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Empathy: the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation – Oxford English Reference Dictionary

One of the most regrettable and despicable aspects of colonialism is the imposition by force of the coloniser’s will upon the subjugated masses: “We know best because we are more intelligent, powerful and technologically more advanced than you — which of course means we can deal with you more efficiently if you dare resist…” Defenders of colonialism point to the provision of education, roads and transportation — surely collateral benefits which later flowed from settlement after dominion had been established and the pillaging of natural resources had begun. The original colonisers may have started with trading rather than invading, but I’m sure they didn’t occupy foreign lands to primarily improve the lot of the local people. I doubt their greed for power was brushed aside by some sudden rush of altruism and moral kindness.One of the most regrettable and despicable aspects of colonialism is the imposition by force of the coloniser’s will upon the subjugated masses: “We know best because we are more intelligent, powerful and technologically more advanced than you — which of course means we can deal with you more efficiently if you dare resist…” Defenders of colonialism point to the provision of education, roads and transportation — surely collateral benefits which later flowed from settlement after dominion had been established and the pillaging of natural resources had begun. The original colonisers may have started with trading rather than invading, but I’m sure they didn’t occupy foreign lands to primarily improve the lot of the local people. I doubt their greed for power was brushed aside by some sudden rush of altruism and moral kindness.

Invaders seek no true understanding of the indigenous people’s needs and desires, fears and joys, their thought and communication processes, their culture, religion and concept of community. Conquerors would not do what they do if they were truly empathetic towards their victims. They also need to rid themselves of hindrances such as sympathy and mercy. The early missionaries who managed to effectively spread God’s love and the gospel in Africa and Asia did so through God’s grace, in spite of colonial expansion rather than as a direct result of it. The same may be said for outreach to certain Australian Aboriginal communities over the decades, where genuine evangelistic efforts have been tarnished and perhaps sadly overshadowed by the horrors of brutal massacres and abuse of the ‘stolen generation’, amongst other injustices inflicted on the indigenous people.

To genuinely feel for someone else, you must try to walk in their steps, but this journey can be quite complicated and confusing — as well as lonely and liberating. How can I say I understand discrimination if I have never been abused, mocked or denigrated because of my race, colour, caste, religion, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, or personal values and beliefs? Am I too insular in my comfort zone within my home country? For someone from a foreign ethnic background, have I blended in too well with the predominant culture that I have lost touch with my familial roots?

Over the years I’ve had contact with Chinese people who were either born or brought up in Australia — ABCs. We also mix with non-Asians who have connected with our particular culture, be it through food, education or our eclectic East/West mix of thought, speech and dress. Sometimes we would refer to someone as being a banana or a boiled egg — that is, an Asian with a Caucasian heart, or a Caucasian with an Asian heart. When I thought about it, I had to admit that Western missionaries who have lived and served in an Asian country and experienced first-hand that society’s culture, prejudices, passions and idiosyncrasies probably understand the mindset of the people better than I can, although I may have been exposed to elements of that society through the microcosm of my childhood family and my current extended family. I realise that I need to educate myself more if I wish to empathise in a meaningful way with people of my ethnicity, and that may mean living in Hong Kong or Malaysia for a time. 

Of course, no one can be more empathetic than our Lord Jesus Christ, Who humbled Himself and ‘made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men’ (Php 2:7, NKJV). He didn’t just experience what life was like in someone else’s skin — He experienced what it was to have skin. The Creator took the very form of His creation, and lived amongst men, learning about human frailty, coming face-to-face with our weakness and wretchedness, appreciating first-hand the fruit of our fallen state. He only couldn’t empathise with our sinfulness, although he saw and felt the consequences which accompany it. He could even empathise with the plight of the refugee, having fled to Egypt as a child.

How can you be more empathetic towards a friend, a relative, a work colleague, a church member, your local community, or even a stranger in need? How might God be calling you to change as a result?

Editorial by Andrew Chan

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