who will give no cause for false accusations, especially not as pertains to Christ.
To the humans of the world, I am so very sorry I am not a better empathizer. I am so very sorry when I fail to see you, your suffering. I am so sorry if I’ve ever been sharp astringent on your wounds. I am sorry to have broken any peace with you.
Weeks like this one can make people forget the right things and remember the wrong things. They can push us to polarities we don’t need or deserve. They can make us forget that we are all more alike than we are different. And that’s no excuse.
Because we are called to love. We are called to love. No matter who says otherwise or all evidence to the contrary, we are called to love. I love you.