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Empathy Gone Nature: A Paradigm Shift

We are thrilled to share with you The Justice Project’s Third Place Winner for our Writing Competition:

Empathy Gone Nature: A Paradigm Shift
by Johannes Kleiner

The preacher looks at her congregation. After a short pause she begins to speak, “One day all of you—this entire congregation—will be dead!” Silence. Again, “One day, everyone in this congregation will be dead!” Just what you want to hear Sunday morning. But apparently it strikes a chord with a laughing gentleman in the back. He must be crazy. People are mumbling, turning around, staring. On his way out, the pastor greets him: “Welcome! You seem to be a happy camper. The entire congregation went silent, but you just burst out laughing.” High spirited he replies, “Of course, I’m not a part of this congregation.” [1]

When it comes to the environmental crisis, we are the man or woman in the back. For still too many, eco justice—passionate advocacy for our tortured planet—is “not my job.” Do people just not care enough? No! What we need is a change of perspective that helps nature’s voice hit home the same way the pastor’s voice does: Let empathy go nature!

As kids we intimately identify with nature. I vividly recall my love for a story about a rabbit curling up with his blanket in a hollow tree to sleep through the winter—and a few years later, my horror seeing my favorite tree cut down in my neighborhood. Many lose that empathetic intimacy with the other-than-human world all too quickly. It gives way to an anthropocentric focus: humans first—and often even, “I first”.

Having empathy with nature as our primary attitude needs to be re-learned. One way to shift our perspective to a wider identification with the whole ecosystem earth is to make an effort to see through nature’s eyes. Stories are a premier way to let our imagination go “nature.” Whether the epic 3D adventure of Avatar and its tree-connection or the IMAX documentary Flight of the Butterflies, we know how to let our imagination zoom in on the other-than-human.

The Bible, too, a book still formative for many people’s social action, frequently and creatively zooms in on the more-than-human. It is time allow the text help us rekindle our feeling of interconnectedness with nature. If only the singing mountains (Isaiah 49:13), the clapping trees (Isaiah 55:12), the yearning deer (Psalm 42:1), and the diligent ant (Proverbs 6:6) would greet us on Sunday mornings—unchain our imagination and beg our empathy—the current dying of nature would hit home much harder.

In a society where the pulpit remains an important place to inspire social action and life changes, a message that draws on the more-than-human as part of God’s story can lead to the paradigm shift that might save the planet: our stories are inextricably linked. We—animals, humans, earth—are a community of fate, truly one congregation, that is deeply affected by each other’s suffering. Humans would be better off to step up to the plate and let their empathy go nature.


[1] I was first  introduced to a version of this story in a sermon delivered by Joseph L. Roberts, Jr. as guest preacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Atlanta, GA, on February 17, 2013.

How do you think our stories are inextricably linked? 

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