“Is Empathy a Liberal Emotion?”

~ Matthew 15:29-37/Philippians 4:1-4 ~

Last year about this time, in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, in the midst of the emerging MeToo movement and the initial reports of family separations at the border, I came across a blog written by a politically-conservative Christian who was lamenting – no, it was more like a diatribe – the “tyranny of empathy.” Basically, she doesn’t want “leftists” telling her what to feel. Pictures of migrant children in cages, listening to women tell their sexual abuse stories, videos of police brutality – all used, she asserts, by liberals to win the empathy one-upmanship game against conservatives who might question those stories, because “emotion is now synonymous with moral virtue.” And then, interestingly, she says, “And may I just say, since I’m writing as a Christian as well as a conservative, the only thing worse than a leftist is a Christian leftist. Self-congratulatory brow-beating is nauseating enough, but self-congratulatory brow-beating for Jesus, that just takes things to a whole new level.”

She got me to thinking: Why is there so much pushback against empathy from conservative thinkers? Is empathy maybe a liberal emotion? Or, maybe, despite my encouragement last Sunday to become more empathic, I’ve got it wrong and empathy hinders good decision-making.

The biblical story of Jesus feeding the multitudes as we heard from the Gospel of Matthew is a story about figuring out how to feed a large group of people who were really hungry. Decisions had to be made. There is planning, there is discussion between Jesus and the disciples, and finally there is the action plan; albeit, a miraculous action plan, but a plan nonetheless. But what prompts the whole proceeding is when Jesus says, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” This, of course, after having spent three days touching them and healing them. In other words, acting on his compassion for them. And, importantly, he is moved with compassion for the whole crowd not just particular individuals.

To me, the idea that empathy is a good thing is a no brainer. The more we empathize with the plight of others, the more ethical and moral we behave towards them. Yet a number of psychologists and philosophers reject this view.

The main proponent of this pushback is Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale University in his book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Right up front he makes this assertion: Empathy and compassion are distinct. Reason is the basis for compassion, he claims, not empathy.

One of the complaints about empathy is that it is too narrowly focused. Identifying too closely with the pain of another can lead to desires for revenge and retributive justice for those who caused our friend’s pain. Too much empathic feeling makes moral judgments potentially harmful, they say. Research shows, they say, that people are most likely to only have empathy for their own people, their own kind. Tribalistic attitudes can dominate which leads to rejecting everyone outside the tribe, having no regard for “the other,” ignoring the plight of those we don’t know. Empathy is potentially too dangerous so we should just eliminate it from the equation in our moral dealings with people. Emotions are too volatile and irrational. Certainly not the basis for making political decisions. Reasoned compassion should be the way.

In my sermon last week I referenced the work of Jamil Zaki, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and his book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Needless to say, Professor Zaki and Professor Bloom disagree with each other and have engaged in considerable back and forth on this issue of empathy.

Bloom’s definition of empathy is too limited, says Zaki, overstating its problems and underselling its importance. Bloom’s empathy involves only the emotion sharing component, feeling the other person’s feelings. It is true that if you only engage with another person with emotion sharing that can result in flawed judgments. If your doctor is so distraught emotionally over your medical condition that he/she can’t make good medical decisions, well, you’ll find another doctor. If your therapist gets so angry at your life experiences that he/she only wants to help you get revenge, well, that’s not very objective, is it? You want them to have some distance. So, too much empathic identification with you might not work very well.

But empathy is much more than just feeling the feelings of another. As we talked about last week, empathy also includes thinking about and caring for other people’s inner lives. In other words, reason (thinking) and emotion (empathy) come together, are inexorably intertwined, which then results in caring action. Yes, relying only on the emotion of empathy can lead to considerably biased decisions. But reason alone does not have a great track record either, as many of the atrocities of world history were very “reasoned” actions. Trying to separate out reason from emotion does not work in the real world. Zaki illustrates it this way: chickpeas and olive oil are two separate things, but real-world empathy is more like hummus – blended, often for the better.

Emotion – empathy – is woven into the fabric of our minds and that’s a good thing. And research shows that empathy makes a difference. For one, it helps to receive empathy. For instance, cancer patients tend to experience less depression and more encouragement when doctors do express empathy in their treatment. And people who choose to behave more kindly grow happier and healthier, particularly when they act out of empathy. Those who choose empathy grow a broader, richer emotional life. And other people like to be around people like that.

Furthermore, empathy (or emotions in general) are not uncontrollable urges within us. Bloom claims that emotions are volatile and irrational which have to be subdued. But, in fact, people work with their emotions all the time. We can and do think ourselves into and out of feelings. Moreover, when people believe (think) empathy is under their control, they are inspired to try harder, to “learn” empathy as I spoke about last Sunday. Although feelings alone don’t make us good people, they are key ingredients in our moral lives.

To wrap up Zaki’s take on all this, his research demonstrates that with guided thinking people can and do expand their experience of empathy. Instead of just focusing on the person in front of me, my friend or relative, trying harder at empathy helps me see the bigger picture, such as paying attention to the emotions and experiences of people who are different from me, racially, politically, or ethically. I just might try to imagine empathically the experience of a woman who has experienced sexual harassment or abuse, or the young African-American male who has been stopped by the police, or the plight of an asylum-seeker and his family at the border. In doing so I just might be “moved” to find some way to learn more about and seek solutions for the group at large and not just for the one.

There are those who look at Jesus’ expressions of compassion in the gospels and say that he only dealt with individuals. That he did not make political or economic pronouncements. That he didn’t get politically involved in changing societal structures. That he didn’t advocate rebellious uprisings or protest marches. But, the fact is, Jesus did those things throughout his ministry. Think of his public pronouncements against the religious powers that be and their complicity with the Roman government. Think of his judgements about the oppressive economic practices of the rich in his observation of the poor widow’s contribution to the temple. Think about his ride on a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as a powerful statement against the prevailing power structures (a protest march, maybe?).

Here, today, in our gospel story from Matthew we see Jesus’ expansive expression of empathy at work. First, it says he was “moved with compassion.” In the Bible, that phrase always refers to an emotional response. Compassion was said to be an emotion that came from the gut (the King James Version uses “bowels of compassion”). So, I disagree seriously with Paul Bloom when he says that compassion and empathy are two different things. Jesus looked at the situation of the crowd around him and out of the emotion of compassion decided to act. His empathic feelings didn’t render him helpless. He thought about the situation, talked to his disciples about possible solutions, and come up with a plan. And, yes, as I said before, a miraculous plan. But to me that isn’t the point of the story. To me, the important thing is that he worked his empathy to address the group’s needs. They were hungry and they got lunch.

But you know what? I don’t think this inhouse debate amongst university professors about the limits and/or potential of empathy is the real issue. Going back to my opening about the “tyranny of empathy,” I believe that there are those who use such arguments just so they don’t have to deal with it – empathy, that is. They dismiss empathy because, in fact, they do see it as a liberal emotion. Cultivating a more empathetic view of our world, of people and cultures that are different? They just don’t want to. They don’t want to because it would be too disruptive of the way they see the world. Actively listening to and considering the experiences of people who are different is just too…well, I just might have to change the way I think about things and I’d just rather not. Besides, it’s really hard.

From a paternalistic world view and its assumed “that’s just the way men are” baseline, truly hearing the sexual abuse stories of women means that my paternalistic world view just might need deconstruction. From a hardline, “the Bible makes it clear that homosexuality is sin” ideology, it won’t do any good to actually get to know and learn from LGBTQ people because, even though they might be nice and generally good people, they are still awful sinners. From a jingoistic view of my country right or wrong (and of course it’s always right), immigrants and asylum-seekers are a threat to our way of life and must be barred from entering and/or deported. From the position of presumed white privilege (which, of course, is unconscious because it is presumed), having to confront our history regarding the atrocities of the genocide of Native Americans is too discomforting. Seriously dealing with the racist founding of our country in the institution of slavery is too challenging to the magnanimous view of ourselves as good and moral (white) people. Reparations? Don’t even go there. So, for many, developing a more empathetic approach to the world around us is just too threatening to their way of life.

And yet… And yet, I truly believe developing and learning and encouraging a more empathetic approach to life is the key to a fuller and richer way of living. And, I believe, it is what Jesus desires for us. Not just for me and my own but for the welfare of people’s everywhere, indeed, for the peace and justice of the world.

The scripture lesson we heard from Paul’s letter to the Philippians echoes these sentiments. True, Paul was probably speaking to a discrete community when he said, “be of the same mind, have the same love…” But, in the spirit of an expansive empathy-building enterprise, when he says, “…in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” we might just adopt that same attitude. Even though we often fall into the trap of thinking we are better than others, it is good and wise to consider what we might learn from others, whoever they may be. But it is his final sentence that brings it home for me: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Putting aside our own presumed worldview, be that personal or cultural, so that we can truly look to the interests of the “other” is a spiritual discipline well worth pursuing. May we find the grace to do it. Amen.



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