My two grandsons – Jordan and Isaiah – captured in a sweet moment eight years ago. I have loved these boys unconditionally since the days they were born, exactly three months apart. As they barrel toward adulthood next year, it brings me unspeakable sorrow that there are people and institutions in this world who would dare to say that one of them is somehow less than the other, somehow not worthy of all that he might dream, or worse yet, that his life does not matter because of  his beautiful brown skin.  Courtesy photo
My two grandsons – Jordan and Isaiah – captured in a sweet moment eight years ago. I have loved these boys unconditionally since the days they were born, exactly three months apart. As they barrel toward adulthood next year, it brings me unspeakable sorrow that there are people and institutions in this world who would dare to say that one of them is somehow less than the other, somehow not worthy of all that he might dream, or worse yet, that his life does not matter because of his beautiful brown skin. Courtesy photo

“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  That is how one dictionary quite succinctly defines the word “empathy,” one of the most essential behavioral skills that human beings can possess.

In the context of recent events unfolding across the nation, the need for empathy has never been more critical and seemingly in such short supply.  It seems that in response to the division and hate we have all witnessed over the last months, the simple questions that might be asked are: How would you feel, and what would you do?

The actual word “empathy” does not jump out at us from the Bible, but it is, most certainly, a thread that runs throughout our belief as Christians. Our ability to embrace Christ’s commands to “Love one another as I have loved you,” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is dependent on how well we can understand our brothers and sisters, and how well we know and share their feelings. 

If anything can heal the bitter wounds of racial injustice, it is more empathy for those who are impacted by it. Conversely, if anything can deepen the fault lines between us all, it is a lack of empathy for those who have suffered a loss because of racial bias or hatred. 

One of the most indefensible positions that any of us might take in this current national reckoning is to deny that racism still exists and that it is profoundly harming the well-being of our brothers and sisters. If we don’t see it ourselves, if it’s not part of our everyday existence, we might be tempted to ignore it, if not for empathy.

We can never fully know what it’s like unless we, too, are targets of racism, but empathy affords us a glimpse of the grief and anger that a person would experience if their loved one died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.  Empathy might offer us the slightest idea of the fear that families of color experience when sending their youngsters out in a car or walking in a different neighborhood. 

I can attest, because of experiences that happened in my own family this year, that the effects  of racism and bigotry are absolutely heart-sickening.  My 16-year-old grandson Jordan – who happens to be multiracial – was the victim of racial attacks in his new, mostly white school by a handful of students who called him despicable names in the halls and posted racial slurs about him on social media.

When he chose to hang out with the few students in that school who looked like him, he was told by the guidance counselor that he should avoid having people think he was part of a gang. 

And later that same month, while playing basketball with his friends in his own community park, Jordan and his friends were attacked by two white males who turned their dog loose on the youngsters, threatened to shoot one of them in the chest and warned that they wouldn’t want to find themselves hanging from a tree. A police report was filed, but nothing more has come of this traumatizing incident.

Setting aside what a parent or grandparent feels when this happens to their young family member, we need to ask what it does to the child himself.  Social scientists and pediatricians have been tracking an alarming rise in the rate of suicide among black adolescents, most especially black male teens. We need to ask:  How much of that worrying trend can be related to the messages they are receiving from the growing racial animus that has shown itself in recent years?

These things may not be happening in all communities or to people we all know.  But we need to acknowledge that they are real and must be addressed, especially by those who believe in the mandate of the Gospel. Especially by believers who are called by Christ to love one another.

No, not everyone can fully comprehend what it is like for people whose ancestors were enslaved in this country to be dealing with Confederate symbols and other reminders of one of the darkest chapters of our history.  But we should never stop asking ourselves: How would you feel, and what would you do?

Rayanne Bennett is also executive director of Communications and Media for the Diocese of Trenton.