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The American Crisis of Selective Empathy
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The American Crisis of Selective Empathy

And how it reaches into the church.

I’m going to tell you a true-life story, one of many virtually identical stories I’ve heard these past few weeks. Be honest with yourself as you consider how you feel.

Brian (not his real name) was a kind Christian man. He and his wife were always there to help a friend in need, and in the local business community, he was known for his relentlessly cheerful disposition. He was Republican—like virtually everyone else in his church and community—but he wasn’t defined by his politics.

Then the pandemic hit. Brian hated the lockdowns, and he also hated masks and especially mask mandates. He hated them so much that he boycotted services until the church allowed unmasked people to worship. 

Brian also refused the vaccine. It’s not that he thought that COVID was a hoax, but he didn’t view it as a meaningful risk. He wasn’t young, but he wasn’t quite at retirement age either. His health was good. He was willing to risk the disease and unwilling to take a vaccine that felt rushed.

You can guess the rest of the story. Brian caught COVID. Soon he was in the hospital. Days later he was in the ICU. Death came quickly. The disease he discounted had taken his life.

Most readers know that I live in Tennessee, and the Delta variant is rampant. We’re experiencing a renewed surge of death that’s hitting us differently from the huge peaks in December and January. Then it felt more like a natural disaster. While there were people who were more careful than others (I know many quite careful folks who caught the disease), COVID washed over us like a tsunami, and who blames the victims of a tidal wave?

Now it’s different. First by the dozens, now by the hundreds, we are burying neighbors who would almost certainly be alive today if they’d done one, simple thing—taken the vaccine. It’s breaking people’s hearts. A dear friend of mine posted this on Facebook a few days ago:

Can you imagine the grief if a member of your family falls to COVID in this way? Can you imagine the realization that an imminent death was entirely, easily preventable? Can you imagine how that understanding would tear at your heart and soul?

Yet I’m seeing trends that are deeply unsettling. I see schadenfreude. I sometimes see obscene references to “thinning the herd.” Elizabeth Bruenig wrote powerfully in The Atlantic to decry what she rightly called “death shaming.” There is a profound lack of empathy for these terrible losses, an unwillingness to “weep with those who weep,” and a stubborn refusal to even try to place oneself in the shoes of the grieving. Why?

The answer is that America is experiencing an empathy crisis. But it’s not quite the crisis you might think. Our empathy can overflow for the people we love, for the people within our tribe—even when they make grave errors. But what about our empathy for “them,” the people we distrust? Then empathy is in short supply. Indeed, in some cases, the very concept of empathy is under fire. 

You may not know this, but empathy is under fire even within the church itself. Parts of American Christianity are in a fight over the idea of empathy, and the outcome of that dispute will resonate beyond the borders of Evangelical belief. 

To understand the context, on May 31, 2019, Joe Rigney, the influential pastor of Cities Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota and the president of Bethlehem College and Seminary wrote an essay called the “Enticing Sin of Empathy.” It was written in the style of C.S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters, as a letter from one demon to another, describing how to tempt Christians into sin. 

The problem of empathy, as he described it, is that it’s a satanic alternative to the virtue of compassion. In Rigney’s definition, compassion focuses on a sufferer’s good, whereas empathy focuses on a sufferer’s feelings. “We teach humans,” Rigney writes, “that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.”

Rigney says compassion suffers “with” someone, while empathy suffers “in” them. That’s a hard distinction to grasp, but in a later conversation with controversial pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson, Rigney further defined what he meant

First, Wilson says that “empathy is the … conduit by which relativism is pouring into counseling.” Then Rigney describes the difference between empathy and compassion like this:

Rigney: Empathy is the sort of thing that you’ve got someone drowning, or they’re in quicksand, and they’re sinking. And what empathy wants to do is jump into the quicksand with them, both feet, and-and it feels like that’s going to be more loving, because they’re going to feel like, I’m glad that you’re here with me in the quicksand. Problem is you’re both now sinking.

Wilson: Right.

Rigney: Right. Whereas, if you do, I’m going to keep one foot on the shore, and I’m actually gonna grab onto this big branch, and then I’ll step one foot in there with you and try to pull you out. That’s sympathy, and that’s—that’s actually helpful. But to the person who’s in there, it can feel like you’re judging me.

Wilson: So sympathy’s clearly hierarchical.

Rigney: Right. It implies that one person is the hurting, and one person is the helper.

So why bring this up? After all, I’m referring to a years-old essay and discussions involving pastors and theologians many (most?) readers don’t know. Well, two reasons. First, the dispute is now breaking out into the American church in a more concrete and tangible way. And second, the dispute can help us understand America’s real empathy problem—not that it’s excessive, but rather that it’s far too selective.

Last week, Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today published a long and comprehensively reported piece about profound differences at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and Bethlehem College and Seminary. Pastors and professors have resigned from the church and the seminary. Dozens of members have left the church.

Bethlehem Baptist is most prominent for being the home of John Piper, an extraordinarily influential reformed pastor and theologian. I’ve quoted him countless times in my Sunday essays.

I can’t even begin to summarize all the complexities behind the controversy, but as Shellnut tells the story, a central factor involved disputes over so-called “untethered empathy.” Here’s Shellnut:

More than 25 people spoke to CT at length about their experiences navigating conflict at Bethlehem for this article. Many brought up the “untethered empathy” concept as a factor that they believe shaped leaders’ responses when confronted with claims of bullying, institutional protection, and spiritual abuse.

Here’s how a fight over empathy can play out. One of the departing pastors, Ming-Jinn Tong, “wore traditional Chinese attire” when he preached after the Atlanta massage parlor shootings, in which six of the eight victims were Asian women. He and another pastor were reportedly critiqued by a fellow leader for “bringing up race” as a “component” of the murders.

In both Rigney’s commentary and in the real-world applications, those who critique empathy don’t want demands for empathy to prevent them from exercising judgment. In other words, they place a priority on retaining the ability to tell a suffering person that they’re wrong, for their own good. Or, perhaps put more gently, critics don’t want empathy to be a barrier to inquiry. “I don’t want your feelings to stop me from thinking.” 

This is a Christianized version of the famous secular conservative statement that “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

There are multiple problems with this approach, especially for Christians. First, as a practical matter, the prioritizing of our own judgments often implies wisdom and knowledge we don’t possess. Take, for example, the argument that “untethered empathy” is dangerous in the context of racism and abuse, that it prevents solid fact-finding and sound judgment.

But what I’ve seen with my own eyes is that it is remarkable how often there is an inverse relationship between knowledge and certainty. We think we know more than we do. We think we’re more wise than we are. Or, to take Pastor Rigney’s analogy, we might think we’ve got one foot on solid ground and one foot in the quicksand, but we don’t. Our other foot is in a different pool of quicksand, and in our mistaken confidence we dig everyone deeper into the morass. 

This happens all the time in conversations about race and abuse. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But becoming empathetic does not mean that we forsake the search for truth. In fact, it can often empower us and motivate us to seek greater knowledge and insight. It means, however, that we shouldn’t prioritize our fallible and frequently-mistaken perception of the truth over the humanity and experience of the person before us.

Even if we’re dealing with something as simple as “vaccines work,” or “a vaccine likely would have saved his life,” the person who lacks empathy is often stunningly ignorant of another person’s heart or motivations or the full context of their lives. There is so much they don’t know. 

Second, as I noted above, I’ve found that empathy is almost always warped by tribalism and partisanship. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that conversations around the “sin of empathy” have arisen from the more self-described “conservative” quarters of religious America, and the alarms have been raised about empathy in connection with causes that are often perceived as “progressive.”

The instant the tables are turned, however, there is a great call for empathy. Walk a mile in our shoes. White Evangelicals, for example, are disproportionately likely to be anti-mask and anti-vaccine in the midst of a deadly pandemic. “But you have to understand us,” we cry. “There are reasons for these beliefs, and there is great goodness in the church.”

I also see a tremendous hardness of heart in parts of the left as well. I began this essay with the example most likely to trigger rage and contempt from others, even in the face of great suffering. No one can deny the venom spilled out on the dead and dying. Entire lives are remembered only for their final, fatal mistake. 

Third, and most importantly, Christians of all people should understand the ultimate empathy of the incarnation itself. As the book of Hebrews declares, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” 

In Philippians, Paul says, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

The Son of God himself dove into the quicksand. He experienced it all. Birth and death. Hunger and temptation. Friendship and betrayal, and it culminated in oppression and torture. He can empathize with the worst human experience. 

Here’s the critical thing: He did not wait for any of us to be worthy of his empathy. He didn’t wait for us to change, to wave the white flag of surrender on our obstinance and defiance. Read Paul again, this time in Romans, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ’s version of empathy doesn’t excuse our sin, but it certainly did not wait for our virtue. 

Our public discourse is full of religious zeal, but it’s spiritually impoverished. People who need grace receive condemnation. Genuine friendship is replaced by factional alliances. And too many of us withhold empathy so that we can be sure that you receive our judgment.

Yet each of us has a desperate desire, a need, for people not just to understand us, but to know us, in full. You can see this when people are objects of hatred, even when they do things wrong. There is a cry from the heart that says, “There is more to me than the thing you hate.”

Last week I went to Immanuel Nashville to watch a discussion between Russell Moore and Beth Moore (no relation), perhaps the two most prominent Southern Baptists to leave the denomination. They’d been subjected to an immense amount of cruelty as they dissented from the Christian embrace of Trump, battled white nationalism, and sought to expose sexual abuse in the church.

The conversation, however, was free of rancor and bitterness. And there’s one part that stands out. It’s directly relevant to this essay today. A member of the audience asked a question on so many lips. “How,” they asked, “do we have difficult conversations with a person we believe has dangerous ideas?” 

Russell responded with a fascinating thought, one that requires empathy. Before the talk, he said, rehearse the conversation with a friend or a spouse, except play the role of the person you believe is wrong. Do your best to inhabit their perspective and advocate their idea.

Nothing about this concept requires rationalizing or excusing acts that are truly wrong. Did Christ rationalize or excuse sin? But empathy ultimately doesn’t pontificate, it participates—it participates in your neighbor’s life, and it doesn’t condition your participation on your neighbor’s perfection. In short, don’t wait for a person to be right before you dive into their life with sacrificial love.

One more thing …

During the conversation about empathy, I was reminded of this famous short video about empathy by Brené Brown. I think it’s outstanding, but it’s also received Christian critiques. I’d love to hear your thoughts:

One last thing …

I’m going to exercise author’s privilege and just this once end with a sermon instead of a song. It’s Tim Keller’s sermon the first Sunday after 9/11, and it’s magnificent. If you have a few spare moments, I recommend listening. It will give you hope:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.