A Word from Laura: Empathy, Compassion, and an Alabama Decision

“I’m a man; I cannot empathize with a woman.” 

The Alabama legislator was talking to a BBC interviewer about why he couldn’t see things from the point of a view of a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, and therefore why he wouldn’t support a woman’s right to reproductive choice.  Regardless of what you believe about a woman’s right to end her pregnancy, according to Christian faith, he is dangerously wrong.

Compassion, or “suffering with,” is the faith term for empathy. Compassion is a central attribute of God and emblematic of what it means to have faith in God.  According to scripture, divine compassion is always for those who are different; indeed, if God were compassionate only towards those who were like God, we humans would be in trouble!  Given God’s compassionate love towards us, we humans are invited and exhorted to be compassionate, to “suffer with” others and to see things from their perspective, especially those we perceive as being different or having less power than we do.

As we learn compassion from Jesus, we see how a specific man empathizes with women, particularly women with whom he is not supposed to have anything in common.  His compassion does not always seem to come naturally: one woman, sometimes portrayed as a Canaanite, sometimes as Syrophoenician, either way a cultural “other,” calls him on the spot when he tries to ignore her and her request for healing. 

But when scripture describes Jesus’s compassion, whether with hungry crowds, or those in need of healing, or a mother grieving her son, scripture uses a word that may be translated “womb-love.”  When Jesus has empathy, the only way to describe it is using female anatomy, even though he is a man! 

As Christians, no matter our physiological or socialized differences, we are called to compassion.  Even if our biology or other circumstances keep us from having to make reproductive choices, our model is a man who learned how to empathize with women, and who, having compassion, felt towards others based on what it means to have a womb.

While scripture says very little about when life begins, it says a great deal about God of compassion and our call to compassion for those who are different from us.  Jesus is our best model: a man who learned to listen to women, to the point that his compassion was described in female terms.  Any decision about reproductive choice in which a man claims he doesn’t need to hear the stories of women because he cannot empathize with women fails the Jesus test.  It’s not about being progressive or liberal, but being Christian.

Western friends, in the days ahead, I hope you will join me in working and praying for legislation where the stories of women and our bodies are heard and honored, because that’s what Jesus did, and still does.

            Grace and peace,