Saturday, September 13, 2014

How can you sings as the works of my hand are drowning: Empathic Imagination in Scripture

Proper 19A, St. Clement’s 

The traditional Haggadah, the service booklet for the celebration of the Passover, lists the ten plagues.  In college, when I attended the Passover Seder, I was struck by the solemnity that marked the recitation of the plagues, a solemnity that edged on mourning for the suffering of an ancient enemy. To quote from a contemporary haggadah

“Our rabbis taught: When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, "My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?"

Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt, and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe.

Our rabbis taught: "The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied."

To remember upheaval that follows oppression, we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.

A full cup is the symbol of complete joy. Though we celebrate the triumph of our sacred cause, our happiness cannot be complete so long as others had to be sacrificed for its sake. We shall, therefore, diminish the wine in our cups as we recall the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, to give expression to our sorrow over the losses, which each plague exacted. We now recite the list of the ten ancient plagues, pouring off wine as each one is mentioned.

Dam, Blood
Tzfardeah, Frogs
Kinim, Lice
Arov, Swarms
Dever, Blight
Sh'chin, Boils
Barad, Hail
Arbeh, Locusts
Choshech, Darkness
Makat B'chorot, Death of the Firstborn”

What a remarkable act, to mourn over the death of an ancient enemy and, in that mourning, recognize the dignity and sanctity of all lives.  

Moving the conversation from a place of vengeance and into a place of compassion.  One drop of wine spilled for each plague and a double portion spilled for the death of the firstborn.  

What if all suffering, was met with such sorrow?  Do we spill a double portion, do we weep, over the suffering of our enemies?  If we are to pay any attention to the news, it is the rare event that calls this empathy out--as words like retribution are tied to words like justice and making amends becomes coded language for punishment.  

In the Jewish tradition’s frank acknowledgment that the Israelites freedom came at the great cost of another’s suffering we see a longing for reconciliation and making sense of tragedy.  We see a longing for those caught in the throes of violence to find a way out--a way out that does not destroy others, a way out unmarred by destruction.  We see a community that marks, in ritual, the importance of being able to imagine and recognize the sufferings of others, friend or foe.    

Being able to imagine the feelings, the emotions, the suffering of another human being is a critical skill in this violence marred world of ours.  Some refer to this skill as having “empathic imagination” 

Yann Martel, author of “The Life of Pi” is emphatic that what we call empathic imagination is critical to the cause of peace.  In an interview he suggests that, “if you are an Israeli you should imagine yourself a Palestinian.  Then you will understand why the Palestinians are angry.  If you’re a Palestinian, you should make the effort of imagining yourself an Israeli, and then you will understand why the Israelis are afraid.  If you’re a man and you become a woman, you understand.  If you’re white and you imagine yourself black, etc. Such an approach will not only make the universe more peaceful.  It’s also very enriching.” (Interview, Canadian Literature 177/Summer 2003, p25)

In the Talmud the rabbis are doing this work--this work of imagining, “if you are an Israelite, imagine you are an Egyptian”.  And, in turn, we are invited to do the same--imaging ourselves as the individual or group with which we are in conflict...

This act of imagining ourselves as the other, this empathic imagination, allows us to feel an “an essential connection not only to our closest family, friends and community, but to humanity as a whole, and to other sentient creatures . . .”

And out of that connection, we are able to act with compassion, and work towards reconciliation and forgiveness.  Out of empathic imagination we can see our calling to work towards equity and the general welfare of all people.  

If we can imagine ourselves impoverished we work toward ending poverty; if we imagine ourselves oppressed we then find ourselves working to end oppression; if we can imagine ourselves as a parent of one lost to gun violence, we then work to end gun violence.  

Our baptismal covenant of seeking and serving Christ in all persons and honoring the dignity of every human being requires empathic imagination--we can only see Christ in another when we can imagine Christ within them.  And, if we can do so, we can see that advocating for another is advocating for Christ in the world.  Our faith asks us to make a stand against injustice and work towards the general welfare of all people BECAUSE of God’s own saving work in the world.  

And, arguably, this is what the slave has failed at in in the Gospel today...he fails to see that his own freedom demands that he do the work of freeing others.  Rather than freeing others, he uses his freedom to destroy another, and in destroying another, he destroys himself.

When the slave is unable to express compassion rooted in empathy, he finds himself imprisoned within the cycle of violence, revenge and hatred.  If you are free, imagine that you are enslaved...and then act accordingly.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes that, “ if you look deeply into your anger, you will see that the person you call your enemy is also suffering.  As soon as you see that, the capacity of accepting and having compassion for him is there. Jesus calls this “loving your enemy.”  When you are able to love your enemy, he or she is no longer your enemy.  The idea of “enemy” vanishes and is replaced by the notion of someone who is suffering and needs your compassion.”  

If we fail to recognize our shared identity, we imprison ourselves within the torture of anger, enmity and isolation which results from our own perversion of God’s grace. 
When we can replace anger with empathy, we are able to act with the compassion which emerges when we can see that the one who suffers is one of God’s creatures too.  

In the talmud (Megillah 10b), the earliest rabbinic interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures, God’s reaction to the drowning of Pharaoh’s army is stated as follows
“How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning?”

How indeed...


For references:  (a contemporary Haggadah) (an introduction to empathic imagination) Ted talk by Dr. Robin Meyers - "The Empathic Imagination: Escaping the Prison of Self" Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh

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