Throughout this year, the media have made us more acutely aware than ever of the way in which power is exercised. Political power has been to the fore, as powerful leaders of nations have threatened, negotiated, challenged the status quo. In our complex electronic world, we have seen the power of the internet to access information, to change our lifestyle, to expand our awareness of the world in which we live. We have seen the seemingly uncontrollable power of social media to create great opportunities for building relationships between people, to send instant messages to millions world wide, but, at the same time, to produce addiction, mental illness and social isolation. At a more personal level, people in leadership positions, whether in politics, industry, or the entertainment industry, to name a few, have been accused of abusing their power over the people in their employ. And, not a day goes by without there being some story of a parent’s abuse of power over a child, a carer’s abuse of power over a client, a teacher’s abuse of power over a pupil. We hardly need to be reminded that power at any level brings responsibility.
All this has reminded me of the familiar saying of the 19th century historian and moralist, Lord Acton, that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”; and that can apply to anyone who has power over another, from politicians to parents. What is missing, when reports of the abuse of power arise, is the inability of the powerful to put themselves in the shoes of the powerless. Even if they have such an ability, they are apparently indifferent to the possibility of applying it for the good of others. Such an ability is called empathy, and, I want to suggest a rewriting of Lord Acton’s saying, that “empathy tends to encourage, and absolute empathy is love”.
A true story landed on my desk as I wrote this. A teacher of seven-year-olds asked her class to describe something they wished had never been invented. One child replied, ‘the mobile phone, because my parents are on it every day.’ The child’s drawing of a crossed-out mobile beside a sad face saying, ‘I hate it!’ was shared all over Facebook. The teacher said, ‘We had a class discussion and every single child said their parents spent more time on social media than talking to them.’
A refreshing moment in this year was back in May when Bishop Michael Curry gave a memorable sermon to send Harry and Meghan on their way into married life. He was picking up on a speech by the late Martin Luther King that, “we must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and, when we do that, we shall make of this old world a new world.” And love is the only way. There is power in love to help and heal, to forgive and reconcile, when nothing else can. The reason that the way of love works is because the source of our lives is love, ‘absolute empathy’ is love, God is love.
In a few weeks time, we shall be celebrating once again the birth of Jesus into this world. If you ask what absolute empathy looks like, then here is where your answer begins, as the Christmas story, a decisive action in God’s plan for his creation, unfolds from the birth into the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. God enters our world in a way that we can access and understand. He puts himself in our shoes. He knows what it is like to experience the ups and downs of life, even what it is like to make the ultimate sacrifice for his friends. In Jesus, God says to us ‘I love you; whoever you are, whatever you have done, because I think you are worth it.’ Ultimately, the Christian faith is in a God who has absolute empathy for us. To seek to follow him is to discover that absolute empathy, love, is more powerful than anything derived from position or status. So for this new year I invite you to live by this new saying, “empathy tends to encourage, and absolute empathy is love”. What difference do you think that would make to the parents in my story of the seven-year-olds; or indeed to any of the multitude of relationships we have with other people? The way of absolute empathy will work because love is the way, and when love is the way, we can transform the world for the benefit of all. And that is why we pray every day, ‘Your Kingdom come’.
With my love and prayers for a very blessed Christmas and a healthy and happy new year.