Where Is Our Empathy?

“Where’s your empathy?” This was the parting shot of an emotionally charged article in ‘The Independent’ earlier this year, decrying the UK government’s decision to end self-isolation rules in England while Covid-19 was still rife.

Where Is Our Empathy?

To hammer the point home the author described her own experiences of the virus in detail, including being unable to walk, work, dress herself, hold a conversation or sleep, due to horrendous back pain, fevers and loss of appetite. If this was how it affected a fully-vaccinated healthy individual, she asked, what would the consequences be for the clinically “at risk” – the elderly, disabled and immunocompromised – who were awaiting the change of rules with no small amount of anxiety? It is for them, the writer pleaded, that we need to exercise our empathy; to pause and consider what life has been like for the most vulnerable in society ever since March 2020.

I don’t disagree with the main point of the article, yet I find myself wondering just how far the writer’s empathy for the vulnerable really extends. You may have missed it, but another very vulnerable group has also been under increased threat since March 2020, yet I haven’t read any articles giving a voice to them. Last year The Guardian newspaper reported that 2020 saw a record number of abortions take place in England and Wales, the highest since records began. Whilst the increase has been partially attributed to social factors caused by the pandemic, experts can confidently point to the main reason – the “pills in the post” scheme passed into law by the UK and Welsh governments in March 2020. After a virtual consultation the abortifacient Mifepristone can be delivered for women to self-administer at home. As one doctor explains: “Throughout the pandemic, early medical abortion has been redesigned to adopt a new model of care delivered virtually. This helped to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus, kept women and their families safe . . . allowing women to receive care earlier in their pregnancy.”

Put another way, during 2020, 209,917 unborn children lost their lives in England and Wales. Might I borrow the words quoted at the start of this article and ask where is our empathy for them? What care did they receive? The Bible describes them as being woven and knit together in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139) capturing their intricacy, fragility and complete dependence on another to keep them safe. I recognise that many of the women who have made this choice are extremely vulnerable and have been driven to their decision by a host of social, economic and even abusive pressures. Society, and in particular the media, have often exploited such women to champion their agenda of “freedom of choice”. Abortion is portrayed as liberation when in fact for many it is a deeply traumatic experience which leaves them both physically and emotionally damaged for years to come. These women rightly deserve compassion and forgiveness and thankfully the gospel of Christ can offer that to them, but what of the other person, the one who suffers most when abortion takes place? Can there be any more vulnerable creature? The journalist referred to earlier, quite effectively, helped us enter into the awfulness of her short illness from Covid; is anyone urging us to empathise with a human child in the womb undergoing the horror and pain of an abortion?

A child whose nerve cells began forming as early as three weeks; whose heart rate is detectable at six weeks; whose arms, legs, fingers and toes have developed by 9-12 weeks; who at around eighteen weeks can hear their mother’s voice, and hear her heartbeat rise or fall; whose same mother can now choose to end their life from their own home. Whilst we cannot see this happen, advances in prenatal medicine mean we know how unborn babies develop and therefore can perhaps imagine what such an experience must be like for them . . . if we allow ourselves to do so. But most of us don’t. Our empathy does not extend to the most vulnerable of all and their silent cries fall largely on deaf ears.

There is One who hears them, though. One who throughout history has been concerned for the overlooked, the oppressed and the vulnerable, whoever they may be, and has promised in His law:

“If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:21-23 ESV).

This is also the One who showed true empathy to all by willingly and consciously placing Himself in our position. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, the One who spoke the universe into existence, we are told:

“gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2:7 NLT).

This is One who lived a life of poverty, hardship and rejection, and who entered into an agonising death, by choice, to redeem us all, no matter who we are or how unworthy we are deemed by others:  

“A man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down . . . He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word . . . Unjustly condemned, he was led away . . . his life was cut short in midstream . . . And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.” (Isaiah 53:3-4,7-8,11 NLT).

His gracious choice to experience all the testings that face us means this is One who is truly able to empathise with us (Hebrews 4:15).

Where is our empathy? History, in particular recent history, has shown that it blows whichever way the wind does – always fleeting, insubstantial and inconsistent. We demonstrate it selectively, to those we feel are worthy. Christ demonstrates His to all and especially to those this world overlooks. As Christians, if we are living out Christ’s example, we should know what it is to feel despised and ignored, and this should make us ready to empathise with others whom society deems unimportant – like the unborn – and ready to be a voice for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8). Our empathy, though, too often lasts only for a moment. His, praise God, will last for eternity.