Can detachment from others serve life?

Can detachment from others serve life? January 21, 2014

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.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you for this. I have ordered the book.

    I have wrestled with these issues for many years. I look at Jesus, and see he not very gently turned away the money changers in the temple. He allowed the thieves who were crucified to make their legal restitution for what they had done. He was very clear on what fate should befall those who lead the vulnerable (children) astray. The gospel of Matthew tells us to turn away from our abusers if they are not willing to make peace.

    I realize that I become an enabler when I allow anyone to harm anyone else in my presence, even when that person being harmed is me. Nobody has the right to belittle another person. I see myself now as helping them avoid what we used to call “occasions of sin” by not making myself available to them.

    I am still working on the courage to be completely open again.

  • Kristen Rosser

    When you think about how these same groups will often advocate for extremely harsh discipline of children, advising parents to detach themselves from the child in order to deal out punishments, it’s a huge disconnect. Why are Christians taught to harden their hearts against their own vulnerable children, yet feel compassion for abusers and oppressors? As has been pointed out, Jesus did the opposite.

  • Yonah

    The historical roots of the Western “compassionate” Jesus were in the early Church’s gamble that they could ward off Roman oppression by not looking so al-qaeda like. The tactic was to be completely double-speak….to prospective new members the rhetoric was veiled enough anti-Roman. But externally, the group wanted to communicate a meek and mild no-threat posture…pay your taxes…render unto Caesar, etc. After the Temple fell, mainstream Jews used this tactic as well which allowed them to reconstitute under an academy of teachers in northern Israel. But, the Church took opportunity that Roman anti-Judaism was strong, especially after fighting a war with the Jews…and so as not to be linked to them…the Church turned against its own parents to save its hide…hence meek and mild Jesus…although not all traces of the militant Jesus were erased from the textual record.

    I’ve heard that Chrs Christie is feeling sorry for himself and telling folks no one understands what he’s been through the last several weeks.

  • The logic of self-preservation by abusers:

    Calls for empathy and compassion toward oppressors and abusers are popular in American Christianity.

    The religious abusers can be identified by one trait: belief in Torture Dogma, i.e., Hell, their pretext to make other peoples’ lives a living hell.

    New blood joins this earth, and quickly he’s subdued.
    Through constant pained disgrace, the young boy learns their rules.

    I dub them Unforgiven.

  • Scale Lily

    A lot of people try to preach hate and God at the same time forgetting that they are ever so much closer to the sinner they throw stones at then to a Loving God. It is nice to see people teach the basics ” He that loveth not knoweth not God”

  • axelbeingcivil

    I don’t see why one can’t have compassion and empathy and still do what needs to be done. Compassion and empathy for someone doesn’t deny the need to act to undo their harmful actions, though it might change just how one goes about doing so.

    We can feel compassion and empathy for a criminal and still send them to jail (though we’d likely focus more on rehabilitation than punishment); we can feel compassion and empathy for the slave-master and still take away his whip.

    I can’t imagine what your life was like and by no means do I wish to sound like I am judging you in any way. There is no mandate or moral failing on your part here, that I can see at least. I would offer, though, that wishing for someone’s well-being and wanting to see them improve is not the same as ignoring their cruelties. If what’s healthiest for everyone is to get away from them, isn’t it compassionate to them, yourself, and everyone to do so?