Empathy: The Great Virtue

By The Reverend Michael Coren 

In recent months, churches in Canada have been attacked, some of them destroyed. Most have been Roman Catholic, but some were Anglican. This has all happened, of course, since mass unmarked graves of Indigenous children were found on the grounds of former residential schools, which were often run by churches. While we don’t know who’s responsible for the attacks, it’s not unreasonable to assume they are directly linked to the gruesome discoveries. 

Several of these churches are located on Indigenous land. Many attendees have been devastated by the loss, and Indigenous leaders are generally highly critical of the destruction. But there’s sometimes a note of ambivalence in their responses because they obviously realize the grim role the churches played in running residential schools and in the expunging of Indigenous culture. 

Those on the political right, of course, have used all this to roar their horror, often conveniently forgetting the context of the situation. Some, especially in Canada, have qualified their arguments—but not in the U.S. In a breathtakingly bizarre and crass column in The American Conservative, associate editor Declan Leary writes: “Whatever natural good was present in the piety and community of the pagan past is an infinitesimal fraction of the grace rendered unto those pagans’ descendants who have been received into the Church of Christ. Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.” 

Truth, and Christianity, cry out to be heard! Let me say this with absolute confidence: As an ordained cleric, I condemn all attacks on churches. But it’s also my duty to try to understand the anger and agony behind these actions. To scream at violence without realizing its causes isn’t an authentic Christian response. 

Most churches have made full and heartfelt apologies for their role in running residential schools, taking ownership for their crimes, trying to repair damage done, educating themselves and their congregations, and paying reparations. The partial exception is the Roman Catholic Church. Apologies have usually been inadequate and legally filtered, and senior clergy have even tried to obfuscate, claiming persecution of their church. The Catholic Church was supposed to pay $25 million in compensation, cried poverty, and was then exposed for spending far more than this amount on church improvements and grand buildings. Is it any surprise that some people are outraged? 

Violence isn’t the solution, but passivity isn’t either. For generations, Indigenous peoples have asked politely for justice and fairness, and little, if anything, has been done. They were ignored when they whispered, now they’re scolded when they shout. It’s not they, but we, who are the problem; not those with power, but those without it, who deserve to be heard. 

The Jesus who inspired me in my mid-50s to return to university for three years, attend seminary, and seek ordination didn’t spend his time obsessing about buildings and comfort. Rather, he spent his time speaking about a permanent revolution of love and justice. He stood with the poor, the marginalized, and the despised, and reserved his harshest words for those who stood—and stand—behind the walls of legalism, judgment, and traditional structures of rule and control. 

He had a few things to say about the churches, the temples, of his day: “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’” (Mark 13:1-2). 

We also read in John 2:13-15: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the moneychangers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables.” 

Once again, I can’t, and won’t, support the destruction of churches, but I’m more concerned about the destruction of people. The attacks aren’t the products of a moral vacuum, and those who dismiss them as hate crimes need to spend some time with people who are disenfranchised and desperate. 

I realize that the left, as well as the right, have tried to exploit the situation, and absolutes are never helpful. But if Christianity is to inform and influence the body politic, in Canada and elsewhere, it must remind itself that empathy is the great virtue. Feel for others, think as others, be others, and then ask the important questions. Then, God willing, come to the appropriate—if deeply challenging—conclusions.