Healing Conversations on Race: The Role of Empathy in Building Christlike Racial Unity
This is Part 2 of a 4-part blog post. Read Part 1 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.
Read Part 1: Black History Month: A Call For Healing Conversations
In Healing Conversations on Race: Four Key Practices from Scripture and Psychology (Vazquez et al., 2023), four racially-diverse authors with advanced training in the behavioral sciences present four key steps for Christians to cultivate and maintain racial unity within the Body of Christ. Drawing upon the Bible as the beginning and ending point, then supplementing Scripture with insights gained from the psychological sciences, we advocate for humility, empathy, acceptance, and love to promote relational healing among racially-different Christians.
In the book—which was written for Christians who are committed to following Christ and want to improve their ability to engage in, and deepen, conversations on race and racism—we offer four key steps that we believe can make a salient difference in Christian communities, including (a) maintaining an attitude of humility when having difficult conversations on the sensitive, and often painful, topic of race, (b) using empathy as a way to understand others’ unique race-related thoughts, feelings, behaviors, memories, experiences, narratives/stories, needs, and so forth, (c) effectively moving toward the acceptance of one’s own and others’ emotions, experiences, and needs, and (d) displaying Christlike love in being behaviorally responsive to others’ emotional pain and needs. Although these four steps are explored in much more detail in the book, I would like to devote this short blog to presenting the second key step—empathy.
Therefore, in this second in a series of four blog posts to dually present the four steps of the book and celebrate Black History Month, my goal, as one of the contributing authors, is to advocate for the foundational role of empathy in having healing conversations on race. In other words, I, along with my three co-authors—Drs. Veola Vazquez, Charles Lee-Johnson, and Krystal Hays—suggest that moving from disunity to unity within diverse, yet tragically segregated, Christian communities requires a deeper understanding of the emotions and needs of others. To start, I would like to define empathy, including its ingredients, then place it in the context of a healing conversation on race. My hope in this short blog is to point readers to the book, which includes much more thorough explanations, steps, activities, exercises, and examples of how to have healing conversations on race within diverse Christian communities.
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology (n.d.), empathy is “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.” So, in essence, empathy involves trying to make sense of someone else’s story, from the inside-out and a place of compassion, including the various thoughts, feelings, and experiences that collectively capture the powerful narrative of another’s life. This ability seems to be uniquely human, with human beings having the God-given skillset of trying to understand the inner world, not just the outer behavior, of others.
Of course, for Christians, we have the grand story of the Bible, or God’s special revelation, as a starting point, which includes four overarching themes that span the Old to New Testaments—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. In other words, God created humankind in his image. Yet, Adam and Eve turned from God and, consequently, were banished from the Bible, Because of the fall, humans now experience all sorts of suffering, including the sin of racism and racial disunity, even in Christian communities. Still, God has offered humans a redemptive plan, based on the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, for Christ followers who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, a restored relationship with God is possible as Christians faithfully wait for God’s eventual restoration of all things, and Christians are to emulate Christ in building and maintaining Christlike unity, regardless of race, within Christ’s Body.
With Scripture as a trustworthy guide, racially-different Christians have a shared story in which we are all embedded—God’s story—which means we have a firm foundation upon which to build and maintain racial unity. However, each Christian also has a unique story to tell, and Christians of color often face, on a regular basis, the enduring effects of the sin of racism. As a result, empathy can allow racially-different Christians to learn more about, and respond to, each unique race-related narrative that has developed over time in a fallen, broken world.
In the context of healing conversations on race, compassionately trying to understand the other person’s story, made up of a unique amalgam of thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and experiences, is key, especially their deeper, more vulnerable emotions and corresponding relational needs. Put more succinctly, feelings are signals that reveal what we need from those around us. Sadness, for instance, may convey loss and the need to be comforted by another during moments of grief and mourning, whereas fear can communicate present-moment danger and the need to be protected by someone else. Anger, as another example, can reveal themes of unfairness, unmet expectations, or injustice, with the need to create distance or attain a sense of control in relationships, and guilt can let us know we have wronged someone else and need to take steps to repent of the wrongdoing.
To offer a quick race-related example, if a Christian of color is expressing the pain of racism to a White Christian, the White brother or sister in Christ can compassionately listen to their story, especially the deeper, more vulnerable emotion (possibly sadness, fear, anger, hurt, shame, and so forth), along with the corresponding interpersonal need (e.g., validation, affirmation, support, responsiveness). To do so, a few important questions can be asked.
To make an intentional effort to empathize with another person when engaged in a conversation on race, asking a few key questions can be helpful: (a) What is this person feeling right now, and how can I communicate I’m understanding the feeling? and (b) What does this person need from me right now, and how can I meet the need?
For instance, in returning to the previous example, if a Christian of color is expressing the pain of racism, the White brother or sister in Christ can try to identify the feeling in the moment, then convey they are attempting to understand with a few key phrases, such as “That sounds so painful,” “I can’t even begin to understand the hurt you must feel,” “That seems like such a scary experience,” or “That must have been such a huge loss.”
From there, the White Christian can begin to compassionately pinpoint the need that the Christian of color has in the moment, such as being affirmed and validated (e.g., “You have every reason to feel hurt”) or supported (e.g., “I want you to know I stand with you right now”). Or, if the White Christian is unsure of how to respond, they can ask a few simple, direct questions, such as “What can I do right now to support you? “How can I help?” or “What do you need from me right now?” Ultimately, the uniquely human ability to empathize involves striving, albeit imperfectly, to better understand the emotional world, and corresponding relational need, of the other person, placed against the backdrop of personal and scriptural narratives. For brothers and sisters in Christ, we are one Body, which means we are called to respond to each’s needs in a fallen, broken world, emulating Jesus Christ in all we do.
To summarize, in Healing Conversations on Race, empathy is the second of four major steps. Placed in the context of the four others, we first commit to displaying humility as we enter into, and continue on with, healing conversations on race. In doing so, we also empathize with the other person’s story, which includes their spectrum of inner and outer experiences. From there, we accept our own, and other person’s, emotions, given they are signals that can convey vital information about relational needs. Finally, we display Christlike love by behaviorally responding to the other person’s emotions and needs, then commit to continuing to respond to our racially-different brothers and sisters in Christ in order to glorify God in all we do.
This blog is the second of 4 in our Black History Month Blog Series for 2023. Check back each Wednesday of February for more on how to have healing conversations. CBU Students who comment on these blogs will have a chance to receive a copy of the book. Winners will be emailed in early March. Listen. Learn. Engage.
Vazquez, V., Knabb, J., Lee-Johnson, C., & Hays, K. (2023). Healing conversations on race: Four
key practices from Scripture and psychology. InterVarsity Press.
APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Empathy. https://dictionary.apa.org/empathy
Thank you for sharing your professional insights on empathically showing up for others when having healing conversations on race. Empathy is one of the most unique qualities any human can offer in any context, especially when talking about race. I truly believe that empathy entails understanding the inner world of a person and refraining from reacting to a person’s outer behaviors. Oftentimes, a person’s outer behavior is a reflection of how they are feeling internally, whether that be sadness, anger, frustration, fear, etc., and this tends to get overlooked. This is where empathy plays such a significant role in these healing conversations because it requires looking past the surface and into the inner world of the person experiencing suffering, regardless of race.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Kate! Empathy is absolutely an important virtue to be practiced and understood in the context of healing conversations on race. It definitely encourages one to look beyond the surface and search for deeper meaning and holistic understanding despite a person’s race.