The Empathy Trap

Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant writer Joe Rigney published a piece at Desiring God titled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” Provocative? Yes, and to be honest, my first response when I saw the title was, “Uh, no.” I balked at the suggestion that what we should be talking about in an age of intense polarization, shame storms, and racial and ideological violence is the sin of empathy. Obviously this was a case of someone trying too hard, no?

But as I read the satirical demonic letter  (in the spirit of The Screwtape Letters), the scales began to fall. Here’s how Rigney’s Screwtape describes the difference between empathy and compassion:

Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.

However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.

Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.

In other words, compassion multiplies sufferers, but empathy consumes all fellowship into the feelings of one. In the economy of empathy there is no currency except the sufferer’s own interpretation of their suffering; any other alm offered up is illegitimate. Compassion grabs hold (in one of Rigney’s metaphors) of sinking sufferers while keeping a firm grasp on that which is immovable, so that the sinking sufferer can be pulled up onto something. Empathy dives headlong in the quicksand. The point is not finding life after suffering. There is no point, except the experience of the moment. What we’re talking about is simply the abdication of pursuing the right and true in deference to feelings and experiences.

Now, even typing that previous sentence feels strange. It feels strange because for a while now the idea that feelings and experiences do not dictate what we should believe or do is an idea that has been lumped—lumped in with bombastic right-wing pundits (“Facts don’t care about your feelings”), scowling John Wayne boomers, and careless theologians. This is one of the essential difficulties of thinking in a polarized, culture war age: It’s impossible to believe anything that isn’t somehow trademarked by an obnoxious tribe.

But the difficulty of thinking is not an excuse for failing to try, and if we’re willing to listen, I think Joe is making a crucially important point about the empathy trap and the power it wields over many.

This empathy trap was on display in evangelical social media this week. On Sunday, president Donald Trump appeared onstage at McLean Bible Church, and pastor David Platt prayed with and for him. Joe Carter has a helpful summary of the background of the event, as well as a full transcript of Platt’s prayer. Nearly everyone seems to agree that Platt’s prayer was excellent. It was steadfastly non-partisan and unequivocal about the gospel. But did Platt make a serious error of judgment in allowing Trump to come onstage, in praying for him, and (perhaps most of all) in not forcefully shaming and rebuking him for his politics?  Since the moment resulted in some not-negative PR for Trump, and since Platt did not use the opportunity to challenge the president, a very vocal, very passionate group has reasoned that this obviously caused trauma and offense to many members of Platt’s church (and others).

It is, of course, entirely coherent to hold that a pastor must never allow a politician to be onstage at church. I’m actually sympathetic to that view and imagine that, all variables being equal, such a policy would probably solve a lot of problems at once. But nobody appears to be arguing from absolute principle that Platt was wrong to pray with Trump onstage. Instead, because it was Trump, it was wrong. The argument expressed so far has to do with the felt offense of members of Platt’s church at watching their pastor pray for a president they abhor.

The Platt drama reveals two of the biggest dangers of unchecked empathy. First, empathy is by definition selective (empathize with NeverTrump, or his supporters in the church?); thus it’s uniquely vulnerable to being held captive by passing fads, trends, and mobs. Much of the fiercest criticism of Platt seems to be deeply self-congratulatory, reverberating with Retweets and Likes in echo chambers that consistently take the ungenerous interpretation of a white evangelical pastor’s stage time with Donald Trump. Nary a thought is offered for the complexities of being a pastor of a politically diverse congregation, and the wisdom in refraining from partisan language and simply pointing the church and the president to the gospel.

Second, this kind of empathetic absolutism runs serious risk of becoming a ruthlessly utilitarian way of doing life and theology. Matthew Vines built an entire case for Christian LGBT affirmation on the basis of the hurt and alienation of gay Christians from traditional churches. “Bad trees bear bad fruit,” he wrote, an analogy that fails logically but succeeds emotionally. It’s not hard to see how a one-note emphasis on the feelings of others can become a mechanism for controlling revelation, particularly in the hyper-democratic and hyper-individualistic superstructure of online life.

The alternative, as Joe writes, is compassion. There should be much compassion for those who fall into the empathy trap, since, where compassion is lacking, unchecked empathy often rushes to fill the void. There is a true dearth of compassion in both secular and Christian culture—tribalism when there should be honesty, shaming when there should be help, and politics when there should be prayer. The inability to even mention these dynamics without seeing conservative backs stiffen is why the empathy trap is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should, in the name of wisdom and eternity. Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle, to hold a hand on one end and keep a grip on solid ground with the other.

The best I can tell, David Platt was put into a demanding position and asked to make a potentially explosive decision. In the end, he shared the stage with a seriously morally problematic leader and did nothing else but echo the exhortations of the Caesar-submissive Paul. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a political leader and feeling offense at his views or conduct, but there’s everything wrong with imputing that offense to the gospel itself and demanding that churches only obey 1 Timothy 2:2 through gritted teeth and scorn. Bible-trumping partisanship crouches at both GOP and Democratic doors, and it’s not less of a tragedy for it to master one tribe over another.

We must still master it. To that end, I don’t think we could do much better than to pray alongside David Platt: “Please, O God, help us to look to you, help us to trust in your Word, help us to seek your wisdom, and live in ways that reflect your love and your grace, your righteousness and your justice.”

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Evangelicals, Politics, and Church History

Have you ever wondered why our intense conversations within evangelicalism about politics, character, and voting almost never end up citing major figures in church history? These are pretty important debates, after all. Navigating the moral failures of elected officials and choosing some sinners rather than others to wield authority over the public square seems like a fairly serious intertwining of Christian ethics, Christian social theory, Christian forgiveness/repentance, and even Christian eschatology. There’s a lot going on in the question of why a Roy Moore or Donald Trump may or may not be a suitable choice for a believer. And yet most of what is brought up as wisdom is radically contemporary. Is 2,000 years of Christian thought and church praxis just insufficient to shed light on the Republican and Democratic Party?

I have a theory as to why.

Behind the “lesser of two evils” debate stands an unspoken but very real theology of work. Most American Christians do not feel that the moral demands of the gospel comprehensively inform how they labor. Their “on the job” performance is one sphere. Their spiritual life is another. To borrow one equally unfortunate phrase, work and faith are considered non-overlapping magisterium. For many evangelicals especially, the paradigms of the gospel, the teachings of Christ, the narrative sweep of Scripture, and the mission of the church are singularly vertical concerns between them and their Creator, and possibly them and their pastor. Practically, these truths make next to zero difference in how—and why—they carry out their 9-to-5 existence.

So, when you try to tell an evangelical Republican that character counts, and that not even a pro-life politician is automatically worthy of a vote if there is credible, serious allegations against his moral character, you are asking him to apply a standard to this politician that he does not even apply to himself. Evangelicalism’s politics are downstream from their praxis; because there is no viable theology of work, because most evangelicals view how they do their job, how they interact with subordinates and superiors, and why they labor at all as a self-referential sphere disconnected from the euangelion, demanding that they connect New Testament ethics to politicians sounds ridiculous. What the President of the United States says about women shouldn’t affect our judgment of whether or not he can be a good president. What a senatorial candidate did in his car or at the mall years ago with underaged women doesn’t mean he’d be a bad senator. Of course, you might not want either of those men are your pastor or even your son-in-law. But that doesn’t remotely affect how they’d do as your president, does it?

This hard detachment of role from revelation is what, I think, the great figures of church history would have found stunning. Listen to what these church history giants have to say about the relationship between a civic ruler’s character and the actual consequences of his reign:

“The studies and character of priests and bishops are a potent factor in this matter, I admit, but not nearly so much so as are those of princes. Men are more ready to decry the clergy if they sin than they are to emulate them in their good points. So it is that monks who are really pious do not excite people to follow their example because they seem only to be practicing what they preach. But on the other hand, if they are sinful everyone is shocked beyond measure. But there is no one who is not stimulated to follow in the footsteps of his prince! For this very reason the prince should take special care not to sin, because he makes so many followers in his wrongdoings, but rather to devote himself to being virtuous so that so many more good men may result.”

Likewise,

Augustine argued that a king has to be master of himself before he can master people, and should “prefer mastery over their base desires” to lordship of nations. Christian rulers rule well when they “offer to their true God the sacrifice of humility and mercy and prayer” for their sins.

What both Erasmus and Augustine assume here is a close, even inexorable connection between the duties of the magistrate and the magistrate’s soul. This is not a theology of labor that you hear in modern evangelicalism, particularly in parts of the country where “God and country” civil religion has played tentpole to an un-virtuous capitalism. What would the chagrin of Christian business owners be like if their local church elders had knowledge of how they treated their employees, and possessed the theology to confront them with the demands of their faith in all aspects of their life?

What’s missing from all these debates about politicians and virtue is the voice of our religious forefathers. If we hear it, we will have to admit that it cuts deeply against the grain of our personal autonomy and theological poverty. Even more startling: It sounds nothing like Fox News.

3 Kinds of Patriotism

A quick taxonomy:

  1. The patriotism of duty is the patriotism that involves material acts of fidelity to one’s country. This is the patriotism of military service and other varieties of selfless sacrifice. This is where patriotism becomes embodied, and its ideals take on specific actions worthy of praise.
  2. The patriotism of affection is the patriotism of the heart. It concerns one’s inner desire for the well-being of his country. The patriotism of affection can be seen in the patriotism of duty, but it does not necessarily result in it; one can genuinely love his country and yet be a coward, just like one could theoretically perform a patriotic duty and yet feel apathetic about the welfare of the country.
  3. The patriotism of manners is the patriotism of customs, written and unwritten. Placing one’s hand over the heart during the national anthem is the patriotism of manners. It can be done by anyone without requiring real patriotism of affection or of duty. Whereas the above forms of patriotism reveal, at least partially, a person’s true beliefs and hopes, the patriotism of manners is mostly establishing a set of protocols.

The problem with modern American conservatism is that it has reversed the order of this taxonomy. Whereas the patriotism of duty is the highest and noblest form of patriotism, American conservatism, intellectually crippled by talk radio and mass media, constantly fixates on the patriotism of manners, and makes it the true test of one’s “Americanness.” This is why most cable-news watching conservatives are vastly more offended at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem than they are at a sports league that routinely takes advantage of taxpayers in building enormous stadiums. The latter may be unfortunate, but it’s just politics as usual in the Real World. Kneeling during the national anthem? Traitors.

The fixation on the patriotism of manners is symptomatic of a conservatism for whom patriotism is constantly detached from reality. David Barton’s success among evangelical conservatives owes almost entirely to the fact that his revisionism is “patriotic.” It promulgates the “God and country” narrative of the American founding. Never mind that calling Thomas Jefferson a true Christian is an aggressive insult to Christian doctrine. That’s not what matters. It’s patriotic to think so. That’s what matters.

A friend told me yesterday that President Trump’s insult to NFL players would likely work in his favor politically, by eliciting hysterical reactions from the progressive media. Maybe. For my money, though, the most hysterical reactions I’ve seen to Trump’s comments have come from conservatives cheering him on. This is where we are right now.

The Politics of Never Growing Up

Consider for a moment the portrait that is currently emerging of the young American adult.

Let’s begin with college. Despite its many dysfunctions and uncertain economic future, higher education is still considered to be the crucial pivot into adulthood for most American youth. Crippling college debt exists not so much because teens and parents are willing to spend so much on an education, but because they are willing to spend on an education experience. Come for the tuition, stay for the dorm and student life fees.

And what is the college experience nowadays? For insight, we might turn to Nathan Heller’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He writes from Oberlin University, whose culture and institutional stability is systematically being ripped apart by a student body of 19 year old “activists” who demand instantaneous, sweeping, and authoritarian intervention on a daily basis. Heller is clearly sympathetic to Oberlin’s progressive ethos, and his observations do not incriminate the students as much as they contextualize them. Nevertheless, his essay’s depiction of life at Oberlin—in classrooms to the common areas alike—is terrifying. At one point Heller recounts an incident that epitomizes the school’s culture of ruthless value enforcement:

For years, a campus café and performance space called the Cat in the Cream had a music-themed mural, painted by an alumnus, that celebrated multiculturalism: it featured a turbanned snake charmer, a black man playing a saxophone, and so on. Students recently raised concerns that the mural was exoticizing. “We ended up putting drywall over it, and painting over that,” Robert Bonfiglio, who had been the chair of the Student Union Board, told me. “They were saying, ‘Students are being harmed. Just do something now.’ ” But if individuals’ feelings were grounds to efface art work, he reasoned, every piece of art at Oberlin would be in constant danger of being covered up, or worse—a practice with uncomfortable antecedents. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong but having your voice rejected,” he said. “People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

Heller’s essay is vivid, but the culture he describes at Oberlin is by no means exceptional. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written, the “coddling of the American mind” is not isolated to a selective slew of elite universities. It is a phenomenon embedded into American higher education at large. There was a time not long ago when college was considered an intellectual sanctuary for coming of age. But for these universities that submit their entire existence to the experiences and felt needs of undergraduates, it is not the students who are expected to grow up, but the institutions themselves. The students are In The Know; it’s the educators that must protect what is already there, not grow it. College has become Never-Never Land.

What about life outside the ivory tower? For this, we might consult some new data from the Pew Center. The headline is self-analyzing: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds.” Men in particular have become startlingly immobile: More than a third of men aged 18-34 live with parents rather than alone or with a romantic partner.

This kind of existential paralysis isn’t just a matter of changing economic contexts (though that certainly is part of the problem). For men especially, the prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood and achieve in  life. But in the safety and comfort of mom and dad’s basement, young men get to live out their fantasies without the friction of real life, often turning to porn and video games to give their static lives the imitation of thrill. Growing up is optional.

The basement is Never Land. The university is Never Land. Even dating is Never Land, thanks to Tinder and a hook up culture that eschews commitment with the safety of online anonymity. Pop culture, with its endless fixation on comic books, child fantasy adventures, and nostalgia, is Never Land. Our American landscape is a monument to the heedless pleasures of knowing it all, playing it all, and sexing it all.

C.S. Lewis rebuked the cowardice of secularized modernity. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” With apologies to J.M. Barrie, we could say it another way: We tell our Lost Boys to flee to Never Land, and are shocked when they vote for the pirate.