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Cultivating Empathy

by Rebecca Koerselman

Recently, I read the book Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It is a work of fiction that inhabits the historical context of antebellum slavery in the United States to detail the suffering and perseverance of a slave woman, Cora (read Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s excellent review here). Whitehead’s work of fiction uses the reality of slave experiences in the period before the Civil War to explore what did happen and what might have happened.

The Underground RailroadHis book is also a critique of the way that history forgets, rewrites, or ignores the parts that are uncomfortable and convicting, especially for white Americans.

In the classroom, I find it difficult to teach about slavery. The obvious difficulty of discussing the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual degradation of fellow Americans who came to this country by forced migration instead of voluntary immigration is significant. But more than that, I find it problematic to fully understand what it was like to be a slave in this country, and how to relate that understanding to my mostly white students.

Michelle Obama, in her riveting speech at the Democratic National Convention this fall, talked about the significance of slavery to African American memory:

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Stories of the deep scars that resulted from generations of slavery, Cora’s story, powerfully narrated in Whitehead’s book, along with slave narratives from people like Frederick Douglass and others have helped me to better understand legacy of slavery in the U.S. These stories have helped me to cultivate empathy, despite the radical differences in my own experiences as a white woman living in the 21st century United States.

During this season of Lent, I’ve realized that I find it difficult to empathize with Christ’s suffering. I know Jesus was fully human, and, to some extent, I can relate with his humanity, even if I struggle to walk in the sandals of a middle aged single man living in first century Palestine. Jesus was also fully divine, and that is where I struggle to cultivate empathy. Fellow Twelve contributor Trygve Johnson meditated on the prayers of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane yesterday. I can appreciate the lesson of continuing to pray even when we don’t get what we want, as Johnson wisely wrote. Fellow blogger Erica Hughes pointed out the visceral and poetic nature of the incarnation and Christ’s humanity. I can even appreciate the art of Otto Dix and the dark and painful struggle of Jesus while praying during passion week. But I struggle to empathize with Christ’s suffering as one who is fully divine. What is it like to be a God, limited by a human body? What is it like to pray to the Father yet share in the Father’s knowledge and power? What is it like to suffer as God? Most of us can relate to suffering as a human. But suffering as a human and as a divine being?

Yet I am grateful beyond words that Christ can fully empathize with a suffering humanity. I am thankful that Christ knows the misery of life in a sinful world alongside life in God’s kingdom as we wait for full reconciliation.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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