A Call to Empathy: Thoughts From Chaplain Rachel Kessler

This article was written by Priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish Rachel Kessler ’04 in response to the 2016 election

Like so many on this campus, I have a potentially unhealthy obsession with Hamilton. My favorite line in the whole show comes at the end of “It’s Quiet Uptown” when Angelica sings of the reconciliation between Alexander and Eliza: There are moments that the words don’t reach. / There’s a grace too powerful to name … Forgiveness, can you imagine?

Grace and forgiveness often are unimaginable concepts to us. I love that moment for the way it reflects healing love that defies all reason. But it only happens because Alexander spends most of the song naming his own culpability for his wife’s pain and begging for such forgiveness.

In the week since the election, there has been much talk about the need to come together as a country. As a Christian leader, I share in that call to empathy and mutual understanding as the only path forward. We must find a way to see the realities inhabited by other in our community – realities which may bear little resemblance to our own.

Yet even as I issue that call to mutual understanding, I believe we must be very careful about where we place the burden for empathy at this time.  The church has a really unfortunate track record asking those who have been victims to do the hard work of reconciliation. Victims of abuse are called in the name of Christian charity to forgive their abusers before they have had the time to name and work through their trauma. Victims of systemic racism are called to be the agents of reconciliation in a country where we cannot even admit that we have a problem with systemic racism. Members of the LGBTQ communities are often charged to be the bigger people and show understanding for ideologies which cast their most intimate relationships and inherently sinful.

We need to get over that. In this moment, the burden of empathy lies first and foremost with those who now have power. One of the difficult (though essential) realities for us to face is that many decent people found their conscience compelling them to vote in different ways. But those who made the choice to support a candidate—for whatever reason—whose rhetoric legitimizes hatred towards women, people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, the disabled community, Muslims (the list goes on) have a particular burden on them to stand up and disavow that rhetoric.

They also have the special burden at this time to understand why people are afraid and grieving. There can be no excuse for any of us – whether or not we supported our new president-elect — to claim ignorance about why people of color are afraid for their safety in this political climate. There can be no excuse for any of us to claim ignorance about why a same sex couple might suddenly be afraid their marriage will be deemed invalid.

Many others on this campus are deeply grieved about the outcome of the election, and confused as to how anyone could make allowances for the offensive comments that have been made. And yet, despite that grief and confusion, we are not at this moment in particular danger from increased acts of hate and discrimination. It is our burden to reach across the aisle in the opposite direction and understand the factors that led someone to support a candidate we cannot begin to understand. It is our obligation to reach out to neighbors, coworkers, or family members and offer to hear their story—their fears and concerns—as well.   We must also call them to join us in resisting the rising tide of malice that is being unveiled around us. The more we can bring other members of our community together in that work, the more powerful it will be.

In the coming weeks and months, we must work together to build a better America. Regardless of political affiliation, we must join with local groups in our own communities already forming to oppose the increased bullying and harassment. We must support organizations committed to equality and justice. And, most importantly, we must all work to acknowledge and repent of the role we have played in producing a society so fundamentally broken. 

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