In an old copy of The New Scientist Issue 2520 (October 2005), I was reading an article
which discussed Empathy among animals. While it is not unusual for one species to attack another (as in the predator/prey relationship), studies have shown the existence of empathy in one species for another species which seems to suggest that empathy is a natural part of the evolutionary psyche. A common example is how pets will hover over an ill human member of the household, or a pet cat will lick a sick pet dog. The bonds of empathy cross species boundaries, and even involve members of species which have never met before. A famous example in evolutionary psychology mentioned by the article is that of "Kuni", a bonobo chimpanzee in a zoo who saw a starling fly into the glass of her enclosure and was knocked out. Kuni picked up the starling and climbed the tallest tree in the enclosure, gently spread it's wings with her fingers and tried to fly the bird like a paper glider out of the enclosure. The starling landed on the bank of the moat around the enclosure, and Kuni climbed down and stood watch over it for hours until the bird finally recovered and was able to fly away itself. This behaviour was interesting because Kuni was tailoring her assistance to the starling's needs rather than following some hard-wired behaviour. In other words, Kuni was treating the starling as a starling rather than another bonobo chimpanzee.
This got me thinking about the Gospel passage about "Who Is My Neighbour?", and what Christ was trying to tell us in the Parable of the Good Samaratan. When the poor man was attacked an robbed and left to die, his own kind passed him by. But a Samaratan- a stranger, a foreigner, someone who was a heretic to the Jews was the one who showed Compassion and Empathy for the suffering of the man. Like Kuni the bonobo, the Good Samaratan reached accross boundaries of "other" and responded to the suffering of another despite their difference.
We naturally feel empathy for our family and friends, but it seems to me that Christ demands that we extend this empathy beyond our own kind: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them." (Luke 6:32)
The true test
of a Christian seems to be to love those who do not love us- and it seems to me that bonobo chimpanzees are often better at this than we are. Rememeber- Kuni didn't try to turn the starling into a chimp, but respected the fact that it was a starling.
Can we manage to do the same for those who are different to us? Or is the only way we can love them is if we m ake them into copies of us?