If Loving My Neighbor is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right
It’s now more than twelve years since my denomination, the ELCA, moved to open our fellowships, our communion tables, and our pulpits to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. My performance during that small civil war in the denomination was neither heroic nor effective. I wish I had been a more courageous and forthright leader. I’m glad the outcome didn’t depend on the likes of me.
I argued repeatedly that I did not want to discuss homosexuality and the Church in theoretical and hypothetical terms. I wanted people to think about two children of the congregation of the same gender. They were involved in Sunday School, Confirmation instruction, youth group for all ages, regular worship, Bible study, and numerous service projects in the name of Jesus. They were real “stars” in the life of the congregation.
Those two children became adults, fell in love, and wanted to be married in the Church. I urged people to think about those two (still theoretical and hypothetical, I admit) children before coming to some sort of decision on the issue at hand. I wasn’t interested in positions which weren’t required to take seriously the real lives of real human beings.
The response I received was both stunning and predictable. “I don’t want to confuse feelings and facts, Pastor,” one parishioner said repeatedly. “I don’t want compassion,” he argued, “I want the Truth. Don’t muddy the waters by brining real people into the conversation.”
I wonder what he might have done in conversations with Jesus about loving outsiders, while a small child sat on Jesus’ lap. The question only occurs to me now in the rearview mirror, but it’s pertinent to this week’s text. It seems clear to me in this text that when being “right” conflicts somehow with loving the neighbor, including the “outsider,” then loving the neighbor trumps being “right.”
Thus, the title of this post.
We will go to extraordinary lengths to protect our power, privilege, position, and property. That’s obvious when it comes to the history of violence associated with White Supremacy. It’s a truism when it comes to assessing the January 6 insurrection. It is also true, unfortunately, in the theological arena. The latest lie promulgated to protect White Male primacy is that empathy is a sin, when carried too far.
In two articles on the desiringgod.org site, Joe Rigney has argued that if love of neighbor seems to conflict with the Truth, then love of neighbor must give way. In our current setting, at least among us “liberals,” (happy to be one and more, thank you very much), love of neighbor is used, according to Rigney, to justify all sorts of sinful conduct and thought. More on that in a moment.
Rigney is president of Bethlehem College and Seminary. “Bethlehem: Education in Serious Joy” is the banner on the institutional web site. The college and seminary appear to fancy themselves as legitimate heirs of the intellectual tradition of C. S. Lewis. It was Lewis, after all, who wrote in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, that “joy is the serious business of heaven.”
Rigney exploits this supposed kinship with Lewis in his two-part article on the dangers to Christians of feeling too much and thinking too little. He adopts the persona and style of Screwtape, lead character in Lewis’ delightfully ironic little book, The Screwtape Letters. I am more than a little stunned by the smug arrogance of this tactic, but that’s another story.
The first “letter” is called “Killing Them Softly: Compassion that Warms Satan’s Heart.” Thus, if Rigney can hijack the title of a Seventies soul song, then I have no problem using another one to counter his cunning. Initially Rigney uses Screwtape to warn us that even compassion can be “cannibalized” to do the work of the Evil One. Capable tempters will make compassion subservient to “truth,” and support for the sufferer will then become instruction that minimizes suffering.
So far, so good. Rigney’s second article is called “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion.” He contrasts compassion (suffering with another person) to empathy (suffering in another person). This suffering “in” can become so powerful that it leads us to sin in the name of comforting the afflicted. Compassion, according to Rigney, seeks to help the sufferer with the Truth. Empathy seeks to help the sufferer with mere emotions. Compassion, he says, focuses on what is good for the sufferer. Empathy focuses on what makes the sufferer feel better.
Rigney goes on to accuse sufferers of holding their neighbors for “ransom” by demanding unreasonable love. “We want their unreasonable demands to become ungodly demands,” Screwtape says for Rigney. “Anyone who refuses to jump through the hoops,” Screwtape concludes, “isn’t being empathetic.” Compassion means going into quicksand to rescue someone, but with a rope tied always to the Truth (outside the pit). Empathy, Rigney suggests, is entering the pit with no rope.
Rigney and his like could appeal to certain trends in the social sciences (although that would seem to be self-defeating). Paul Bloom wrote an excellent book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. It may well be that Rigney and company have taken their analysis from Bloom and his colleagues without proper attribution.
Bloom has several contrarian concerns in his book. He worries that what we call empathy has been transformed into a claim for rights. If we experience the suffering of others too fully, we may actually run the other direction rather than offering care. In short, Bloom notes that empathy is more of a feeling response than a conscious decision. So he really pleads that we would seat our empathetic experiences in a larger framework of what he calls “rational compassion.”
“It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness,” Bloom writes. “Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists.” He contrasts empathy with compassion. Compassion, he writes, “does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
Bloom is not arguing for a lack of compassionate action — quite the opposite. But Rigney and his colleagues do precisely that and thus completely misunderstand what’s going on here.
We can hear clearly the (unacknowledged) basis for Rigney’s argument. “The problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy,” Bloom suggests. “Actually, they are often due to too much of it.” Bloom is concerned that the suffering of the world may overwhelm our capacity for compassion, shut down our helping faculties, and send us fleeing into moral oblivion. His argument is backed by research and good thinking.
Bloom’s argument is not, however, particularly compelling. There’s lots of contradictory evidence, study, and are research in this regard. Well and good, Bloom says. That’s how science works. But it’s not how Truth works for Rigney, who bastardizes Bloom’s work, whether he knows is or not.
“By elevating empathy over compassion as the superior virtue, there is now an entire culture devoted to the total immersion of empathy,” Screwtape declares. “Books, articles, and social media all trumpet the importance of checking one’s own beliefs, values, judgments, and reason at the door of empathy.” This immersion untethers us from the Truth and makes us “eminently steerable” toward the Evil One. Empathy thus becomes the ultimate selfishness, in this view, focused on the “feelings” of the sufferer with no concern for the “good” of the one who suffers.
The accusation, according to Rigney is that we have moved from “feelings are important” to believing that “feelings are all that’s important.” In that universe, caring human beings become self-absorbed moral monsters who do Satan’s bidding by subjecting sufferers to domineering dimensions of care in order to feel better about themselves.
What’s the problem Rigney is trying to fix here? As Mark Wingfield notes, the real agenda comes out in further commentary, discussion, and amplification. Inordinate empathy has led us (well, some of us), for example, to move from regarding homosexuality as a sin contrary to Divine intention to regarding homosexuality as a gift from God. According to folks in Rigney’s camp, how does that happen? Inordinate empathy.
I find myself racing back these twelve years. Nothing new here; nothing to see. “I don’t want to confuse feelings and facts, Pastor,” Rigney and his crowd say. “I don’t want empathy,” they argue, “I want the Truth. Don’t muddy the waters by bringing real people into the conversation.”
The problems with this perspective are manifold. We have here a parade example of the danger of the single story, referenced in an earlier post. Rigney and his ilk argue that empathy will cloud our judgment and lead us into sin. Yet, it is far more likely that our particular take on The Truth provides camouflage for our interests rather than an interest in Reality. The notion that defenders of the Truth are immune to the delusion that afflicts the empathetic is morally arrogant and epistemologically naïve.
It is not the case, whether in the Christian scriptures or in the human heart, that feelings and facts can somehow be separated into isolated containers. Emotions are constitutive of thoughts. When we think, our cognitive and emotional centers light up in tandem and partnership. The first Christians, as first-century Mediterranean folks, understood that thought is always “emotion-fused.” It is an Enlightenment conceit that feeling and fact can be tracked into separate lanes.
If there is anything clear from Jesus’ ministry in the gospel accounts, it is that when being loving and being right are in tension, love trumps being right. How else can we read “The one who is not against us is for us”? The unnamed exorcist may not be getting it all right, but he is doing the Lord’s work. And that’s enough. Demands for higher standards are like offending limbs and wandering eyes. Get rid of them, not the neighbor.
We live in a time when at least some of us have been trained to view all Truth claims with suspicion. Somewhere behind those claims is likely lurking a desire to dominate. Assertions of “my Truth” are much more likely to result in sin than surrenders to “too much” empathy. Warning that empathy is a sin takes us into a sort of Christian Orwellian use of language which is hard to manage.
Really. I’ll take “too much” empathy over “the Real Truth” any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I trust Jesus to sort it out if I have loved too much.
References and Resources
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.