The Mission of the Church Rooted in Trinitarian Empathy
The Collapse of Empathy
Our public square has become increasingly polarized. There is a lack of spaces for dialogue, and the advent of social media—with its immediacy, superficiality, and aggression—has led to a decrease in our ability to hold several views in tension and a depletion of social discernment to recognize a much more complex reality than simple soundbites coming from the left or the right. Political leaders gain political dividends by surfing this wave of polarization and simplification, inflaming public debates, and promoting “hate speech” without consideration of social cohesion. Some religious leaders also approach complex issues with similar strategies. This aggressive and simplified approach to reality models (and seems to somewhat validate) our own attitude of distaste towards those who do not share our social ghetto.
We are, therefore, increasingly entrenched in echo chambers where we only hear the resonance of our own prejudices and reinforce a vicious, short-sighted, and distorted interpretation of reality. This atmosphere of perverse polarization generates the collapse of empathy. We have lost the ability and even the desire to understand the claim of the other. There is only us against them, the good against the evil, with no middle ground for the art of dialogue. We presently lack the basic nutrients for the practice of empathy and are addicted to a viral antagonism.
But there is hope, for God is essentially empathetic. In this essay, we will explore God’s empathy in three movements, especially the empathetic work through the Holy Spirit. We will then apply René Girard's ideas to discern how the Spirit may be working in the recent Black Lives Matter movement, and we will conclude by reflecting on how the Church can participate in this empathetic work of the Holy Spirit.
Empathy in Two Movements
Empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the action of understanding, being aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” This could therefore be explicated as a two-way movement between the “I” and the “other”: receptivity to the movement of the other towards me, and intentionality in my own movement toward the other.
On the one hand, empathy relates to hospitality—creating space in us so that the other may inhabit us. To be empathetic in this sense requires an emptying of the self, perhaps even a denial of the self. This means that, while keeping our presuppositions in constant check, we are receptive to the possibility of redefining a bit of who we are through interaction with the other. We are receptive to the movement that the other makes towards us, keeping ourselves open, even vulnerable, to the other’s story and perspective.
In the reverse direction, on the other hand, empathy is a movement towards the other with the intention of seeing reality as the other sees it. Being empathetic implies a deliberate (even if temporary) abandonment of our perspective in order to put ourselves in the other’s place, seeking to understand the other in one’s own experience by using imagination. As the popular expression goes, empathy is “putting ourselves in someone else's shoes.”
God’s Empathy: The First Movement
The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909–1943) illustrates God’s empathy in a dynamic and beautiful fashion when she writes about creation. She interprets creation as an act of “restraint and renunciation” from God: “God permitted the existence of things distinct from himself and worth infinitely less than himself. By this creative act he denied himself.” In other words, God redefines God-self in relation to the created world, especially in relation to the human being who, according to Genesis 1, bears the imago Dei. In bearing the imago Dei, humanity received God’s endowment of empathy. By making room for creatures, God became open and vulnerable to their acceptance and rejection. Creation, therefore, constitutes the first act of hospitality by the Trinity.
The doctrine of participation also reveals God’s movement of empathy. Theologians throughout history—including Irenaeus (2nd century), Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), John Calvin (16th century), and Karl Barth (1886–1968)—have all emphasized that God works in the world in order to promote the participation of the whole cosmos in the life of Christ (Heb 3:14; 1 Cor 15:21-22) and ultimately, by co-inherence, in the life of the Trinity. Jesus’s farewell speech in John 13–17 unveils a Trinitarian invitation to the Trinity’s choreography of love. God in history consistently creates space for human beings to participate in the divine life.
God’s Empathy: The Second Movement
God’s invitation to participate in the life of the Trinity is rejected by human beings because of they are trapped in ego, ignorance, and corruptibility. The Catholic theologian Raymund Schwager (1935–2004) goes as far as to affirm that “the human heart harbors a grudge against God,” however repressed and mistaken. Christ’s incarnation is God’s answer to this problem.
God’s empathy acknowledges our inability to respond and return to God. Therefore, God undertakes the second movement of empathy, becoming “one of us,” putting God-self in our own shoes (or sandals), by putting on flesh and making his dwelling among us (cf. John 1:14). This is God’s “downward movement,” recorded in the Christ-hymn in Phil 2:6-11.
The apostle John stated that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Alternatively, he could have stated that “God is empathy.” Love and empathy are not necessarily synonymous, but the former cannot exist without the latter. In light of the spirit of hostility that seeks to dominate this century, it is urgent to recognize and reaffirm the reality of divine empathy and to redefine the mission of the Church in the light of this empathy.
For Empathy Among Humanity: The Third Movement
Jesus commissioned his disciples to the greatest project of empathy of all history: “as the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). The Christian mission implies a movement towards the other that is analogous to incarnation. We can only proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel if we empathise with those we seek to serve. Christian mission implies this willingness to understand the perspective of the other, which is always a differentiated other.
Unfortunately, Christian mission throughout history has too often been determined by a triumphalist perspective and a conquest mentality without sensitivity to cultural idiosyncrasies, traditions, expectations, and problems, which is precisely how others are differentiated from us. This flies in the face of empathy.
But all is not lost. Jesus sends us into the world, but he does not send us alone. The inspirated gift of the Holy Spirit—the third movement of God—makes empathy among humanity possible. To a society in which the atmosphere has become unbreathable (let us keep hearing George Floyd’s terrible suffocating cry: “I can’t breathe”), God has offered the breath of the Spirit (cf. John 20:21–22).
The disciples did not immediately understand the mission entrusted to them. The first stage of the Christian movement was somewhat hesitant, arising out of an exclusivist Jewish worldview. The disciples expected the restoration of an earthly kingdom of Israel (characterized by shalom and centered in Jerusalem at the Temple) and the fulfillment of the Torah (cf. Acts 1:6). Jewish faith was certainly hospitable, as evidenced by Old Testament injunctions to welcome foreigners (e.g., Lev 19:33–34; Deut 10:19; Jer 22:3), yet in practice it fell short of divine empathy: it lacked intentional movement towards the other.
The overcoming of such hesitation began on the day of Pentecost. The “breath” of the Spirit materialized in foreign languages spoken by those who were gathered in the upper room: the languages of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and others. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit—the third movement of divine empathy—mediated through men and women, made God known to people in their own languages. The consequence of the outpouring of the Spirit (a vertical gift of God) consists in mutual understanding between human beings (a horizontal blessing). Thus, the Holy Spirit is a promoter of divine empathy, expanding people’s capacity to speak the language of the other and to put on the other’s shoes.
It is also the Holy Spirit who convinces Christians that exclusive and monolithic Jewish expectations must be abandoned. The apostle Peter is illumined by the Spirit to an expansive vision of acceptance “from every nation” (Acts 10:34). The divine project is to unite “Jews and Gentiles” without excluding diversity. There is only one Spirit that sustains empathy among a great diversity of peoples, cultures, perspectives, expectations, and problems.
A Girardian Pneumatology
The French anthropologist René Girard (1923–2015) offers a unique understanding of God’s empathetic work. According to Girard, the Gospel solves the greatest anthropological problem: the cycles of violence that constantly cause needless victims, scapegoats that are often sacrificed in response to beliefs and practices of a religious nature.Jesus is the scapegoat of all human violence. His response of forgiveness absorbs this violence and opens the path of reconciliation without resentment.
The Holy Spirit is introduced within the Girardian approach through the image of the Paraclete as conveyed in the Johannine literature (especially in John 14–16). The Greek word paráklētos, usually translated as “comforter” or “counselor,” has a concrete first-century legal meaning: an advocate called to speak and act on behalf of those accused—an act of empathy. The advocacy role of the Spirit is first and foremost related to bearing witness to Jesus (cf. John 15:26). Girardians then expand this to include all those who are innocent victims of violence, all who are unjustly and unnecessarily turned into scapegoats. As the Spirit bears witness to Jesus, the Spirit necessarily identifies with his mission (neatly encapsulated in Luke 4:18–19 as Jesus fulfils prophetic advocacy for the innocent victims of injustice: the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan). Hence, the Girardian theologian Mark Heim can write: “the Holy Spirit is an advocate [for] abandoned victims ... The Holy Spirit nurtures peace and unity to resist the conflicts that lead to sacrifice.” In this manner, empathetic movements can end cycles of violence. The Spirit advocates for such victims, so the Church will only be faithful to its mission when it develops a praxis of advocacy attuned to the Spirit’s work. In other words, the mission of the Church implies a movement to empathise with all those who suffer abuse and oppression.
The Holy Spirit and the Black Lives Matter Movement
René Girard spoke emphatically of the action of the Holy Spirit in history, claiming that “the Spirit is working in history to reveal what Jesus has already revealed, the mechanism of the scapegoat,” and to defeat and condemn the mimetic violence that characterizes human societies. However, he kept a certain ambivalence regarding the success of the mission of the Spirit: on the one hand, he believed that Western democratic and human rights values are a direct outcome of the proclamation of the Gospel; on the other hand, he was “of the opinion that humanity may not wake up in time.”If Girard’s thought effectively corresponds to how the Spirit acts, what historical instances illustrate such action? The theologian Mark I. Wallace has analyzed the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. from the perspective of Girardian thought. He is right that such movement was deeply rooted in the Christian worldview and praxis and possessed a spiritual impetus that rendered it a practical illustration of Girardian pneumatology.
Latin theologian Rubén Rosario Rodriguez has taken the analysis a step further, suggesting that “confession-less” movements such as Black Lives Matter have become “the new loci theologici for understanding and encountering the work of the Spirit in history.”We might hesitate to embrace Rodriguez’s argument due to the principle that St. Irenaeus articulated: “where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.” However, this principle also demands recalibration, it does not support an exclusive argument for the institutional Church’s hold on divine action. The Spirit blows where God wills (John 3: 8) and is not confined by human rules or human borders. Nevertheless, liberation theology revises St. Irenaeus’ principle somewhat, for it admits that the Spirit goes ahead of the Church, generating “spiritual upheavals” (which can translate into social upheavals) where there is injustice, oppression, and suffering. As with the fledgling Christian movement, the Church too is sometimes hesitating, asleep, paralyzed, or in love with the status quo; hence, it is necessary for the Spirit to “blow” out there so that the Church awakes to fulfill its commission. Hence, Rodriguez might be right when he writes that “the Spirit dwells, and is often found, in the interstitial spaces that frustrate the tendency to limit and define.”
From this perspective, to the extent that Black Lives Matter is a movement of empathy towards the oppressed, it is a movement animated by the Holy Spirit. However, it is vital to note that a proper response to the call of Spirit must follow the model of Christ, who breaks the cycle of violence through forgiveness. Otherwise, there is danger of initiating another cycle of violence in the name of advocacy for victims, such as the radical ideology advocated by the Black Lives Matter organization. Those who resist are quickly targeted by social media mobs or activists driven by collective fury and end up being “cancelled,” isolated, or fired.
The movement Black Lives Matter is ampler, more diverse, and more benign than the organization that provides its name. Many of those who march are truly moved by injustice and by a spirit of empathy. Hence, to the extent that Black Lives Matter is a movement of empathy, then it is also a movement animated by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, if such empathy succumbs to surrounding pressure for its own cycle of violence, then it deviates from the way of Christ and forfeits its voice as a locus theologicus.
There are those who argue that the solution to the problems of racism (or any other problems of social injustice) should not encompass the differentiation of groups, citing “all lives matter.” Differentiation is regarded as problematic since it seems to value a group at the expense of other groups. This argument is a fallacy seen from the perspective of a generalized practice of empathy. I can only be empathetic by singling out the “other” with whom I am interacting. The practice of empathy depends on recognition of such differentiation. Still, I can be empathetic towards different individuals and different groups at different times, allowing all lives to matter whilst retaining the necessary differentiation. Hence, empathy encompasses all groups and all people, one at a time, depending on the context and people that we are facing each moment.
This argument against differentiation is a fallacy from a theological point of view. A trinitarian theology confesses that God is not an undifferentiated monad. The Trinity is a perfect unity of three different but equiprimal persons: “To think consistently in trinitarian terms means to escape this dichotomy between universalization and pluralization.” The differentiation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not imply devaluation of any of the persons of the Trinity—each person of irreducible identity matters. This Trinitarian principle can serve as a fertile model for balancing between differentiation and recognition of all.
Finally, the “all lives matter” argument is a fallacy in light of the biblical narrative. The Exodus story arises from an empathetic movement of God towards a tribe of Hebrew slaves, who were victims of tremendous injustice in Egypt: “God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them” (Ex 2:25). Retrospectively, the entire Exodus narrative could be read as a confrontation between God and Pharaoh under the motto “Hebrew lives matter.”It is no wonder that Liberation Theology and many of the Black spiritual hymns were grounded on a recovery of the social impetus of the Exodus narrative! And yet, even within this singling out of Israel, a delivered “mixed multitude” emerges from Egypt and is eschatologically mirrored in Isaiah (27:13-14; 66:18-21), as people are gathered from every nation, tribe and tongue. This retains distinctiveness amidst the whole. It appears that the biblical narrative subverts our inclination to group people into one entity, instead calling for greater empathy that recognises and loves beautiful diversity within a cluster. The gospels show that Jesus himself demonstrated the power of differentiated empathy. Furthermore, the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 7 echoes that of Isaiah: there is the joining of nation, tribe and tongue, yet retention of distinct identities. If this is part of the new heaven and earth, it would seem pertinent to cultivate empowered empathetic practices now. All lives domatter, but they are never flattened into an undifferentiated humanity.
The Future of the Church
Unfortunately, using religion as a powerful tool to polarize society is not uncommon. Indeed, we are witnessing this more and more. The church then loses its prophetic voice (making it even more crucial to discern the action of the Spirit in non-confessional movements such as Black Lives Matter) and its ability to model an alternative community that sees and advocates for its (differentiated) neighbours.
Instead, we, the church, rooted and established in local contexts, must be patient in listening to our neighbours and actively putting ourselves in the other’s shoes. Indeed, if we are to be faithful to the mission entrusted to us, the immediate future of the church must include repentance and seeking the power of the Holy Spirit; this is nothing more, nor anything less than the power of the empathy of the Triune God, who embraces us, fills us, and transforms us into channels of this same empathy towards the world around us.
“Breathe on me, breath of God:
fill me with life anew,
that I may love as you have loved
and do as you would do.”
Edwin Hatch (1835–1889) / Jubilate Hymns
 Simone Weil, Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us (Walden, NY: Plough, 2018), 23–24.
 Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible, trans. Maria L. Assad (New York: Crossroad, 2000), 196.
 As an introduction to Girardian thought we recommend René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001).
 Mark S. Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 154.
 René Girard, Scapegoat (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986), 207.
 Girard in the words of Michael Hardin in: “Practical Reflections on Nonviolent Atonement,” Violence, Desire, and the Sacred, Volume 2: René Girard and Sacrifice in Life, Love and Literature, ed. Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, and Joel Hodge (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 250.
 Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation (New York: Continuum, 1996), 102–103.
 Rubén Rosario Rodriguez, Dogmatics After Babel: Beyond the Theologies of Word and Culture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2018), 172. Note here that we are explicitly differentiating between movement and organisation. The movement is “confession-less,” whilst it could be argued that BLM as an organisation is distinctly confessional, in a sense.
 Irenaeus of Lyons, The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies, ed. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1981), 49 (Book III: 24, 1).
 Rodriguez, Dogmatics After Babel, 172.
 Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 193. Emphasis ours.