Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
In Part 1, I spoke about empathy—do you care about other people, or is it just for yourself? In most translations of the Bible you won’t find the word empathy, but in a sense, it is what the whole Gospel is about. Why do you think God sent his Son to this earth?
God could have just looked at our struggles from heaven, shaking his head, and feeling sorry for us. He could have told us exactly what to do, laying down the law, giving us no choice. Instead, the Son of God chose to become one of us.
Weeping with those who weep
Philippians 2:7 says he was “born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” God wants his followers to demonstrate that same concern and understanding for others.
Jesus said: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:31). That is hard to do if you can’t imagine what it must be like in another person’s shoes.
Paul wrote that we should rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. That’s empathy. It’s the powerful emotion that stops violent and cruel behaviour and urges us to treat others kindly because people who love and care for others do not want to hurt them. (Romans 12:15)
Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those who are in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner and those who are mistreated since you also are in the body [and subject to physical suffering].”
That is empathy. Empathy says, I have imagined what it must be like in that man’s shoes, and what I’d want someone to do for me if it was me.
A story of unlikely empathy
The inspiring story in the movie Schindler’s List is quite a graphic one—I did really enjoy it. Enjoy is perhaps the wrong word. Memorable it certainly was. Claimed by many critics as one of the best movies directed by Steven Speilberg, about the terrible Holocaust.
The film is based on the life of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who lived in occupied Kraków during the Second World War. At the beginning of the film, Schindler is portrayed as a loyal supporter of the Nazi regime and wears a swastika pinned to his lapel. He wants to set up a factory producing field kitchenware and mess kits for the German Army and asks a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, who has experience in the industry, to help him.
At this stage, Schindler treats his relationship with Stern as nothing more than a means to the end of establishing a successful business and taking an opportunity of the war economy. When starting up the factory, Stern tells Schindler that using Jewish workers would be cheaper than employing Poles but points out that all the wages of the Jews go directly to the SS.
Schindler, however, is oblivious to the humanitarian issue that the Jews would be working as slave labour—he simply wants them as they would be cheaper. Although Schindler is not the kind of person who expresses open hatred of Jews, he initially treats his Jewish workers with indifference. Schindler’s character transforms as the film progresses. Clearly pleased that his new factory is operating so well, he calls Stern into his office, offers him a drink, and declares, “My father was fond of saying you need three things in life. A good doctor, a forgiving priest and a good accountant.”
It is the beginning of an unlikely friendship. From this point on, the relationship between them develops more profoundly. Schindler saves Stern from being transported to the death camps, and later smuggles him food and other valuable items when he is forced to live and work in a camp in Płaszów run by the sadistic commandant Amon Göth. The fact that Schindler is now willing to take personal risks for Stern is evidence that he has come to empathise with him as a human being. This is a great example of empathy.
Saving the 1200 in the list
When he finds out that 1200 of his Jewish workers are to be transported to Auschwitz, he bribes Göth—at a huge financial cost to himself—so that they and their families are sent instead to a new, effectively fictitious, munitions factory that Schindler is setting up across the border in Czechoslovakia. These 1200 people are put on a list, Schindler’s List, and are saved from the death camps. The film ends with the following words appearing on the screen:
There are fewer than five thousand Jews left alive in Poland today. There are more than six thousand descendants of the Schindler Jews.
Why does Schindler decide to save his Jewish workers, risking his own life in the process? In my view, it is not simply because he feels some general sense of compassion for them or believes that their treatment by the Nazis is a gross injustice. An alternative explanation is that he has, over time, come to know his employees as individuals, has had personal encounters with them, and appreciates that they have hopes, fears and passions like anybody else. Each of them must be treated as a unique human being.
Towards the very end of the film, Schindler introduces Stern to his wife with the words, “Stern is my accountant and friend.”
This may be Schindler’s greatest expression of humanity and the most significant line in the film. Schindler’s List is not the story of somebody who rescues his Jewish workers out of some deep and natural moral sensibility.
It is the story of a person who gradually learns to empathise and relate to his labourers as individuals. As soon as he grants them humanity, he feels compelled to assist them.
(To be continued in Expressing Empathy to Others – Part 3)