Empathy: Path to trust

A challenge for both Canadians and Christians to work towards creating conditions for everyone to flourish.

What do “Foreign Interference” and “Freedom Convoy” have in common – other than becoming unusual coffee table words in Canada? They both reflect the growing loss of trust in the way we make decisions on how to live together in Canada, which is to say, the very foundations of democracy and politics. Could they, through an ironic twist, also lead to wiser ways forward for Canada? I think churches have something to learn from these struggles as well.

As a citizen I hear one national political leader, Pierre Poilievre, shouting that “Canada is broken.”

I hear the other main leader, Justin Trudeau, pushing forward because “Canada can do Big Things.”

Both are partly true. Both are superficial slogans. Neither is backed with a credible plan.

Two other voices associated with these files are offering wise words to Canadians, but they seem to be drowned out by the shrillness of tweet-politics. They are former Governor General David Johnson, recently appointed to recommend a way to address foreign interference, and retired Justice Paul Rouleau, head of the review of the use of the Emergency Measures Act to end the Freedom Convoy.

Empathy to build trust

I just read David Johnson’s new book entitled Empathy: Turning Compassion into Action. It follows a book titled Trust. Empathy, to Johnson, is more than feeling what the other feels; it is acting in the interests of the other. Empathy in action builds trust, says Johnson, and it is the only path to peace and progress as humans. He maps practical steps for all Canadians, as individuals, communities and a nation, to build trust, respect the dignity of all, give agency to the vulnerable and build spaces where people can reach their full potential. These are wise words, backed up by years of experience. It will be interesting to see how he applies those principles to the challenge of restoring confidence in the way we elect our leaders.

Living in Tension

Rouleau’s review of the Freedom Convoy stood out for its spirit of respect, even for those who disrespected him, and its principled approach. Well-known journalist Paul Wells described it as a “Spirit of Generosity.” His report should not be shelved. A central message is to recognize the tensions between two good things and work within them, an approach I wish more political and church leaders would practice. The first tension he names is between freedom and order.

“Freedom cannot exist without order,” states Rouleau. Order constrains freedom, but the machinery of order, such as laws, creates the conditions for more freedom for all and mediates conflicting freedoms. This is a good reminder for the church; what is often missing in advocacy for religious freedom is recognition of freedom for all and conflicting freedoms.

A second tension is speed and deliberation. There is a tension between timely decision-making and cautious, deliberative consideration. Giving more thought to how we make decisions can reduce polarization, for example, being more deliberate in the case of mask mandates. In the church world also, more thought is needed about different kinds of decisions; who should make them, and how to empower rather than trample on the dignity, moral agency and relationships essential to flourishing.

What is common to both these wise directions is an important shift from a “What’s in it for me?” approach to public life, toward a focus on the Other and creating conditions for everyone to flourish. That sounds Biblical and hopeful, but challenging for both Canadians and Christians.


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