Is Empathy Dangerous?

The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation.  You can read more from Jason at his blog,

Back in the fall of 2008, before my wife ever told me she was bisexual, we lived in Pasadena, California, where I was studying at Fuller Theological Seminary. My conservative beliefs about homosexuality and the LGBTQ community at the time seemed mostly in-line with those of my peers and professors.

But I knew gay people. I worshipped alongside them on Sundays. And I was surprised to find they were a lot like me. I remember sitting at lunch after church with Christine, who had married her wife around the same time I had married mine. We swapped wedding stories for a bit before she told me, with a shaky voice, how nervous she felt about the upcoming Prop. 8 vote and the possibility that her marriage might become legally invalidated.

It was the first time I had ever considered how that might feel.

With these discoveries came two distinct, paradoxical feelings in equal measure: empathy, and skepticism of that empathy. Here’s what I mean–this is an excerpt from the textbook for the Christian Ethics class I was taking at the time:

Much of what drives the quest among Christians for some kind of openness to legitimating homosexual behavior that occurs in this kind of context (monogamous, permanent) is sensitivity to the experiences, indeed the honest perplexity and profound suffering, of people who are in precisely this situation. In other words, personal loyalties and commitments are at play, and not dispassionate biblical exegesis or moral reasoning. We have already claimed that it is critical to look for this dimension of how moral moral judgements are made and positions taken, both by those we agree with and those we do not….And we affirm sensitivity to human suffering is a Christlike virtue (Kingdom Ethics, Stassen and Gushee, p.310).

Empathy is godly. But it’s also dangerous. That was the message I heard. Empathy seemed to stand opposed to the “dispassionate biblical exegesis and moral reasoning” that are exalted by so many Evangelicals as the bedrock of Christian ethics.

The term “slippery slope” comes up a lot as an argument against same-sex couples marrying. If we allow a man to marry another man, the argument goes, then why not a man and a dog? But in many Christian circles, the slippery slope starts much higher on the mountain: If I am sensitive to the experiences of gay people, what’s to prevent my sensitivity from undermining my beliefs. So befriend with caution.

That’s a recipe for superficial relationships. And that’s what I had.

It was easiest if I buried my head in the sand. When it came time for the November elections, with Prop. 8 on the ballot, I didn’t vote. And when Christine and all my other gay friends left the church en mass one Sunday after our pastor shared his true thoughts on homosexuality from the pulpit, I pretended not to notice. (I say this to my shame. I want to be honest about my journey, but in no way do I defend these actions. You can read more about my thoughts on standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community here, here, here, and here.)

All of this changed for me, subtly, the following year when I took Exegetical Methods from a fantastic adjunct professor. He was the nicest guy you would ever meet–Catholic, mid-50s, though a surprisingly tough grader. I remember the day we started talking about Romans 1 in class. “I wish this bit about homosexuality wasn’t in here,” he said. “My wife and I have good friends, Carol and Marlene, who have been together for years. They have kids the same age as ours. They’re good parents. They’re great people. And I hope they never ask me about these verses, because I don’t know what to tell them. The thought that God would disapprove of such a clearly beautiful relationship is absurd to me. And yet, as much as I have researched cogent, hermeneutically responsible arguments for the Bible’s affirmation of same-sex relationships like theirs, I just can’t find anything that persuades me.”

I was floored. Was he allowed to say that? Was he allowed to admit to the disparity between his interpretation of the Bible and his experience with the world? On the one hand, it sounded like he was towing the line by prioritizing “dispassionate biblical exegesis” above personal and relational experience. On the other hand, he seemed much more willing to engage critically in the dilemma. He didn’t have his head buried in the sand at all.

I’ve written more about the challenge of holding conflicting views about Scripture’s message and one’s personal experience here. But here’s what I learned from this season of my life: Evangelicals like me often talk about allowing Scripture to shape our perceptions of reality, not the other way around. I think that’s way too simplistic. Not only is it impossible to shed completely the influence of our experiences in our interpretation of Scripture, but it’s dangerous to think that we can. It gives a false sense of moral weight to our beliefs if we think that we came upon them without bias.

I think this sentiment is dangerously simplistic for another reason also: Sometimes these two just don’t line up. Sometimes your experiences with the world contradict what seems to be the truth of Scripture. I think that’s ok. I think it’s better to be honest about it rather than caving to the temptation to pit one against the other in false resolution. I think that’s part of what it means to live in the tension.

Much Love.

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