Standing for Justice Starts with Empathy

by Jun 3, 2020

I’ve never seen a meme that stabbed me through the chest. Then this weekend, one did.

It shows a picture of angry protesters next to a burning car, with the caption, “Why can’t you protest peacefully?”

Then a picture of a peaceful Black Lives Matter march. “…no, not like that.”

NFL players kneeling for the national anthem. “…no, not like that.”

NBA players wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts during warm-up. “…no, not like that.”

Celebrities calling for police reform during award speeches. “…no, not like that.”

With just a few images, this meme exposed a deep and disturbing truth about the human heart: we only care about injustice when it directly affects us or people who are just like us. If it doesn’t, we don’t want to hear about it. We don’t want it to disrupt our shiny, happy, comfortable lives.

But this week we couldn’t ignore injustice like we used to. Protests and riots filled our news streams and social media feeds. After surfing with my daughter in Waikiki on Saturday, our walk back to the car was halted by hundreds of protesters marching down Kalakaua. Anger filled their voices, fueled by years of personally-experienced injustice.

I think people should be out in the streets demanding full justice for George Floyd and all who have suffered similarly. What happened to him was unmistakeably evil, and tragically not a one-time event. Race-motivated lawlessness carried out by police officers is undeniably wrong. So is the lawlessness of violence, looting, and murder that’s been carried out in response.

So we need to stand against injustice wherever we see it.

Developing Empathy

I’m in a unique position. I have a college-age son who is African-American, and I have two brothers-in-law who are police officers. So I’m praying hard for my brothers, who usually work desk jobs as detectives, but are now being called out every night to put on riot gear and go stand on a line while rocks and bottles are thrown at them. I’m also praying hard for my son, who since early high school has been forced to think about how he might appear threatening or dangerous whenever he leaves the house, just because of the color of his skin.

God has given me the blessing of relationships with people who experience life differently than me. So I feel empathy — vicarious emotions — for them and all who are like them.

That’s where justice always starts. With an ability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is suffering injustice. Because, as we’ve all come to realize this week, justice isn’t blind. We don’t defend the rights of people we don’t care about. At least not for long. We need to empathize with people. Which requires close relationships with people.

God Stands Up Against Injustice

That’s what motivates God in his divine pursuit of justice. He fights for his people, because he’s made himself one of his people. If you’ve been reading the Psalms along with our church, you read Psalm 76 last week, where it says “God’s tent is in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion. He shatters the bow’s flaming arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war” (Psalm 76:2-3).

This psalm was written to celebrate a victory God brought to his people over attackers who came to conquer Jerusalem (also known as Zion). God’s tent — his home — was with his people, so he had a strong motivation to fight for them. He also had the power to defend them — shattering the flaming arrows, shields, and swords that came against them.

And now that God lives inside his people through the Holy Spirit? He has even more motivation to stand up for his people. As Paul says in my favorite chapter of the Bible, “What, then, are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything?” (Romans 8:31-32).

The justice we deserved for our sin was carried out on his son Jesus instead, and we were given the righteous record of Christ in exchange. So now, every blessing that Jesus earned is justly given to us instead. That’s what God fights to defend.

What Does It Look Like For Us to Stand Against Injustice?

Every day, God pursues justice for us. And that’s what motivates us to pursue justice for the people around us. Especially people who aren’t like us. But what should that look like?

Posting on social media is a small step. If you normally speak up loudly about injustices against the unborn, or against the church in America, or against persecuted Christians around the world, it would seem right for you to speak up about injustices against people of color. Injustice is injustice.

But one more post in an ocean of posts probably won’t move the needle much. So how can you effectively stand against the big injustices in the world? Maybe the most effective thing you can do is to stand against the little injustices you see every day.

Stand up against abusive bosses, especially when you’re not the one experiencing the abuse. Stand up for coworkers against gossip, especially when you’re tempted to partake. Stand up for classmates against bullying, whether it’s physical or verbal. Stand up for ridiculed family members, even if you agree with what others in the family are saying.

We’re Commanded to Have Empathy

That kind of loving boldness starts with empathy. And empathy isn’t just something that would be nice for Christians to feel, it’s something Christians are commanded to feel. As Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). If you haven’t found yourself weeping this past week, it’s probably time to start asking if your heart really reflects God’s heart. It doesn’t matter what you believe about the issues, politics, or policies. There are people mourning, and that means we mourn with them.

As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” There are people all around us who are mourning over injustices committed against them. And God can extend his supernatural comfort to them through our empathy, love, and bold action.