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Episode 048 – Empathy Is Not a Sin (With Becky Castle Miller)
Recently a number of Christian leaders and teachers have been making waves saying that empathy is a sin–or at least something that good Christians need to be very careful with. Why would they say this? What do they get out of it? And why should you be concerned if you hear this line of thinking?
- Following King Jesus by Scot McKnight and Becky Castle Miller
- Check out Seminary Now, where Becky works.
- One source on Calvin’s letter justifying the murder of Servetus: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc8.iv.xvi.xxii.html
- Download a full transcript here or scroll to the bottom of the page for a full transcript of this episode.
- You can also watch and share the video version on Youtube.
More about My Conversation Partner
Becky Castle Miller writes and speaks on emotional, mental, and spiritual health in the church. She recently graduated from Northern Seminary with a master’s in New Testament Context, studying with Dr. Scot McKnight. Her discipleship workbook with Dr. McKnight is called Following King Jesus. She is working on a new book about Jesus’s emotions. She, her husband, their five kids, and cat returned to the US after living in the Netherlands for eight years, where she worked at an international church. She is presently the Program Manager for Seminary Now.
- Becky writes on Medium: https://medium.com/wholehearted
- Twitter: @bcastlemiller
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/beckycastlemillerblog/
- The Wisdom of Your Heart – This book debunks several myths about emotions that are often taught in church, presents a healthier theology of emotions, and our best current understanding of what emotions mean when we have them, and how we can learn to hear wisdom in them.
More from Marc
- Get The Anchor Prayer: A Prayer and Process for Remaining Grounded in a Chaotic World – This little book is free for you by opting in to my email list.
- Untangled Heart Course Online.
- Discovering your Authentic Core Values: A Step-by-step Guide
- Subscribe to my Email List. You’ll get a free copy of a little book called The Anchor Prayer: A Prayer & Process for Remaining Grounded in a Chaotic World.
Marc Schelske 0:00
Hey friends, I’m Marc Alen Schelske and this is The Apprenticeship Way, a podcast about spiritual growth following the way of Jesus. This is episode 48. Empathy is not a sin–and anyone who tells you so is trying to control you.
Today’s podcast is made possible by The Wisdom of Your Heart. We’re talking about empathy today and that means we’re going to touch on the world of our emotions. This is a subject close to my heart. I spent a lot of my life deeply disconnected from my emotions and it costs me gravely. You can hear the story of my recovery in my book, The Wisdom of Your Heart: Discovering the God-given Power and Purpose of Your Emotions. In this book, I also debunk several myths about emotions that are often taught in church, I present a theology of emotions, and I talk about our best current understanding of what emotions mean when we have them and how we can learn to hear wisdom in them. So, if today’s conversation is helpful, or if you’re unpacking difficult emotions from your past, or bad emotional teaching from the church, I invite you to check out The Wisdom of Your Heart. It’s available in all the book places. Learn more at www.TheWisdomOfYourHeart.com.
In the past couple of years, the strangest controversy has emerged and it’s only getting worse. It turns out that a number of pastors and theologians have been teaching that empathy is a sin. Empathy, you know, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, that? Yeah, empathy is a sin. Now, the idea that empathy is a sin strikes me as patently absurd and dismissible. This whole podcast could boil down to me saying, “No, guys. No, it’s not.”
But as I’ve reflected more on this and talked with people and watched the discourse on social media, I think this idea is not just wrong, I think it’s dangerous. And some big name people, pastors, theologians, church leaders are pushing this idea. So today, I’m going to talk about empathy with Becky Castle Miller. What is it? Why is it necessary for human flourishing? What role does it play in our faith? And why on earth would somebody say having it is sinful?
Becky Castle Miller writes and speaks on emotional, mental and spiritual health in the church. She recently graduated from Northern seminary with a Masters in New Testament studying with Dr. Scott McKnight. Her discipleship workbook with Dr. McKnight is called Following King Jesus. She’s working on a new book about Jesus’ emotions, she, her husband, their five kids, and their cat recently returned to living in the U.S. after living in the Netherlands for eight years, where she worked at an international church. She’s presently the program manager for Seminary Now. She thinks about this stuff a lot, and so I asked Becky to start by laying out exactly what empathy is, and the role that it plays in human emotions.
Becky Castle Miller 2:59
So, empathy is primarily understood as feeling with someone, entering into their feelings, and trying to understand where they’re coming from what their experience has been like. And to feel that with them, or alongside them, involves a deep knowing of the other person and a willingness to know them, a willingness to get uncomfortable with them. There are two types of empathy, cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Affective empathy is emotion-based where we’re really trying to enter into their feelings, and cognitive empathy is trying to understand the situation that led to what they’re feeling with our thoughts, trying to understand what they’re feeling.
I think both of those are important. A cold, hard, cognitive empathy that’s missing the affective component isn’t actually going to feel very comforting to someone, and yet just entering into their feelings but not questioning what led to it might also feel flat for someone. So I think we need both of those types of empathy. They’re important in our relationships, because empathy, I think, is a key component to validating people’s emotions. And emotional validation is one of the most healing aspects of therapeutic relationships and of healing relationships in general. So I don’t think that we can have safe trusting healing relationships without the aspect of empathy.
Marc Schelske 4:23
It’s really the thing that we’re probably talking about when we talk about the need to listen well, right? That if I’m really hearing you, what that means when I say, “Are you hearing me?” is “Do you get me? Do you feel me?” The tool we have that’s a part of our brain and limbic system is what we we identify as empathy. Does that seem right?
Becky Castle Miller 4:45
Marc Schelske 4:45
Okay. So just to draw this in then, you said… the two kinds, this affective and cognitive empathy… so is affective empathy that thing that happens to me when I am at my kids music recital? I’m sitting in the audience and they’re up on stage by themselves about to do their thing, and I just… am feeling every moment of it and when a note goes wrong… no one’s looking at me, but I feel something deep in me about the anxiety of that moment. Is that what affective empathy is?
Becky Castle Miller 5:22
Yes. You know your child, you know your child closely and you know your own experience as a human. So it’s a combining of our emotion concepts from our own experiences, and, in a sense, perceiving the other person’s emotions, and feeling that along with them. I know what it feels like when I’m nervous, or I might flub a performance. Our child who has learned to mirror our emotion concepts is probably feeling very similar. And so we have this shared emotional experience where we understand, to the best of our individual limits, what they’re feeling, but we’re remembering our emotional experiences, and we’re perceiving their emotions. We are really participating in that moment with them with our whole body.
Marc Schelske 6:09
And then the cognitive part is that sequence that you’ve talked coming to mind. I’m understanding it, I’m thinking about, “Oh, they didn’t really practice this piece as much as they should have.” And I understand there’s some cost because there’s people watching them. And so I’m interpreting the way that I’m feeling and the way that I think they’re feeling and that’s then the cognitive story about it.
Becky Castle Miller 6:34
Right. And emotions are cognitive. So I don’t like to separate affect from cognition, because they’re all part of the same process. But cognitive empathy is what else you know about the situation or learning about the situation. You know that the person sitting next to them in the orchestra has just been bullying them all year, and they were afraid that person was going to poke them with their violin bow, and you’re seeing it happen. You know the backstory of what’s going on there and so you’re indignant on their behalf Why isn’t the teacher stepping in? Yeah, sometimes we need to know the story so that we can cognitively understand what’s going on as well.
Marc Schelske 7:11
So this thing that we’re talking about, I mean, this is essential for human relationships. It’s essential for any kind of collaborative human endeavor, whether community, church, business. We can’t do relationships effectively without this, am I right?
Becky Castle Miller 7:28
I think that that’s true. If it were, it would be a very sterile, non-intimate relationship, if there was no sharing of emotion going on. So, it would be possible, but I don’t think that’s what most of us want. I think we want emotional relationships. There are people who have emotional injuries that haven’t been tended to might might not want that kind of close relationship, sure. But generally, when we’re healthy, we long for intimate, emotional relationships.
Marc Schelske 8:01
Empathy, then is part of our capacity to connect emotionally with other people. And that’s what we’re longing for. That’s what we want. I think you and I are both saying that healthy relationships, healthy families, healthy communities have some measure of that. Why would that be a sin? Why would that be bad? Or maybe before we even go into the conversation of why would somebody claim that it’s a sin, maybe we should talk about… is there, just objectively speaking, outside the realm of spirituality, Is there trouble that empathy can get us into?
Becky Castle Miller 8:37
I can’t think of any. When someone is experiencing uncomfortable emotions–usually white western culture is not okay with that. Generally speaking, white Americans–that’s the culture I come from, so that’s the culture I can speak to–don’t like to see people experiencing uncomfortable emotions. So we don’t like to see people grieving. We don’t like to see people upset and hurting and suffering. So we either try to stay away from them or avoid them, or we try to shut them down. We don’t mean it to be hurtful. We just subconsciously don’t like it. And so we either avoid it or we try to make them feel better, fast. “There, there… it’s going to be okay. You don’t need to cry.” We bypass people’s grief because it’s so uncomfortable for us to see it, because we really haven’t learned how to grieve as a culture.
The point I’m working around to is this: If you are not okay with people’s uncomfortable emotions because they make you feel uncomfortable emotions, empathy seems problematic because empathy invites you to step into discomfort instead of avoiding it or bypassing it or shutting it down. So, I think that people who don’t have healthy emotions, and don’t understand how to handle those in themselves or in other people, think of empathy as a bad thing because it makes them uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do about that. So I think that there can be a perception that empathy is bad, because discomfort is bad. And empathy can be uncomfortable.
Marc Schelske 10:22
Okay, that makes total sense. We don’t like feeling negative emotions. We have lots of structures in our society to make it so that we don’t have to feel them. If something is going to cause that kind of reaction, a lot of times we want to avoid it. So that totally makes sense. Empathy could lead me into a place of feeling uncomfortable emotions that I don’t want to feel.
Okay, so maybe here’s another possible angle. In my own work on emotion, one of the things that seemed significant to me was that emotions function in the human person as a way to get us to move, to take action, to get us to respond to something in our environment that needs to be attended to or to be different, right.
Becky Castle Miller 11:09
Marc Schelske 11:09
So if I’m feeling an emotion that I don’t like, that’s uncomfortable for me, that I might want to avoid, or if the emotions I’m connecting with through empath, are trying to stir up something in me to act in a certain way–Now, we have the question on the table of whether I am being moved to act in a way that is something I don’t like or something I disagree with, or something that my community has said I shouldn’t do. And now empathy–which we were talking about is just a conduit of understanding between human beings–that empathy is actually serving to stir within me a motivation to act. Now I’ve got to think about whether or not I’m okay with that,
Becky Castle Miller 11:57
I think that empathy can move us toward the more specific emotion of compassion, and compassion motivates us to take action on behalf of someone that we feel sorry for, pity for, compassion for. When we feel that–being deeply moved in our bowels, like the Greek sense of Jesus’s kind of compassion, we want to take action–that emotion is a motivating force. So I think there’s a progression of empathy toward compassion toward taking action.
Marc Schelske 12:34
If this conduit of empathy is raising compassion in me, and I’m being stirred to act, what then is coming into view is whether or not I’m coming from a place where I think I have to evaluate the reason why the other person is feeling what they’re feeling. So, why are they feeling what they’re feeling because they did a bad thing?
Becky Castle Miller 12:57
Marc Schelske 12:57
Are they feeling what they’re feeling because this is a consequence of some sinful behavior and now they’re feeling that way. And if I enter into that feeling with them, if I acknowledge it, or even like you’d said earlier, if I affirm that feeling in them, does that mean I’m affirming the bad thing that I think they did?
Becky Castle Miller 13:19
Yes. So, it’s very much a viewpoint that I have the right to judge the reasons that someone is hurting.
Marc Schelske 13:27
Becky Castle Miller 13:28
And if I think their reasons for hurting are deficient, then why would I be empathetic? It’s only going to encourage them to continue in sin and pull me down with them.
Marc Schelske 13:38
Okay. All right. So, then now this conversation about empathy then opens up into a broader conversation that’s really about how I see other people, and issues of judgment and control.
Becky Castle Miller 13:53
Marc Schelske 13:54
All right. So when this sort of blew up, and I began to see it happening online, one of the things that I observed is that the folks who seem to be loudly talking about empathy being a sin–or a softer version of that would be the idea that empathy is a risk you’ve got to be really careful with–those folks have a couple things in common, as far as I can tell. They are spiritual leaders, pastors, theologians, that are all sort of within the Venn diagram of patriarchalist (maybe softer language–male headship, or maybe strong complementarian.) They’re all folks who are coming from a place where their theological viewpoint is hierarchical.
Becky Castle Miller 14:43
Marc Schelske 14:43
I think also… all or most are coming from a theological stream that’s either Reformed, for sure, or Reformed-adjacent.…
Becky Castle Miller 14:58
Yeah, it’s the overlapping circles of Reformed theology, and Patriarchal, and also high-control religious environments. I think it’s those three. It’s the center of those three if you’re making a Venn diagram,
Marc Schelske 15:12
Okay, so if those are the folks who are saying that empathy is a sin or empathy is at least a risk to be very careful about, if those are the folks that are saying it, what’s the payoff for them?
Becky Castle Miller 15:24
I think it’s gatekeeping. It’s keeping that high control of doctrine and practice, and keeping people in line. And I think there’s a real fear that people will sin. There’s a lot of fear about sin in those overlapping circles. This anti-empathy strain is simply the most recent head of the hydra. Right? That is, the bigger picture of emotion control and anti-emotionalism that has been part of the church for centuries… I’ve seen in my research that in this anti-emotionalism there’s so much fear about sin. Don’t follow your emotions, because they’ll lead you to sin. don’t follow your desires, because they’ll lead you to sin. So this current iteration of it is simply, “Don’t empathize with people who are hurting because they might sin or you might sin.” There’s so much fear about sin.
Marc Schelske 16:23
Becky Castle Miller 16:24
And I think that there can be two different streams that end up at the same point, but they come from different places. And one of those may be truly a sincere, pastoral desire to care for people. Having been a pastor, I know that I care for people and I don’t want them to hurt and I don’t want them to cause damage in their relationships with God and other people. And so there can be that sincere pastoral desire that I think is misguided in these cases, because it pushes people against their own God-given emotions. But there might be true desire to protect the people that you’re tasked with caring for and shepherd, and I can understand and honor that motivation, even though I think this outworking of it is not healthy.
But, I think on the other hand, there are those who truly are seeking power and control. They’re using anti-emotionalism, and specifically anti-empathy, to maintain their control over what people believe and do and even to maintain control over what people feel.
Marc Schelske 17:20
Right! Because in that system, in that… what was the word that you used? The high control religious environment?
Becky Castle Miller 17:26
High control religious system.
Marc Schelske 17:27
Yeah, in that system, we, we want–either out of love, as you’ve acknowledged, or perhaps out of control–we want people to not fall off the rails, we want them to not enter into sin. And so we’re trying to provide guidance for that. And if everyone was just obeying with their brains, everything will be fine. But there’s this insidious culprit inside of us, our emotions, and empathy allows the emotions of somebody else, that’s even outside of us to, sort of evoke that emotion in us, and that thing is outside the bounds of the control.
Becky Castle Miller 18:02
Marc Schelske 18:02
Okay, so when, when this all came up, and I started reading and listening to folks talking about this, I was also at the same time doing a lot of reading in church history. I came upon a letter that John Calvin wrote in 1554. He was writing it to justify his position that people, in this case a particular somebody that he disagreed with theologically–so a heretic, but I want to put a very strong emphasis on “a person he disagreed with” because “heretic” sounds so crazy and other and weird and really all we’re talking about is someone who had a different view of a couple points of theology–So Calvin ends up being on the side that this guy needs to be executed and that indeed happens, and John Calvin writes this letter to justify his position.
I read this in the middle of this conversation about empathy being a sin, and just like… the lights went on for me. SoI’m going to read this and tell me what you think when you hear this. This is John Calvin speaking: “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death, will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority. It is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for His church.”
That’s pretty serious. Now, here’s why. “It is not in vain that God banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts, that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease. In a word, he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is it so implacable a severity exacted, but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honor unless the piety that is due Him be preferred to all Human duties, and that which his glory is to be asserted, humanity itself must almost be obliterated from our memories.”1One source for the text of this letter: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc8.iv.xvi.xxii.html
Becky Castle Miller 18:57
Marc Schelske 18:58
Yeah. So “it is not in vain that God banishes human affections which soften our hearts.” So, I’m hearing John Calvin say that, in fact, sometimes for us to do the right thing–and in this case, right thing is execute a heretic…
Becky Castle Miller 20:26
Marc Schelske 20:28
Becky Castle Miller 20:28
Marc Schelske 20:30
Right? That the thing that would stop us from doing that, like… here’s the thing we gotta do, we’ve got to execute the heretics. And the thing that would stop us from executing them would, in fact, be benevolent feelings. human affection.
Unknown Speaker 20:45
Human. Human affection. Yeah.
Marc Schelske 20:47
Right? And so then he says, “Well, God wants us to be holy so much that God is going to actually cause us to have to step away from that. Okay. So, thinking back to that Venn diagram that we talked through, this is John Calvin talking, how does this fit into the conversation?
Becky Castle Miller 21:05
The scripture says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but I think right here we see John Calvin hardening his own heart. God didn’t have to do it, he hardened his own… he seared his own conscience to justify murder, by telling himself that God is okay with it. He’s searing his own conscience, he’s hardening his own heart, and shutting off the humanity and conscience that God gave him. I think that we see, to a lesser degree because we’re not talking about murdering heretics right now in the current climate, but I think we’re seeing a similar hardening of the heart so that we do not have to hear what God is saying, on behalf of the weak and hurting.
I think we see similar wording or similar reasoning in more modern language from people like Joe Rigney of Bethlehem Baptist, who said, “Rightly used, empathy is a power tool in the hands of the weak and suffering. By it we can so weaponized victims, that they are indulged at every turn, without regard for whether such indulgences wise or prudent or good for them.” So, this stance is explicitly an anti-victim stance, because then the moment someone says, “Hey, I’ve been a victim of XYZ abuse,” people who’ve been taught this about this anti-empathy teaching, their radar goes off, and they say, “Oh, you’re gonna try to weaponize that victimhood to make me feel sorry for you. And I’m not supposed to feel sorry for you, because you’re just using…, you want me to be empathetic. And that’s a power tool, you’re trying to retake power by making me be empathetic. But you don’t deserve to be indulged.”
Marc Schelske 22:44
So the person that is objectively in power is saying to the person who’s been injured at the hands of the power system, “You, sir, are manipulating me.”
Becky Castle Miller 22:56
“And you’re trying to take power,” because they see power, they live for power, and they can’t help but to see someone else as trying to take what they want, which is more power. So they are projecting, they’re viewing people through their own lens, and assuming that person’s motivation must be power, because that’s the thing that’s motivating themselves.
Marc Schelske 23:16
Right? So any claim by anybody, any marginalized person who stands up and says, “I’ve been injured by you, in particular, or by the system that you’re a part of,” is immediately able to be discounted and ignored, because the very fact that they’re saying, “I was hurt” and demonstrating that is a power play on their part.
Becky Castle Miller 23:36
Yes, it preemptively prevents victims from being able to come forward out of abusive systems. You know that you have generated a ton of abuse, and you have many victims within your system, in your organization, and you want to make sure that when they come forward, no one will believe them. So, you preemptively teach people not to believe them or care about them, so that when they come forward, everyone who could help them has been conditioned not to. That is a classic abuse tactic.
Marc Schelske 24:03
That conditioning is actually trying to override–you know, what you are saying from the very beginning–what is a natural God-built part of who we are. When somebody speaks up, when a victim speaks up and says “I have been injured,” they are asking for validation that they’ve been hurt, but they’re also making a bid that you will feel their hurt with them. They’re saying “Do you notice this? Does this seem right to you? Will you come alongside me in redressing this?” And I would argue that empathy is a crucial part in our capacity to, in fact, do that. As Paul instructs us, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” If you speak up and say, “I’ve been hurt,” part of me bearing the burden is entering into that with you to understand it, and then determine if there a way that I can be a part of reconciliation or restoration or reparation?
Becky Castle Miller 24:59
Right. And in the pastoral care work I’ve done with abuse survivors, one of the most healing steps for them is to be believed and validated and empathized with. It’s so important that the first response to someone’s abuse disclosure be, “I believe you, I hear you, I’m with you. And that should never have been done to you. What that person did was objectively wrong. Yes, I validate your perception that was abusive, it shouldn’t have happened. Now I’m going to work with you to get justice.” That’s what people need to heal. If people don’t receive that it’s very, very, very hard for them to heal.
Marc Schelske 25:39
Becky Castle Miller 25:40
So this whole setup of anti-empathy is creating a world that abuses people and then doesn’t give them a path for healing.
Marc Schelske 25:42
This is why it’s dangerous, not just wrong.
Becky Castle Miller 25:43
Marc Schelske 25:43
Right? That the teaching that empathy is a sin is actually trying to remove the circuit that God put in place in our emotional and relational systems that empowers healing. It’s what empowers real community. It’s what empowers intimacy. It’s what enables us to actually do the things we’ve been invited to do as followers of Jesus.
Becky Castle Miller 26:13
Mhm. And I think that black liberation theologians, like James Cone, deeply understand and explain to us what it means for Jesus to empathize with us, what it means for Jesus to have participated fully in the life of the marginalized and the poor. Jesus not only became human, but he became poor, and he became part of an oppressed people, so that from the inside, he could transform of oppression into liberation. Those who say that Christians shouldn’t empathize are denying one of the most powerful aspects of Jesus’ life and existence, which is to be in the pain and hurt and experience and alongside us.
Marc Schelske 26:42
Yeah… In a social system, whether it’s a church or a community, there are people who are hurting. And the way that we make a difference in that is to enter into that with them to understand–which is a part of entering in, understanding–but then being with them in it. And if empathy is a sin, then you can’t do that. And so then what else is happening is if the people that are hurting happened to be people that are on the bottom of a particular social structure, if you take away empathy, you take away any possibility of changing the social structure,
Becky Castle Miller 27:36
Yes. Because you take away any channel people have to try to explain and seek redress for the abuses perpetuated on them.
Marc Schelske 27:45
So then that’s where you said this is a control issue, right? If I can convince you that empathy is to be avoided as a Christian, I’ve just made it so that we don’t have to deal with changing the system. If there’s marginalization that’s happening, and women are being injured, or people of color are being injured, or our LGBT kids are being injured with, higher rate of suicide and homelessness, I don’t even have to think about those things. The system, as it is, is safe because the thing that would enable me to question those injuries is empathy.
Becky Castle Miller 28:20
Yes. And it puts the one holding the power also into the judgment seat of what is deserving of empathy. So for example, James White says this explicitly, he said, “We are told to weep with those who weep, but that assumes that those who weep have a reason for weeping that is in line with God’s revelation…”
Marc Schelske 28:44
Oh yea, that’s the next verse.
Becky Castle Miller 28:45
Right?! “We’re not to weep with the drug dealer who accidentally drops his stash down the storm drain in New York City. We are to exercise control even in our sympathy, we are not to sympathize with sin, or rebellion, or evil.” So his whole thing is that we can’t empathize with someone because what if the reason that they’re hurting is because of their own mistake or sin so they don’t deserve to be empathized with. They don’t deserve to be hurting in the first place.
So that’s problematic in itself, but also he uses these extreme absurdist examples so that we agree with him like, “Oh, yes, of course, I shouldn’t empathize with a drug dealer.” This is very very specific and extreme, he drops his stash down a storm drain in New York City. It’s just it’s just as really extreme specific example. But we say “Yes, oh, of course, he’s sad because he lost drugs. I shouldn’t feel sorry for him.” But what that does is that get me to agree with him so that when I meet someone who was sexually abused in a Southern Baptist Church, and is seeking to bring her abuser to justice, I will say, “Well, what did she do wrong? There’s probably a reason that she’s hurting and I shouldn’t empathize with her because it probably was her sin.”
Marc Schelske 30:00
Right. And until I know, until I have enough of the situation sorted out for me to be able to judge whether or not the sadness that she has is valuable holy sadness, then I get to withhold my empathy.
Becky Castle Miller 30:14
Because I don’t want to support someone in their sin.
Marc Schelske 30:15
Right. That means that I have to, in order to have this human connection with anybody, I have to pre-qualify them as worthy. And that means my relationship to them is always a hierarchical relationship. I’m the one that’s judging whether or not their sadness and loss is worth grieving.
Becky Castle Miller 30:33
And generally, it’s going to say, “No, it’s not.”
Marc Schelske 30:36
That example itself kind of shows part of this thinking. Let’s just imagine that there is a drug dealer in New York City who dropped his stash down the storm drain. Is it possible to ask questions about that guy? Is it possible to ask questions about why that guy is selling drugs? Does he feel like he needs to sell drugs? Is selling drugs what is supporting his family? You know?
Becky Castle Miller 31:01
Right. What is it about systemic poverty in our country that needs to be addressed? Was he not able to get health care, and he has a million dollars in medical bills, and he’s trying to put food on the table for his kids, because we have no social safety net in the U.S.? But if we just say, “Well, he did something wrong,” then we don’t need to empathize and we don’t have to hear the hurt that led to this place. We don’t have to fix the systemic issues, because he’s just wrong. So we don’t have to feel sad.
Marc Schelske 31:31
Right. He did it. He committed a crime, he made the choice, it’s his fault. These are his consequences. And he should just buck up and take them and it’s not our problem. So then when when we remove empathy from the equation, basically, what we’re saying is whatever is happening to other people is not our problem.
Becky Castle Miller 31:51
Yes. And it’s so explicitly rooted in undermining the whole anti-abuse advocacy movement that’s happening in the church world. They see it coming for them. These men who are speaking out against empathy are having abuse cases brought to light in their own organizations, and even against themselves. And so in order to protect themselves and their institutions, they’re trying to preemptively keep the public from listening to those who bring their stories of spiritual trauma.
James White is explicit. He went on to say, “When I see a brother or sister who’s experiencing what they call trauma, and I first inquire as to the source of the trauma, and I discover it’s rooted in rebellion, or sin or ignorance of God’s truth, they don’t need me to validate their emotional responses.” So he’s poisoned people against listening to those who say, “I have spiritual trauma,” right. And shame doesn’t change anyone. Shame is not the way that we help people and support their growth and change. If you shame someone, they’re only more likely to withdraw from relationship and to withdraw into themselves. And that’s not how we call people to growth and to change. Jesus never shamed anyone, he invited them and let them choose to follow. He didn’t browbeat them.
Marc Schelske 33:17
Okay. So then let’s turn this corner, then. If empathy is not only a normal, natural part of a healthy, functioning human person and human relationships, if it’s not only that, but then also a constructive and needful part of our faith life, what does that look like? How do you see empathy playing a constructive role in the life of a faithful Christian?
Becky Castle Miller 33:45
Jesus’s empathy needs to be the model for our empathy. The way that Jesus entered into human existence and knows what we feel like… to know that we have a great high priest who’s experienced everything we have and prays for us out of that intimate knowledge of suffering and the human experience. Jesus is our model of empathy. We should enter into the experience of the poor and the marginalized and the hurting, and be with them as Jesus is with us.
Marc Schelske 34:23
Yeah. I mean, you think of some of the key guiding principles or passages ion our Christian faith. How do you do these things without empathy? How do you bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ without empathy? You don’t even know what their burdens are, if you can’t empathize. How do you love your neighbor as yourself? The the underlying software behind that injunction is that you know about what you need, you know about your internal landscape, you know about the things that make you hurt. So love your neighbor in keeping with what you know about what it mean for you to be loved. Love your neighbor as yourself. How do you do that without empathy? How can we be Christians after the way of Jesus without empathy?
Becky Castle Miller 35:09
I don’t think we can be. And I’d like to try to take on some empathy for the men who are saying these things against empathy. You know, to love them as I would want to be loved. Maybe they don’t know have to love themselves. Maybe they have unhealed wounds that no one has empathized with. And the way of self-protection is to say, “Well, who needs empathy anyway?”
Marc Schelske 35:34
Augh… I didn’t want to end feeling sorry for those guys, Becky. That wasn’t where I wanted to end the conversation.
Becky Castle Miller 35:41
Sorry for making you feel empathy!
Marc Schelske 35:47
Okay, all right. So on the one hand, I can stand up and boldly say that gaslighting around empathy is a method of control. But on the other hand, that I have to think about whether I am participating in that? And why would somebody be in that position? What would make you feel so desperate, (John Calvin!) as to say that you don’t want anybody thinking about the choices you’ve made according to their emotional sense of empathy? You don’t want them using that standard to judge you. Okay, love your neighbor as yourself. That’s gotta take empathy.
Marc Schelske 36:46
Are you kidding me? Did you see what Becky did there at the end? She asked me to have empathy for these preachers who are using emotional manipulation to control other people. Was she wrong to do that? Is this some weird both sides perspective? No. Becky was simply asking me to live up to the calling of Jesus. She’s asking me not to abandon empathy as I relate to people, even people I disagree with. If I buy into the message that empathy is a sin, then I get to write people like this off. I get to dehumanize them, I get to stand in judgment over them without any nuance or concern. But if I engage my God-given empathy, then I have to wonder about their story and why empathy is so frightening to them, and what it is about their worldview that leaves them in so much fear.
If I happen to have a relationship with someone like this, that gives me a basis for interacting with them in a compassionate way, perhaps even an angle from which I can invite them to something better. And if I don’t have a relationship with someone like this, thinking empathically about them enables me to be better prepared to love the people in my own life and ministry. It shows me why it’s important to listen first, why it’s important to believe victims when they share their hurt. It shows me why it’s important that we think not only about individual sin and struggle, but also about the sin embedded in our systems and in our organizations.
I don’t think it’s possible for us to follow Jesus well without empathy. If someone tells you different, pay close attention. They may be trying to distract or control how you feel. And that may be an effort to keep you from hearing the voice of Spirit, calling you to greater love, more inclusive hospitality as you follow the way of Jesus. May you see the world through Spirit-inspired empathy, so that you can love more and more like Jesus. Thanks for listening.
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Until next time, remember: In this one present moment, you are loved, you are known, and you are not alone.
- 1One source for the text of this letter: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc8.iv.xvi.xxii.html