By Joe Boyd
I was in New York City for business meetings the Friday night of the attacks in Paris. After returning home, my wife and I began to discuss things. I wasn’t a very good conversationalist. (She’s used to that.) I was tired from a long week at work. I was also, like so many, confused about the state of the world and afraid that things would escalate. She asked me to write what I was thinking, suggesting it might help people process. (Maybe she just wanted me to process.)
I quickly jotted my thoughts down in my personal Facebook feed. The response from my “friends” was largely positive, but like anything on social media, there were people who vehemently disagreed with what I had to say. I understand their position, but I’ve spent a few decades now wrestling with the command of Jesus to love our enemies and, even more significantly, his example of forgiving the soldiers who killed him while dying on the cross. I am not necessarily a committed pacifist or a pure idealist, but I believe strongly that until a person has wrestled with the radical nonviolent nature of Jesus, they have not fully examined him.
Below is my Facebook post from November 15. If it encourages you, great. If it upsets you, that’s great too. I may be wrong, but it’s worth the time to think about it.
My thoughts on Paris: I see only one way for peace to come to the world. It cannot happen quickly—likely not in our lifetime—but I do believe it can happen. It must happen one person at a time.
The elusive elixir to evil is empathy. Until we can all take the risk to try to understand each other, we will never heal. Empathy is always a risk. Empathy forces us to feel the pain of others. It also shows us that, almost always, we are somehow complicit in other’s pain. The more we meditate on any evil situation, the more we see our role in it. It’s terrifying, and more often than not, we’d much rather use polarizing labels to simplify a complicated situation.
What happened in Paris was evil. I hate it. It accomplished its goal in me—I experienced terror. What is it in me that somehow makes that event more terrifying than what has been happening this week in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and many other regions, though? Or, for that matter, that which is happening now in Missouri? I know the answer. It’s simply that it is easier for me to empathize with Parisians because so many of the victims were like me: white, educated, postmodern, and relatively wealthy. The first victims died drinking wine at a restaurant in Paris. I got my first CNN push notification of their deaths while having dinner at a bar in Brooklyn. Empathy isn’t hard there.
But it is harder, for me, to have empathy for the Syrian refugee. It’s harder, for me, to have empathy for the gay Ugandan facing execution or the Afghan woman being stoned for adultery. It is harder for me to have empathy for a black teenager fighting the system in Chicago. And it is unthinkably hard for me to have empathy for the jihadists who died Friday night somehow believing they were obeying their god.
But I must. If I want any peace for the world or any peace for myself, I must exercise the empathy muscle until it becomes my greatest weapon of peace.
There’s only one way to become empathetic. It happens by listening to others and imagining their reality. It happens only through stories. For the last three years, when people ask me why I am a storyteller, I’ve given the same answer: “So people will stop shooting each other.” Ultimately, that’s why I do what I do. I tell stories for a living at Rebel Pilgrim Creative Agency. Not all of those stories can save the world, but they can create empathy.
I tell other stories, too . . . at SouthBrook Christian Church as a pastor and at Cincinnati Christian University as an adjunct. I’m also a cofounder of a brand-new nonprofit organization called Bespoken that exists to create live events where people of all backgrounds, faiths, and experiences can tell their personal stories. (It launches January 15 in Cincinnati.) I’ve given my life to these things because I believe there is hope.
Everyone on my time line is calling for prayer for Paris and the other troubled areas around the world. As a Christian, of course I will pray. But that isn’t enough. It never is. I’m also going to tell my story, and more importantly, listen to the stories of those who are different from me—even my enemies—until the tide turns and we live in a world where empathy is our blink instinct to terror.
If we ALL want to have peace, that’s the only pathway I see that will get us there.
Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.