The Alphabet of Grace: I is for Interpathy

Recently online, I shared a beautiful story about how a group of people waiting in line to vote performed a number of acts of kindness toward an elderly voter. Red and blue, male and female, black and white, the whole line came together to help a frail woman and afterwards they burst spontaneously into song right there in the line.

It was an instinctive act of grace, so they sang, “Amazing Grace.” It was wonderful.

Well, I received a number of strange responses to that heart-warming story.

One man commented that he was sick and tired of “liberals” telling their made-up stories of voter suppression and that it’s never been so easy to cast a ballot. When I told him I’d shared the story in order to foster feelings of togetherness and that a left-right argument wasn’t welcome, he corrected himself but signed off saying, “I’ll just let it be. But I would like to reserve the right to moan about liberals another time.”


Because he really doesn’t like liberals, I guess. And he has to moan about them.

People really not liking another people-group or cohort or culture or ethnicity is at the heart of our problem. It is literally tearing us apart.

Whether we refer to it as racism or sexism, or xenophobia or discrimination, it is the demonizing and alienation of the other. My friend dislikes “liberals.” In his mind they are one large amorphous group of likeminded people with whom he disagrees and whose values he repudiates. When they’re all the same and different from me it’s easier for me to reject them.

What’s lacking here is interpathy.

Interpathy is a term first coined by Mennonite scholar, David Augsburger. The word is a portmanteau of “inter-cultural-empathy”, and Augsburger defines it as “the intentional cognitive and affective envisioning of the thoughts and imagining the feelings of a truly separate other.”

As our cities have become more culturally diverse, interpathy has become an essential skill for human society, but it has also become more difficult to achieve.

From the president down — including the vice president, legislators, thought leaders, and church leaders — there is an alarming inability to look at ourselves through the eyes of the other, or to have empathy for them.

We now live in a world where advocating empathy is perceived as mollifying the enemy.  

Any attempt to comprehend an alternate perspective is seen as appeasing our opponents.

Compassion to those with whom we differ is regarded as placating.

Augsburger referred to interpathy as a “practice of creative imagination”, a kind of intercultural, cross-cultural, and supra-cultural intuition, a skill “that must be acquired in actual interface, not virtual encounter; it is a discipline that must be internalized through dialogue and mutual discernment; it has no-known substitutes even with the best genius of online information.”

In other words, interpathy is built when we sit face-to-face with those with whom we disagree. While ever our ‘enemy’ is that one large amorphous group of likeminded people I referred to earlier, it’s easier to demonize them. And we give them dismissive names like ‘thugs’ and ‘rednecks’ and ‘libtards’ and ‘bedwetters’. Anyone left of me is a ‘socialist’ and anyone on the right is ‘a deplorable’. And if we only engage with them via a screen, they remain othered, rejected, despised.

Of course, President Donald Trump is the patron saint of this kind of behavior. He has made name-calling a political artform. He whips up crowds into peels of laughter at his putdowns and insults.

The need for face-to-face engagement with our ideological opponents was illustrated recently by the act of kindness exhibited by Black Lives Matter demonstrator, Patrick Hutchinson during a rally in London. After several statues in the UK were targeted by protesters for their links to the slave trade, members of far-right groups gathered around statues ostensibly to protect them, but also to provoke BLM protesters to violence.

On June 13 this year, scuffles between BLM protesters and right-wing groups broke out on the Southbank near Waterloo station. Bryn Male, a white man from a right-wing group, fell during the melee and was in danger of being trampled. That’s when Hutchinson swooped in and picked him up to keep him out of harm’s way.

Patrick Hutchinson’s fellow protesters formed a ring around the stricken man to protect him from further attack.

When asked about his courageous act later, Hutchinson waved away any suggestion he was a hero, but went on to refer to the killing of George Floyd, whose murder had sparked the protest he was participating in.

“If the other three police officers that were standing around when George Floyd was murdered had thought about intervening and stopping their colleague from doing what he was doing, like what we did,” he said, “George Floyd would be alive today.”

If only the police could have interpathy for young black men.

If only Christians could have interpathy for Muslim refugees and immigrants.

If only the left had interpathy for the right. And vice versa.

Building interpathy takes commitment. We don’t see many examples of respectful discourse these days. Many of us can’t imagine what friendly disagreement looks like. How do we respect different opinions? I could suggest a few initial things:

  1. Seek first to understand the other before expecting to be understood;
  2. Work at learning how to voice the other person’s position even better than they do;
  3. Don’t demonize or caricature the views you reject;
  4. Challenge their ideas with respect and good humor;
  5. Be clear about the things on which you agree;
  6. Never forget that the person with whom you disagree was created by God in His image. Jesus loves that person, even if you’re pretty sure Jesus would agree with you over them.

None of this requires us to excuse racism or violence, or injustice or discrimination. We can remain vigilant in our demand for justice, while still working to understand those who differ with us on politics or cultural preferences or lifestyle.

Novelist David James Duncan writes of the need for us to be able to even imagine what the other thinks and feels. He writes, “Empathy begins with a fictive act. Christ’s words, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ to cite a famously ignored example, demand an arduous imaginative act. Christ orders anyone who is serious about him to commit this Neighbor-Me fiction until Christ’s words are turned into reality.”

Back to David Augsburger, he was greatly influenced by the theology of the German Jesuit priest and theologian, Karl Rahner and his work on neighboring. Rahner once wrote,

“There is no love of God that is not, in itself, already a love for the neighbor; and love for God only comes to its own identity through its fulfillment in a love for neighbor. Only one who loves his or her neighbor can know who God actually is. And only one who ultimately loves God … can manage unconditionally to abandon himself or herself to another person, and not make that person the means of his or her own self-assertion.”

We must believe the Neighbor-Me fiction until it becomes true in our lives.

Patrick Hutchinson’s willingness to see Bryn Male fall, let alone to assess the danger he was in and to act to protect him, was the Neighbor-Me story coming to life.

It would be beautiful if we could say that Hutchinson’s act of kindness changed things in the UK. But it didn’t. In September, an anti-racist mural depicting the moment Hutchinson rescued the far-right protester went up in the south London suburb of Lewisham. Days later it was painted over with the message: “We don’t rescue racists in Lewisham, we run them out.”

The whole mural was later removed.

Interpathy is still in short supply, it seems.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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1 thought on “The Alphabet of Grace: I is for Interpathy

  1. Agreed.

    I really liked your suggestion 2 “Work at learning how to voice the other person’s position even better than they do;”
    So much back and forth banter occurs without taking the time to really understand the other person’s view.

    Justin Brierley says “We need to relearn the art of having good conversations”

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