This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
We live in a divided world. The latest convention is almost always a catalyst for taking sides. Android versus iPhone. Taylor Swift verse Beyoncé. LeBron versus Jordan. The Last Jedi versus all the other Star Wars. Liberal versus Conservative. Humanity’s thirst to belong thrives across industrial realms. And it’s this quest for belonging that has actually divided us. We are quick to criticize and quicker to condemn. We have become conditioned consumers who dole out hot-takes at a breakneck pace. Our tribe is what matters. And at the crux in all our political, societal, and ecclesiastical division is a failure to recognize another person’s humanity.
I will confess how easy that is to do. I trust I’m not the only who lives their life as if it is a movie. A movie, mind you, in which I am cast as the lead, function as the director, and furiously work as the editor. I am also the only audience. Everyone else who appears on set is just an extra in the cinematic event of my life. They are background players in my story, there to applaud my achievements or take the blame for my failures. They are almost never human. It isn’t often that the car I cut off in traffic is actually driven by a stressed-out single mother taking her toddler to daycare before clocking-in at a job that affords her the opportunity to scrape by. It isn’t often that the barista who glumly takes my order is dealing with the compounded daily pressures of student loads and parentally-mandated GPA levels.
I know how silly that sounds. How conceited and pretentious, too. But my failure to empathize with someone else’s humanity is probably because I never have to smell them. Or I never go out of my way to. David Zahl talks about this at length in his wonderful talk from the 2018 NYC conference. When we don’t have to deal with the way things smell, we confuse our narrative for reality. When we are never forced to grapple with the corporeal tragedies which afflict fellow humans, compassion wanes, empathy fizzles, and division materializes. To counteract this compassionless “one man show,” however, I only need to remember that I’m not the only one grieving. I’m not the only one stressed out, dealing with hurt, coping with heartache. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” I used to hear. And there’s a lot of truth to that. To smell another person is almost to be compelled to empathize with them. To put on their shoes is to understand where they are. And indispensable to our effectiveness in helping others is our willingness to be where they are. Such is when I came across this incredibly affecting passage from Scottish preacher, Alexander Maclaren. He writes:
Wherever men would help their fellows, this is a prime requisite, that the would-be helper should come down to the level of those whom he desires to aid. If we wish to teach, we must stoop to think of the scholar’s thoughts. The master who has forgotten his boyhood will have poor success. If we would lead to purer emotions, we must try to enter into the lower feelings which we labour to elevate. It is of no use to stand at the mouth of the alleys we wish to clean, with our skirts daintily gathered about us, and smelling-bottle in hand, to preach homilies on the virtues of cleanliness. We must go in among the filth, and handle it, if we want to have it cleared away. The degraded must feel that we do not shrink from them, or we shall do them no good. The leper, shunned by all, and ashamed of himself because everybody loathes him, hungers in his hovel for the grasp of a hand that does not care for defilement, if it can bring cleansing . . . We must put our hearts into them, if we would win hearts by them. We must be ready, like our Master, to take blind beggars by the hand, if we would bless or help them.
We cannot lecture men into the love of Christ. We can win them to it only by showing Christ’s love to them; and not the least important element in that process is the exhibition of our own love. We have a Gospel to speak of which the very heart is that the Son of God stooped to become one with the lowliest and most sinful; and how can that Gospel be spoken with power unless we too stoop like Him?1
Jesus one-upped the notion of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” by putting himself in a body of flesh and blood, just like you and me, all for you and me. A good shepherd might smell like his sheep, but we have a Greater Shepherd, who not only smells like sheep, he becomes a sheep, and dies as the lamb who clears away the world’s sin by consuming it in his passion and death. He came and dwelt amongst all our wretchedness and filth and not only handled it, he became it. He became the defiled one, the filthy one, the perpetrator, the sinner, and stood in our stead. He acquainted himself with all our griefs and sorrows and pains, subsuming the horrific suffering you and I rightly deserved. “His grace,” writes Lutheran minister F. W. Krummacher, “swallows up all our sins, and all our evil, like a fathomless sea.”2 His mercy sucks up all the schism caused by sin. Division is only blasted away by a Love that comes so close to us it can smell us.
Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. Mark: Chapters I to VIII (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 290–92.
F. W. Krummacher, The Flying Roll: Free Grace Displayed (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1841), 84.