Calls for empathy and compassion toward oppressors and abusers are popular in American Christianity. I think this is true of a variety of branches of Christianity, although more conservative branches may express this empathy differently from more liberal branches. Not really surprising–after all, Jesus told us to love our enemies. Jesus said “Father, forgive them.” Jesus was always being moved with compassion.
Empathy and compassion can be great things. But after leaving fundamentalism, I began to see how the conservative Christians I grew up with used these concepts to silence those speaking out against abuse or trying to escape it. People, especially women, are expected in these churches to have the compassion Jesus had–even if it leads us to self-sacrifice. We can see these expectations when men like John Piper or Dr. Emerson Eggerichs tell abused wives to selflessly stand by their husbands, in order to win their husbands to God, just like Jesus did. I’ve been writing about how more conservative Christianity uses the concepts of empathy and compassion to abuse for a few years now.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized that these concepts can be harmful in more liberal spaces (Christian and otherwise) as well.
I’m convinced that empathy and compassion are not always the best choices for every situation. I’m thankful for the book Proverbs of Ashes, by Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock for helping me put words to the discomfort I’ve had recently for calls to compassion for oppressors coming from the Left.
In one section of this book, Rebecca Ann Parker tells the story of sexual abuse that she suffered as a child. She describes the acts he committed. Then describes looking into his face and seeing his pain and self-hatred–feeling pity and empathy for him. She describes how this created a bond.
The glue was compassion. I couldn’t turn away from this face holding mine in terror without turning away from the compassion I felt. (pg. 197–emphasis mine)
I nodded my head upon reading this, remembering all the times I had tried to walk away from my abuser, but compassion drew me back. Remembering all the times I had stood up for myself in anger, only to have empathy calm me down. I remember how my abuser used his own stories of his very real and very legitimate experiences with trauma to strengthen the bond between us, allowing him to continue to inflict traumatic abuse on me. I know from experience that Parker is right when she says,
Empathetic connection to another is not necessarily life-giving or life-saving. The empathetic bond can hold a human being captive to another’s unjust demand. Our ability to feel for another can become an unholy bond in which the other’s obligation to feel for himself or feel for herself, is ignored. This was [my abuser's] crime…He required me to feel for him. (pg. 197–emphasis mine)
Parker compares empathy and compassion to anger, referencing Audre Lorde’s essay on “learning to train one’s anger–to hone its energy to be used for life not against it.” Parker believes that “the same must be done with compassion.” (pg. 197) Anger can be freeing, empowering, and an important indicator of when something is terribly wrong. But it can also be used to abuse, to hurt, to tear down innocent people. It is a neutral emotion that can be used to either give life or to destroy it.
The same is true of compassion. We tend to think of anger as a “bad” emotion, and compassion as a “good” one. But compassion, like anger, is neutral in and of itself. The context in which compassion is present, however, can make it an emotion that is life-giving, or one that is life-destroying. Compassion can serve as a way of erasing “both the suffering of victims and the crime of the perpetrators.” (pg. 198)
In fact, Parker believes that emotional separation has the capacity to be just as loving as compassion can be. Love doesn’t always mean connection or empathy. In some situations, especially ones where abuse is present, detachment and differentiation are the loving choices to make:
The power to hold and the power to let go, to connect and to disconnect, each of these powers can be used for good or for ill. Ethical maturity learns the difference and knows the right time for each. Neither power can be valorized as an absolute good without risking harm. (pg. 197–emphasis mine)
For years I felt guilt because I could not love my abuser. I could not “see myself in him.” I could not have empathy for him, and I still cannot. For years before that, however, I could not stop loving him. I could not break the emotional bond created by my “good Christian” empathy for him, even though that bond was deadly.
I’m glad I read Proverbs of Ashes. I already know that emotional detachment from others is not an absolute good. I learned that from experience, and am glad to have come to a place where I am healthy enough to be able to grow close to others and form healthy bonds with them. But I am also glad for the affirmation that emotional detachment is not an absolute evil, either.
Emotional detachment from my abuser was, for me, a radical act of self-love. It was radical because it went against everything I’d been taught as a Christian–that I had to love my enemies, I had to forgive them, I could never hate them or fail to care about their well-being. But this radical act freed me to heal, and to learn to love myself, which in turn freed me to learn to love others.
As Parker says,
In every situation, love asks, “What will serve life?” This means human love comes from a growing wisdom about life itself. If one wants to love, it is life that one must seek to fully know.