For most of us, conversations about refugees are theoretical and abstract – we speak more of them as a group than as individuals – simply because most of us have had little direct contact with refugees. This can make it harder to view refugees as individuals who are image-bearers.
We believe that people are made in God’s image. Part of this involves recognizing that others are individuals who think and feel as we do (psychologists refer to this as our theory of mind for other people). A 2017 psychology study showed how our empathy and moral judgments about others can change depending on whether we see them as groups or individuals. Participants were told about a number of individuals going through some experience, and had to rate those individuals on their capacity for experience (“How able are they to feel pain or pleasure?”) and agency (“How able are they to control their actions and act morally?”). Some participants were told about “a group comprised of 15 people” (highlighting the group), while others were told about “15 people in a group” (highlighting the individuals). Participants who rated individuals when their group was highlighted gave significantly lower ratings of the individuals’ capacities for feeling pain/pleasure and acting morally.
This result comes from an experimental setting, while our conversations about refugees are often complex and dynamic interactions. However, it does suggest what we know to be true – it is harder to be empathetic for people who are faceless and distant. The converse is also true – it is easier to be moved to compassion for those we know and share space with.
There is a clear biblical echo of this in Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Neighbors are not faceless groups; neighbors are individuals. “Who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer, and in response Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). My neighbor is someone in need that I have access to, and who has a claim on me.
In this day and age, technology renders some distance irrelevant – the plight of many refugees in distant lands are accessible to us, and we can provide help that can reach them. But look closer, and we will find refugees (and opportunities to know them) closer to home. The refugee is our neighbor, too.
Refugees share similarities (they are all fleeing hardships and are often in great need) but they are also a diverse group of people (with distinct stories and perspectives). In this week’s posts, we will hear from those who have more direct experience with refugees than we do. Let us take the opportunity to listen to them and become more intimately familiar with the stories of refugees, so that we might become empathetic neighbors moved to compassion and action.