A hundred years ago Allied forces were bogged down in a brutal, prolonged war with Germany on the western front in France and beyond. The Great War, better known here as World War I, turned out to be far more atrocious than anyone could have imagined at its beginning. The fighting had broken down into an entrenched stalemate with forces on either side shooting at each other from earthen fortifications across “no man’s land” – the area between the forces that endured intense shelling over the years of fighting, a space that few dared to enter because it meant almost certain death. The holes that the soldiers slept in were disease ridden, gas masks were standard issue because of all the chemical weapons that were in regular use, and soldiers’ prospects of survival were bleak.
Now, you might think that living in this sort of military muck and engaging the enemy day after day would make you hate your opponent more and more with each passing day. As you looked over the shelled areas between you, trying to pick off soldiers one by one, knowing that their continued survival would keep you from returning home, it would seem only natural for you to hate those you were trained to kill and treat them as nothing but an object to be overcome. Yet, surprisingly, officers on the front lines of this terrible conflict started staggering the times that their men spent on the line because they discovered that if their troops were facing the same enemy faces for too long they would stop shooting at them or start missing their targets on purpose. Even though these soldiers spent every miserable day at the front looking across the destruction that their enemies had wrought on the land, they began to empathize with their opponents and realize that they too were mere men caught up in a larger fight. Instead of developing hatred for their opponents, they grew to see them with greater humanity the longer they faced them. Officers had to keep their troops from looking at the same enemies regularly or they would begin to empathize with those that they were supposed to neutralize.
The Google dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” One who shows empathy is a person who looks across the trenches, battle lines, and ‘no man’s lands’ that divide us and sees more than an enemy – they see a person who is called up in the same battle that ranges around us all but simply ended up on the other side. In the polarized times in which we live, there are many stark battle lines drawn to keep people behind the thresholds of extremes and these battle lines are keeping us divided. A poll on the news this morning reported that nearly ninety percent of both Republicans and Democrats view those with political differences negatively, effectively proving that right now people are not practicing empathy across political divides. Many in our time are unable to understand or share the feelings and perspectives of others, especially of those with whom they disagree. But, as people of faith, we believe that we are all formed in the image of God and we all share in the love of the One who made us and saves us. If soldiers in one of the most dreadful wars in human history can show empathy towards their enemies, imagine what we can do here on the homefront.