Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 1, What Is So Bad About Empathy?

I'd like to write a few posts wrestling with how empathy functions in the kingdom of God.

I've been kicking around some thoughts about this subject, but I have hesitated to share them. Why? Because in the course of these reflections I'll be taking on some sacred cows. Some of the posts in this series will be disorienting for some readers. By the end of the series I hope to have us in a pretty good place, but to get where I'm going we will have to rethink some things.

But that's why I hope you visit this blog. To watch a theological high wire act. Something different and out of the box. Something to puzzle you and make you think.

So this series will be one of those "experiments" in theological reflection. Follow along and see what you think.

I want to start off with a problem and then think toward a solution in these posts.

To lay my cards on the table, the problem is empathy and the solution is the kingdom.

So let's start with the problem. What's so bad about empathy?

Let me be clear that empathy is foundational to our ability to show kindness, compassion and love. We must cultivate empathy and practice empathy. Empathy is a critical component to being formed into the image of Jesus.

But that's about as far as we take our reflections about empathy. Compassion is good, so let's all be compassionate. And yet, there has been a growing chorus among psychologists and ethicists suggesting that, while very good and necessary, empathy has some issues that we need to pay attention to. For example, see Paul Bloom's essay "Against Empathy" or David Brooks' "The Limits of Empathy." The claim is that if you don't pay attention to the problems with empathy your compassion can take you into some very dark places.

So, how can empathy be a problem?

Let me describe five problems with empathy:
1. Ineffective Empathy
When our heartstrings are pulled toward a multitude of charitable and social justice causes our resources become spread and diluted, decreasing their ability to make an impact. We all know the statistics that show how much of the charitable giving being done in the world is often misdirected, ineffective or even harmful. Empathy is flowing by the truckloads, but it's not making the world any better. And sometimes empathy makes the world worse. Watch Paul Bloom's short video on this subject.

Christians are aware of this problem. Consider all the (virtual) ink that has been spilled about how short-term mission trips to the Third World are a form of poverty tourism. Our empathy pulls us toward these sorts of trips and ministry efforts but their effectiveness is seriously in doubt. In short, empathy--a compassionate desire to help--doesn't always lead to actual helping. Another example here is the whole When Helping Hurts conversation.

2. Empathy and Violence
Much of the violence done in the world is motivated by moralistic aggression. Moralistic aggression occurs when the Good Guys use violence to defeat the Bad Guys, Bad Guys who are hurting people in the world. In short, empathy can lead to violence. The example Paul Bloom makes in the video above is how our empathy was used by the Bush administration to create public support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The dark side of empathy is that it causes us to demonize people. A lot of our politics is motivated by empathy, care, and concern for the suffering in the world. But that empathy creates moralistic aggression toward political opponents. Angelic Good Guys fighting against demonic Bad Guys. Empathy drives a lot of our politics, which is a key reason our political discourse has become so angry, polarized, and uncivil. 

3. Empathy and Sacrifice
Feelings aren't actions. One of the problems with empathy is that it privileges feelings over actions. When we feel empathy the temptation is to look for an emotional outlet, like taking to social media to write a Facebook rant or a string of angry Tweets. These are outlets that create the illusion of "doing something" that are more emotional catharsis than action.

In short, we can feel loads and loads of empathy but still not do anything. How many of us have sat under a convicting sermon or testimony, completely gut-checked, to have that feeling evaporate by the time we sat down to lunch after church?

Empathy is vital, but it's a far cry from self-sacrificial love. We're addicted to compassion. We take a pass on agape.

4. Empathic Distress
Empathy is a stress reaction. When we witness the distress of others we sympathetically feel their distress in our own bodies. We get upset, sad or angry. Or all of these feelings at the same time.

Consequently, empathy creates an emotional and somatic burden. As we watch social media and cable news our empathy triggers sadness, anxiety and outrage. Minute by minute, day after day, month after month. That load of sympathetic stress leads to empathy burnout. Chronic anxiety. Depression. Physical exhaustion. Emotional numbness.

In short, if we are not careful our empathy can ruin us, emotionally and physically.
So this where we'll begin this series, with raising some questions about a sacred cow.

We consider empathy to be foundational to cultivating a Christ-like character, compassion heralded as the singular Christian virtue.

But might empathy create some real problems for us? Problems we are not paying attention to?

And if so, maybe we need to think harder about how empathy functions in the kingdom.

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