Empathy

We like to think that it is our reasoning, our intelligence, our careful weighing of the issues involved, our educating ourselves, that leads us to have the beliefs that we have. Particular when we’re arguing about something. If this were true, though, wouldn’t all intelligent people agree, given enough time?

There are a lot of things that separate us – one of them is a lack of empathy. Empathy, in the sense of the capacity to really emotionally connect with someone else, to feel, if not what they feel, then at least what we imagine we’d feel in their situation. To understand them and have some rapport with them. To recognize them as equally human.

I’ve heard plenty of stories, and had plenty of experiences myself, of not caring about something until it “hits home”. Someone with a cousin in jail becomes concerned about inequality in our justice system. Someone who travels to Haiti with a mission group comes back with a newfound passion for social justice and poverty issues. Someone whose family member is assaulted is suddenly much more concerned about violence.

Changes like these don’t occur because there is new evidence, or because you suddenly become more intelligent. Changes like these occur because the issue in question becomes personal. It invades your emotional space and becomes something you must deal with.

When our identity relies on our beliefs, which is often the case with people of faith, for example, or with political activists of all stripes, one very strong temptation is to insulate ourselves from people who disagree with us. This is a sort of survival tactic. Deep down, we know that it is a lot harder to be polemical when the person on the other side has a genuine face, is recognized as a genuine being.

Which brings me to my previous post. I’d like to leave it as is, because it is…what it is. But I wish I had titled it “Bigotry is Bigotry”. The reason is that, whether Robert Gagnon is a bigot or not, I don’t know that he is. I don’t actually know the guy. I haven’t met him. And I’m sure it would be very difficult to say, across a dinner table for example, “Rob, you’re a bigot.” I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I said that to the guy.

So here’s what I do want to say, and then I’ll switch topics.

I think your views on the subject of homosexuality are damaging, unethical, contradictory to the weight of Biblical witness, and founded on faulty assumptions. I think your views do actual injury to real people who deserve better from all of us. However, I will assume that you mean well, that you think that you are helping people, even as I think you do harm, that you are supporting the gospel even as you seem to damage it, and that you are working for the liberation of the people of God even as I think you contribute to their oppression and exclusion.

I say this with the understanding that I could be wrong, that perhaps some day I will see the light and agree with you that homosexuality is intrinsically sinful and damaging. That’ll lead to a lot of hard conversations with homosexual friends, but it’ll be my responsibility to have them. In the meantime, I see no compelling reason whatsoever to agree with you. I’ve read most of your arguments, and I reject them for what I think are very solid reasons. I find your beliefs as absurd as you no doubt find mine.

Really, I’d like to understand you. And I don’t. I don’t get why you accept the biases of 5th century BCE thinkers as your own. I don’t get why you think God’s will for us is imprisoned for all time in books. I don’t know why you think that injunctions against homosexuality have a special power and importance, when you never seem to mention the much stronger ones about rendering to no one evil for evil, or fighting for the poor and the powerless, or resisting violence with nonviolence, or how there is no Jew, Geek, slave, free, man or woman in Christ. I don’t know why you rely on what seem to be spurious scientific claims and faulty sociological analysis. Most of all, I don’t know how you think this is part of the gospel – that we exclude and denigrate a class of people because of something they almost certainly have no control over. Its as baffling and frustrating to me as I’m sure my beliefs are to you.

And I know that as I speak to you in absentia, I’m really speaking to something you represent, and only tangentially to you personally. But, since you put yourself forward as such, I don’t feel bad doing so.

5 thoughts on “Empathy

  1. Interesting. Very good points, but you switch paths midway through. You state, correctly in my estimation, in the beginning that we don’t act based on reasons, but on the basis of experience/empathy, but then when getting to the meat of what you want to say to Gagnon, you say you can “see no reason” to agree with him when what I think you mean is that on the basis pf empathy for homosexual people you know, his reasons are not persuasive to you.The key with empathy as a method of discerning ethical action is discerning who the “victim” is in the situation and empathizing with them. Because there are no “victims” of homosexuality we cannot find a way to empathize which makes Gagnon’s views ethical. However, because we can find victims of bigotry against homosexuals, we can discern an ethical vector.

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  2. yeah, i just got done emailing back to greg love about another situation where i shamelessly contradict myself. down to the nitty-gritty, i think we act in a complex matrix of unconscious influences, the semi-conscious influence of empathy, and the conscious influences of reason and internal coherence. i intended to post something not-gagnon-related, but again failed. next time, i’ll try harder.

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  3. Doug,Please read my most recent post in the Bigots title.Anyways, I have a brother in law who is a homosexual. He married his lover and the two of them live with my elderly mother in law.In practical terms it was extremely difficult to share our faith with my brother in law and his lover because I was behaving in an unloving fashion. One day I realized that my responsibility was to love my brother in law and his lover unconditionally. I consciously choose to love them rather than preach and moralize. We were not enemies but we were behaving like it. We were family but in name only.Perhaps that is the problem with so many of us Christians. We are Chritian but in name only and many times not behaving like it. The question I have been pondering and attempting to realize in my life is, “How would the extravagant love of Christ handle this?”

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  4. That’s a core question, absolutely. Right now the Presbyterian Church (my denomination) is embroiled in a 30+ year conflict over homosexual ordination, and the conflict centers on how our polity (same as governance) and denominational ordination standards should function. In polity class last semester, I often described polity as “what you do when Christianity fails.” Its like the secular legal system – its designed to handle conflicts of interest that can’t be resolved another way. And like the secular legal system, its a blunt instrument that often injures everyone involved. What should be the last resort becomes the first recourse.Without meaning to sound patronizing, I’m glad that you were able to reconcile, at least, from what I understand, with your brother. I know this isn’t anything new, and I imagine you’ve thought the same thing, but I think it is in loving others that we best share our faith. The particulars can come in second for me, no problem.P.S. Read my most recent post – its my (lengthy) response to your request for more “unpacking”, and was actually very helpful for me in that it made me think through and spell out what I meant.

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  5. Thanks Doug for taking the time to do the unpacking. I have read some of your response and already have a better understanding of your perspective.

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