Moccasin Politics: On the Ministry of Empathy


The most fascinating news item of the last two weeks is the story of the anti-Semitic Hungarian politician who recently discovered that he was Jewish.

According to media reports, Csanad Szegedi was a rising star of the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary, who had accused Jews of “buying up” the country and desecrating national symbols. The 30-year old Csanad was raised as a Presbyterian, and was responsible for the creation of the neo-fascist Hungarian Guard, which was outlawed in 2009. In 2010, he was secretly taped being confronted by an ex-criminal with reports of his own Jewish ancestry. Csanad appeared surprised, and attempted to buy off the convict.

But after the confrontation, Csanad approached his maternal grandmother, who told him the truth of his Jewish ancestry. She was herself a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau.

Csanad resigned his membership in the Jobbik party shortly afterwards. According to media reports, it appears as if Csanad is spending time discovering his ancestral roots. He met with a Hungarian rabbi and plans to visit Auschwitz soon.

In other words, it appears as if Csanad might have had a change of heart. (More recent news reports seem to dispute this development and hint that Csanad is, in fact, considering starting a new, even-further-right political party.) Any possible change in Csanad’s perspective was spurred by the discovery of his own true identity. He discovered who he really was, and the discovery is forcing him to confront the implications of his politics.

As the old Native American proverb goes, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Perhaps Csanad is finally walking in the shoes of a Hungarian Jew.

If I had the chance to ask Csanad Szegedi a question, it would be this: “What took you so long?!! Why did it have to become personal for you to acknowledge somebody else’s perspective?”

The world seems to run on a shortage of empathy. Empathy is the ability to enter vicariously into the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of another person. It is the virtue of putting one’s self into the place of another, or to walk in someone else’s shoes.

In the 21st century, I can’t think of a greater virtue for a human being. Empathy is what will enable humanity to prosper and thrive in the future. We must learn to put ourselves in the place of others, to try to see the world from their point of view. We can no longer afford to impose our worldview onto others.

I remember the very first time I discovered “empathy.” I was on a college mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico over a Christmas break. We spent most of our time working and worshipping with a community that lived in a garbage dump. It was my very first direct encounter with extreme poverty, and it shocked me.

I watched the young kids digging through the piles of broken glass, twisted wire, and plastic bottles, and thought to myself, “What if I grew up here? How would my expectations of life be different? What would I believe about God?”

I learned to ask these questions everywhere I go in the world. I have pondered these matters while holding orphans in Zimbabwe, sitting in an airport in Casablanca, worshipping with immigrants in Paris, zipping through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a motorcycle, and sunning on the beach in Southern California.

Attempting to answer these questions has helped make me a more honest human, and a more searching Christian.

Without empathy, we are all liable to become like Csanad Szegedi – railing and spewing self-hatred in our ignorance.

As a Christian, I believe that one of God’s own qualities is empathy. This virtue is at the core of our doctrine of the Incarnation.

God took great care in creating us; we are told that we were created “in God’s image.” But because we were “other” from God, and because we seemed to be destined for an eternal separation from God, God chose to step into our situation. God, as it were, “walked a mile in our moccasins” by becoming human, by taking on flesh and blood.

God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the supreme act of empathy. And the point of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion is that God went all the way through with the act of empathy. God didn’t shy away from the most painful part of the act.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to the ministry of empathy, too.

There may be no greater calling at this moment in history, especially in America. What could be more healing to our politics of church and state than to become willing to consider the plight of persons of color, of women, of gays and lesbians, of immigrants (documented or undocumented), of mentally ill persons, of prisoners, of persons of other faiths?

The list could go on and on, because there are an infinite number of persons who are NOT you and NOT me!

Yes, empathy is difficult, and it takes constant work. But it must be done, for the sake of the planet.

There are lots of moccasins to go around. We should get used to trying different ones on.