How Empathy Is Killing Us

How Empathy Is Killing Us

Empathy is great, when it’s connected to things that deserve pity and concern. When it goes postal, so do we.
Matthew Cochran
By

Despite the wishful thinking of social justice warriors, the fight continues over what some call marriage equality and what those forced to choose between their conscience and their livelihoods recognize as the end of American religious liberty in any meaningful sense.

The recent Supreme Court decision did not end the quest to dominate hearts and minds. It only added another weapon to wield against those who observe marriage in the laws of nature and nature’s God and opt to respect it—particularly against Christians, who have been at the forefront of this conflict.

Nevertheless, a weaponized legal system cannot be the only approach taken towards Christians who actually believe what their religion teaches. After all, it’s not as though Jesus Christ was subtle about persecution for those who followed him. The natural complement to the external pressure that makes orthodoxy painful is to provoke internal uncertainty about what orthodoxy truly is. The strong are always willing to suffer for a righteous cause, but nobody wants to suffer needlessly.

Enter theological liberalism—a movement in the tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher that uses Christian terminology and narrative but redirects both towards fashionable politics rather than the Christian faith.

Of course, nothing is more politically fashionable today than affirming homosexuality, so no small effort is made to convince the orthodox that Christ so affirms—no matter how utterly alien today’s fashion may be to Christ and two millennia worth of his followers. One recent example of this effort is Matthew Vines’ “40 Questions for Christians who Oppose Marriage Equality.”

Don’t Think—Feel

Like most activists who target the church’s theology of sex, Vines cannot appeal primarily to what God has actually taught us in Scripture. After all, God’s written record of addressing same-sex liaisons is uniformly negative. Instead, he must hit us in what is unfortunately the modern church’s softest spot—right in the feels.

He must hit us in what is unfortunately the modern church’s softest spot—right in the feels.

In other words, having no dialectical leg on which to stand, he must resort to mere rhetoric. None of the 40 questions provides any genuine challenge to the content of what God has taught the church. Instead, all 40 are geared towards provoking us into declaring we just don’t feel like following it anymore.

They attempt to turn Christians inward into their own hearts and away from the One who said of our hearts, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” From first to last, Vines’ questions are not about theology or even morality, but mere sentimentalism.

The list is front-loaded with questions designed to evaluate one’s social proximity to homosexuals: 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 32. These revolve around how many gay friends you have, how much you share their struggles, how often you go out to coffee with them, and so forth.

None of the 40 questions provides any genuine challenge to the content of what God has taught the church.

Yet one’s list of friends and family is not really relevant to the theological question at hand. It’s not as though one has to spend an adequate amount of time socializing with, say, adulterers to ascertain whether God has really said that thou shalt not commit adultery.

Nevertheless, although they are not germane theologically or morally, these questions are relevant to the depth of one’s ability to empathize. While deep personal and emotional investment in a situation has long been reason for judges, jurors, and other decision-makers to remove themselves from important deliberations, gay activists tellingly want the debate to include only those whose personal feelings are likely to compromise their judgment.

But I Don’t Want Virtue to Be Hard

Of course, rhetorically establishing the place for empathy is not enough. It must be invoked, as well. So, scattered throughout the list are questions (1, 2, 6, 7, 22, 23, 24, 36, 39) meant to get the reader pondering just how hard chastity is for homosexuals. I certainly don’t doubt that it is a struggle. Virtues are like that: some of them come easily, some come with great difficulty, and which is which depends heavily on the individual and circumstance.

Virtues are like that: some of them come easily, some come with great difficulty, and which is which depends heavily on the individual and circumstance.

However, I do doubt that struggle’s authority to overturn what God has taught the church. If Christianity were all about living our best lives now, as some popular preachers of fluff gently and positively contend, then I suppose difficulty might be a relevant excuse to set aside those parts of God’s Word that make life hard.

But it’s not. Given the centrality of the cross and God’s repeated promises that we will all be bearing our own crosses, difficulty is not a sound reason to ask the serpent’s question, “Did God really say…” After all, there are straight Christians whose adherence to chastity also means practical celibacy for an indefinite amount of time—sometimes their entire lives. The difficulty of chastely navigating America’s sexual landscape is not trivial even for those without sexual issues, and it’s not as though homosexual desires are the only sexual issue out there.

The next set of questions is designed to provoke another set of feelings: doubt and embarrassment about actually believing what the Bible teaches. Questions 14-21 all address positions the church has held at times over the past 2,000 years that modernists would find awkward: issues such as tolerating slavery and geocentricity.

However, in addition to betraying an historical ignorance that should be embarrassing, none of these questions has anything to do with what God actually says about homosexuality. They are merely insinuations that because the church has been embarrassed about its opinions before, it might be again—maybe even on this issue. In other words, they are meant to encourage us to ignore Scripture in favor of fashion lest we feel ashamed, not to actually evaluate what Scripture says.

I Need Selective Christianity

The remainder of Vines’ questions can really be summed up in a single one: “You’re not… mean… are you?” Would you really compare homosexuality to pedophilia—as though the arguments to justify the former wouldn’t also justify the latter if they were actually valid? Would you tell barren couples about the centrality of procreation to marriage—as though they weren’t already acutely aware of it? Would you tell loving homosexuals that they’re really lusting—as though lust were determined by how one’s desire feels rather than whether one desires something illicit?

It’s not the character of a desire that makes it lust, but rather the object of a desire.

A man can feel exactly the same way about his wife and about his neighbor’s wife, but one is lust and the other is not; it’s not the character of a desire that makes it lust, but rather the object of a desire. Once again, the focus of these questions is not the text of Scripture nor church teachings (even when they occasionally glance against them), but an attempt to provoke a specific sentiment: the discomfort that always comes with voicing truths that are hard to hear.

Whatever took Vines down this path of sentimentalism, the sleight of hand that theological liberals typically use to replace God’s instruction with their own (modern, progressive, evolved, etc.) feelings on political and moral controversies is to frame Christ’s instructions to love God and neighbor as though they were somehow opposed to his other teachings. They believe they can love better if only they’re not stifled by those parts of the moral landscape that fail to resonate with them.

Love Is Not Merely a Feeling

It works as a camouflage because Christ did talk so often about love, but it fails as truth because in their minds they have (in true sentimentalist fashion) already reduced love to a mere feeling—as though Christ was primarily instructing us to feel a particular way about our neighbors rather than act a particular way towards them.

Jesus regularly equates following the moral law with loving God and loving one’s neighbor as himself. Morality fleshes out love rather than obscuring it.

Morality may indeed make it harder for the theological liberal to feel the feelings he wants to feel, but it certainly did not hinder Christ in teaching us how to act. On the contrary, Jesus regularly equates following the moral law with loving God and loving one’s neighbor as himself. Morality fleshes out love rather than obscuring it.

Likewise, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples that loving him means keeping his instructions. Whereas sentimentalists take the modern romantic impulse to follow your heart above all else and project that back onto the text until feelings of affection abolish the written law, the sensible way of understanding a man who specifically said he did not come to abolish the written law is that Jesus is saying that love and following the moral law are the same thing. After all, one can hardly love his neighbor by murdering him, sleeping with his wife, stealing his property, and so forth. Neither can one love his neighbor through sodomy.

At this point, some would no doubt contend that because I affirm our feelings are neither God nor his Word and that biblical love is more action than feeling I’m therefore trying to cut empathy out of the Christian life altogether. Isn’t empathy necessary for loving our neighbors, so shouldn’t the church have empathy for homosexuals who are indeed our neighbors? Of course. We’re not aiming at sociopathy, after all. Being able to put oneself in another’s shoes and understand how he or she feels is an important part of turning ideas about morality into practical action on that person’s behalf.

Empathy Needs Centering

Nevertheless, we must not put the cart before the horse, as some leftists do, by making morality a matter of empathy apart from rules. Like shame and most other facets of our emotional lives, empathy must be cultivated by moral laws before it is of any use to ourselves or to our neighbors.

Like shame and most other facets of our emotional lives, empathy must be cultivated by moral laws.

A normal human being does not live in a constant fog of gray pity triggered equally by everything he encounters. We should not feel pity for everything, but for pitiable things. We should not feel sympathy for everyone, but for those who are sympathetic. Moral instruction, life experience, family, and so forth are all necessary to civilize our empathy so that we can make such distinctions well.

Examples of a feral empathy are not too difficult to find these days. On the more trivial end of things, last year a New York woman who was mugged for her cell phone managed to catch one of the young thieves after chasing him down. She was quickly condemned for her actions by one writer.

Uncultivated by even basic morality (i.e. stealing is wrong), Joseph Sargent’s empathy landed solely with the thief. He went so far as to blame the victim (although “not entirely”) for all the terrible things that will happen to her mugger because she had the audacity to catch him while she was being robbed and subsequently turn him over to the police.

After all, the 13-year-old perpetrator was a minority and therefore worthy of empathy, whereas the privileged victim was white (a fact he repeatedly notes as though it were an accusation). In Sargent’s words: “Vondrich says that she ‘felt sorry’ for the kid, but not enough to not have him arrested and charged with grand larceny. The boy will now enter New York’s vaunted juvenile justice system, which will likely [f***] up his life even further, simply because he snatched a white lady’s iPhone in Williamsburg.”

How Empathy Can Lead to Mass Rape

If only everyone could feel sorry for people as adeptly as Sargent can. Unfortunately, these examples aren’t always so trivial. Consider the scandal that came to light in Rotherham last year: A massive sex-trafficking ring was being run in this town in north England which forced more than 1,400 young women into rape and prostitution. For years, officials knew this was going on, but they deliberately chose to do nothing—even to the point of disciplining would-be whistle blowers. Why would they do such a thing? Out of empathy, of course.

Who were they supposed to feel sorry for: the girls because they were being raped or the men because they were minorities?

This might be mystifying at first. Given how I framed the situation, you probably empathize with the poor young women who were being abused—wouldn’t those officials do the same? Well, there’s another wrinkle: this ring was being run almost entirely by Pakistani immigrants.

Those officials knew just how privileged the young white rape victims were compared to their oppressed rapists. They were afraid of a racist anti-immigrant backlash if any of this reached the light of day. So who were they supposed to feel sorry for: the girls because they were being raped or the men because they were minorities?

Their empathy, uncultivated by any sensible moral standards, could not adequately answer that question, but they followed their bleeding hearts anyway—much to the detriment of a great many victims. After all, empathy without moral rules cannot consistently tell victim from victimizer.

We don’t always notice because the effects on society are so slow, but sentimentalism is fundamentally barbaric. Narrowly basing morality entirely on how sorry you feel for someone else expels higher ethical concepts like justice and mercy.

Empathy without moral rules cannot consistently tell victim from victimizer.

Because it’s easier to empathize with an unprepared mother than with an unborn child, the sentimentalist fights for the gruesome deaths of tens of millions of the latter. Because it is easier to empathize with rape victims than with men who are falsely accused, the sentimentalist embraces hoax after hoax to eliminate every facet of due process that protects against false accusations. Because it is easier to empathize with perceived cultural underdogs, the sentimentalist brings up past atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition (responsible for the executions of around 1,250 people total over three and a half centuries) to minimize the ongoing murders of tens of thousands every year at the hands of Muslim terrorists. If empathy is civilization’s only guide, we will quickly find out how blind it really is on its own.

The Source of Christian Empathy

Of course the church’s cause for empathy is broader than civilization’s because it is the custodian of different concerns—eternal in addition to temporal. Any given situation in society might have legitimate victims, villains, or both. Sometimes there really are good guys and bad guys, and civilization’s empathy needs to be able to discern the difference.

We cannot, through our own empathy, make God more compassionate by calling evil good and good evil.

However, before God, when all is said and done, we are all of us villains no matter what else we might be: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So God’s compassion is specifically (and necessarily) towards those of us who do not warrant it, and the church declares that gospel accordingly.

We empathize with the murderers, the adulterers, and so forth because we realize that, before God, we are included in their number. We don’t just put ourselves in their shoes, we are in their shoes. We therefore love because he loved and forgive because he forgave.

Nevertheless, the church’s compassion is not our own invention that springs from our own feelings, but a specific gift from God: the forgiveness of our sins on account of the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Theological liberals seem to find this inadequate, but we cannot, through our own empathy, make God more compassionate by calling evil good and good evil.

Once we begin embracing those sins we think will make us happy, we abandon God’s compassion.

The church’s empathy is therefore also cultivated by God’s instructions to her in scripture. The only reason to value the forgiveness of sins at all is if we do not want to continue in sin. Once we begin embracing those sins we think will make us happy, we abandon God’s compassion. A barbaric empathy uncultivated by proper theology focuses on affirming people’s feelings rather than being forgiven. So because the church’s source of empathy is something higher than that of civilization, feral empathy takes an even higher toll. It destroys not only our moral sensibilities, but our grasp on the gospel itself.

Whether in the church or in broader American society, the controversy over homosexuality has been dominated by a sentimentalism that drives out meaningful debate. In either case, we would all be better served in the long run if cooler heads were allowed to prevail and perceive more than just the heart, for our empathy does not self-civilize. If we continue to act as though it does, we will quickly find ourselves to be nothing more than the most compassionate of tyrants and heretics.

Matthew’s writing may be found at The 96th Thesis.

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