I know what you’re thinking. How does something like this happen? Well, how much time do you have? It’s complicated. Or, maybe it’s not that complicated. After reading the linked dialogue between two demons, I’m a bit lightheaded.
First, what might be a generous reading of the linked essay (performative dialogue/sermon)? It could be the writer is trying to talk about boundaries. In general, if a person has fallen over a cliff, we normally grab a hold of something so we are anchored before we reach out to help them. We can’t help them if we fall over the cliff too. This sounds like common sense and generally good advice. The idea is that I need to be safe and healthy if I’m to help you—the person who isn’t safe and healthy.
Is that what’s going on in this essay? Somehow, I doubt it.
I do know how I read the essay. I read it as the confirmation that too many evangelicals seem more the disciples of Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, and a Libertarian political philosophy than they are disciples of Jesus.
The attempt here is to oppose compassion to empathy (although strangely enough, the subtitle is: “How Satan Corrupts Through Compassion”). The writer seems to want some distance between himself and the one suffering. We are to be compassionate and sympathetic, but it was actually the demonic that created empathy:
“Since we [demons] introduced the term [empathy] a century ago, we’ve steadily taught the humans to regard empathy as an improvement upon compassion or sympathy.”
We are told that empathy is the counterfeit of compassion (!). Why in the world would a person want to oppose these two or claim one is counterfeit? If we need more of anything in our world right now, it is empathy/compassion. Out of all the subjects one could address right now: i.e., war, poverty, racism, nationalism, gun violence, political violence, hunger, homelessness, and the coarsening of our culture, I’m not sure a concern about empathy being a problem demonstrates much wisdom or social awareness.
And there is talk of “feelings.” You know—those icky things women and children are constantly experiencing. Not us manly men, however. Oh no. We can’t trust feelings. We can only trust the distant, abstract, determined, “logical,” “rational,” and cold stainless-steel covered hermeneutical glasses given us by John Calvin (or Doug Wilson).
There are so many unnecessary oppositions created by the writer. He makes “feelings” the enemy of the good. Why? Is this just a retread, a regurgitation of the type of masculinity or “tough love” taught or common to people like Mark Driscoll? Who knows? This suspicion toward emotion and the emphasis on “truth” or “goodness” is the sort of mental gymnastics employed by those whose conscience or “feelings” are bothering them for some reason. Thus, they must tell themselves over and over that, “but it was for the ‘truth’ and ‘goodness.’” Perhaps this sort of moral inversion/opposition is what comforts, for example, the parent who has disowned a gay child.
Additionally, the essay is a caricature of empathy, and not what most of us probably take empathy to mean. He writes:
“Empathy goes beyond union to the more potent and dynamic truth of fusion, the melting together of persons so that one personality is lost in the other. Empathy demands, ‘Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.’”
I’ve never understood empathy this way and I’ve never encountered another Christian who thought of it this way or practiced it this way. Such is not what empathy demands. Empathy demands, simply, that we put ourselves in the other’s place for a moment.
I could feel compassion toward a poor immigrant walking across the desert seeking freedom and safety, but that is something I do from a distance. Empathy leads me to go deeper than a distant compassion and consider what it would be like if I were that immigrant—what if that were me?
Empathy is often the bridge between mere feelings of compassion and action. I might feel compassion for the homeless person, but never do anything about it. Empathy is often that extra aspect of compassion that leads one to act, perhaps give them money, food, or shelter. In my view, compassion is often passive while empathy is more aggressive or active.
Empathy could obviously be thought of as an Incarnational principle. God could have looked with compassion upon our plight, but never acted and kept a distance. Our very understanding of the Incarnation, what it encompassed, it’s depth, it’s complete immersion in our physical life and experience to the point of death, sounds like what the writer is trying to avoid. Worse, he appears to be asserting it is somehow a sin if we reflect that same principle in our own lives—in other words, if we live incarnationally toward others.
Theologian Fleming Rutledge notes: “Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.”
What I find interesting about this essay is what seems to lie just below the surface. Rather than being written by someone shaped and formed by a Christian orthodox theology, this could have come from a follower of Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, or a Libertarian. This is what we might get if they were given the unenviable task of telling us what they believed about “empathy” but doing so under the nom de plume of a “Christian” author to try and make the idea (that empathy is sinful) more palatable to Christians, who they know would be resistant (to say the least!) to such an idea.
The very idea that empathy or compassion could be sinful and the product of the satanic is to misunderstand both terms and what they intend. If the writer is saying good things can be corrupted, then he forgot the part that once corrupted they’re no longer a good thing and need to be called something else. There is no such thing as a sinful or satanic expression or practice of empathy/compassion. By poor analogy, it would be like saying there is a hot piece of ice or soft piece of iron.
The writer, I believe, is addressing something other than empathy or compassion. My sense is he’s trying to advocate for some type of “tough love.” Perhaps he is concerned Christians are becoming weak and effeminate. Christians need to “man” up and quit being so sensitive. Well, read Jesus and John Wayne for a good explanation for, and response to, that type of nonsense.
The writer wants to love or show compassion, but from a distance. He doesn’t want his hands dirty or bloody. I also suspect he wants the distance so he can remain judgmental. He needs room for his conscience to abide the fact he is telling the person he supposedly loves that they deserved exactly what they got. Call this word-play exercise or sentiment whatever you wish, but let’s not pretend it is Christian.
“Those who are able to see pain, unmoved, will soon learn to inflict it.” —Mary Woolstonecraft, 1792
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