Empathy is in the news, and not in a good way.
With recent controversial statements by John Piper and resignations of multiple staff at the church he put on the map and the seminary he led, attention has fallen to other controversial teachings of Piper and Desiring God, the organization he founded that has become a hub for Calvinist and complementarian apologetics.
It was on the Desiring God website in 2019 that Joe Rigney, who succeeded Piper as president of Bethlehem College and Seminary, wrote a post in which he borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters to craft his own “Dear Wormwood” format to warn about the dangers of empathy. Rigney also serves as pastor of Cities Church, a Twin Cities congregation affiliated with Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
Writing to his imaginary friend, Wormwood, Rigney advises: “By elevating empathy over compassion as the superior virtue, there is now an entire culture devoted to the total immersion of empathy. Books, articles and social media all trumpet the importance of checking one’s own beliefs, values, judgments and reason at the door of empathy.”
What’s wrong with empathy?
One of the dangers of empathy, he writes, is that it pulls the Christian down into the pit of sin along with the person in need. His assumption is that empathy — unlike sympathy — requires acquiescing to any and all beliefs, including those that run counter to the Christian faith.
“Rightly used, empathy is a power tool in the hands of the weak and suffering. By it, we can so weaponize victims that they (and those who hide behind them) are indulged at every turn, without regard for whether such indulgence is wise or prudent or good for them,” he added.
In short, Rigney declares, empathy is a sin.
This topic arises again in a podcast where Rigney is interviewed by Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. The podcast is called “Man Rampant.” The March 21 episode with Rigney is titled “The Sin of Empathy.”
On that podcast, Rigney further illustrates his problem with empathy: “Empathy is the sort of thing that you’ve got someone drowning, or they’re in quicksand, and they’re sinking. And what empathy wants to do is jump into the quicksand with them, both feet, and it feels like that’s going to be more loving, because they’re going to feel like, I’m glad that you’re here with me in the quicksand. Problem is you’re both now sinking.”
Sympathy, on the other hand, stays safely on dry land, he adds, explaining that the rescuer instead might say, “I’m going to keep one foot on the shore, and I’m actually gonna grab onto this big branch, and then I’ll step one foot in there with you and try to pull you out. That’s sympathy, and that’s actually helpful. But to the person who’s in there, it can feel like you’re judging me.”
That of necessity creates a hierarchy, Wilson notes. “Right,” Rigney replies. “It implies that one person is the hurting, and one person is the helper. … and that’s part of the problem is no one wants to feel like they’re the hurting. We want to equalize everything. And so empathy demands, ‘Get in here with me, otherwise you don’t love me.’”
Combatting a permissive culture
The Desiring God blog and the later podcast set off a storm of critique and debate among pastors and theologians who pay attention to the world of such things.
Arizona pastor James White, for example, amplified the dangers of empathy on his blog March 13. White leads Alpha and Omega Ministries, a Christian apologetics organization based in Phoenix, is a seminary professor and serves as a pastor/elder of Apologia Church in Arizona.
“So what is the problem with empathy today?” he asks. “We are, in fact, told to weep with those who weep, but that assumes those who weep have a reason for weeping that is in line with God’s revelation. We are not to weep with the drug dealer who accidentally drops his stash down the storm drain in New York City. We are not to weep with the bank robber who botches the job and ends up in the slammer. We are, plainly, to exercise control even in our sympathy. We are not to sympathize with sin, nor are we to sympathize with rebellion, or evil.”
But “the new cultural orthodoxy,” he warns, has decreed to everyone, “You shall empathize.”
Then in all caps he declares that this worldly philosophy demands: “YOU SHALL NOT MAKE JUDGMENTS ABOUT SAID EMOTIONS. By so doing YOU SHALL VALIDATE ALL HUMAN EXPERIENCES AS SUPREME.”
It has become unfashionable today to declare that someone’s emotions are the result of “sinful rebellion against God, and hence do not require my validation, support or celebration,” White warns.
Then he connects the dots about his fears of empathy and contemporary culture: “The Great Empathy Commandment has been very useful in the degradation of Christian morals and ethics, let alone evangelism, pastoral counseling, etc. Sixty years ago, it was almost unthinkable that the Christian people would, by a majority, think homosexuality a ‘gift from God,’ but that is the case today. Why? Empathy. ‘Walk a mile in their shoes. Consider their life. Enter into their emotional experience.’ Then it went from simple homosexuality to the redefining of marriage. Now, polyamory, polygamy. And with 2015, every form of gender-destroying ‘experience.’ You must empathize. You must ‘enter in’ or you are ‘unloving.’ Already the push to empathize with those who naturally experience ‘intergenerational love’ (pedophiles) is in the academy and the culture. Marrying your cat or your Siamese fighting fish is just around the corner. Just empathize with the experience. Validate it. Then submit.”
“The Great Empathy Commandment has been very useful in the degradation of Christian morals and ethics.”
White then follows Rigney’s logic to talk about rescuing someone sinking in trauma.
“When I see a brother or sister who is experiencing what they call ‘trauma,’ and I first (before diving in with them) inquire as to the source of said trauma, and then discover it is rooted in rebellion, in sin, or in simple ignorance of God’s truth, the last thing they need from me is the validation of their emotional responses. They need me to stay out of their emotions, stay firmly planted on solid ground, and reach out a hand of help. I can sympathize with their situation, but I cannot enter their emotions, not if I actually love them.”
Some agreement from an unlikely source
These conservative religious leaders are not the first to raise warnings about misplaced empathy. The rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman, who is revered for his work on family systems theory, spoke of the “fallacy of empathy” in some of his most controversial writing. Friedman’s point is that helpers should not be responsible for the feelings of others who lack the ability to distinguish between feelings and opinions and between a sense of offense and actual harm.
Even among advocates of family systems theory, this concept remains debated. And there, too, the debate may center on language. Friedman prefers responsibility to empathy. As one interpreter of Friedman’s work explained, “The more empathic we are, the more that we discourage responsibility and growth to maturity.”
Christianity Today takes note
In this week’s edition of Christianity Today appears a lengthy report on the fallout that’s been happening at Bethlehem Baptist Church and Bethlehem College and Seminary, where not only leaders but long-time congregants have been exiting. One of the common threads in their explanations for leaving is that Piper, Rigney and others have created a toxic culture of abuse that is devoid of anything like empathy.
The controversy has reached such a level that the church, where Piper served as pastor for 33 years, has delayed celebration of its 150th anniversary.
The evangelical magazine reports: “Three pastors and a staff member resigned from the downtown campus of Bethlehem Baptist Church in recent months, alongside dozens of lay members. Another four faculty and staff left the college and seminary in the past year.”
Among a constellation of issues that seem to have coalesced in this moment are debates about racial justice, Critical Race Theory, the #MeToo movement, and the nature of trauma and abuse, the story explains. “Beneath this constellation of hot topics, though, there’s also a deeper philosophical disagreement over how to approach the various conflicts themselves. At its heart are questions over whether, when and how Christians might challenge those who say they are hurting — and how they balance calls to show compassion, seek out truth, and repent of sin in such situations.”
“At its heart are questions over whether, when and how Christians might challenge those who say they are hurting — and how they balance calls to show compassion, seek out truth, and repent of sin in such situations.”
In other words, at the root of the conflict is a debate about empathy.
The Christianity Today story identifies the three pastors who left the church staff as the most empathetic pastors on the staff. Their empathy, congregants report, has extended to prayers and sermons related to the series of racial reckonings over the past year — from the murder of George Floyd to the murders of Asian women in Atlanta.
Ming-Jinn Tong, who is Taiwanese American, wore traditional Chinese attire as he preached on the Sunday following the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. Christianity Today reports that Tong and another pastor, Bryan Pickering, read the names of the Atlanta victims in public prayer that week, which resulted in criticism from a fellow elder for bringing up race as a component in the incident.
In other words, the pastors were too empathetic about the murders of sex workers.
Challenging the anti-empathy doctrine
Scot McKnight is a professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He took on the anti-empathy doctrine in March on his Christianity Today blog.
“From the best I can tell, these denouncers of empathy are distinguishing the virtue of compassion from the potential vice of empathy,” he writes. “The former means to ‘suffer with’ and the latter ‘to suffer in.’ Or, to ‘feel with’ and ‘feel in.’ The former is rational; the latter appears to be less … rational, and perhaps irrational. At least in their constructions, it’s OK to suffer with but not to suffer in.”
Of this view, McKnight says: “This may be the most unwise piece of pastoral theology I’ve seen in my lifetime. Pastors without empathy are not pastoring.”
The professor then dives in to a lesson in language and etymology, concluding: “It appears to me the recent proponents of diminishing empathy are not only basing their definition on etymology, they are ignoring standard definitions and in so doing are mis-defining both compassion and empathy. They then invent their own definitions, extrapolate to something out of line, equate that with empathy, and then castigate a genuinely important act — empathy — as a result. We need both compassion and empathy, not one or the other.”
This derision of empathy relates to one of the problems with white male leadership, he adds, citing a dissertation written by one of his students, Becky Castle Miller.
“Her work has made me more alert to the reality of white evangelical men suppressing feelings, exaggerating rationality and combining such in the rise of masculinist white evangelicalism,” he writes. “Suppressing feelings has been the name of the game for many men in evangelicalism since World War II.”
Labeling empathy as sinful appears to be a power play worthy of controlling narcissists, he continues.
“Lack of empathy characterizes narcissism, and that was first thing I thought of when I heard about these recent denouncers of empathy.”
“Lack of empathy characterizes narcissism, and that was the first thing I thought of when I heard about these recent denouncers of empathy. I suspect in the diminishment of empathy one will encounter someone who wants to control rather than be sidetracked by someone else’s emotions and feelings. There is a fear on the part of some that in empathizing one will get lost in another’s feelings or emotions or anxieties or troubles.”
A fear of vulnerability
Shane Moe is a licensed marriage and family therapist and trauma treatment provider in private practice in the Twin Cities area. He has extensive experience treating mental, emotional and relational health concerns in the Christian community.
He sees in the empathy-as-sin crowd a fear of vulnerability. These advocates “appear to assume that empathy inherently makes one ‘untethered’ — that one can’t experience empathy toward someone else without losing oneself, getting hijacked or sort of ‘becoming’ the other in belief or practice. “
That’s just not true, he says.
“Yes, allowing ourselves to experience empathy can make us more vulnerable to (gasp!) the influence of those who think differently than we do,” he explains. “And if one lives in a perpetual state of spiritual hypervigilance or fear of potentially being wrong or corrupted — and, thus, with deep-seated existential anxiety surrounding theological/ideological difference and change — one might consequently come to see empathy as a threat.”
Such threats may create “theologically buttressed, psychosocial defense mechanisms like this to shield oneself from empathy and the vulnerability it involves,” he adds.
As a therapist, he also knows that a person who lives with healthy boundaries can experience empathy for another “without psychologically fusing with them or needing to take on their beliefs or practices.” The ability to do so is a sign of healthy boundaries, emotional intelligence and self-differentiation.
“If someone is saying you can’t experience empathy without being compromised by another person, there’s a good chance they’re projecting out of their own psychosocial/emotional boundary deficits, lack of emotional intelligence, or absence of self-differentiation,” Moe warns.
He additionally notes that such patterns and problems are commonly “cultivated by anxiously enmeshed and shame-laden family and ecclesial systems” as well as “profoundly fostered” by the toxic masculinity or masculine role scripts to which McKnight refers.
“It feeds perfectly into their narcissism and psychological dependence upon maintaining power and control.”
“There are reasons some of my clients’ family members who exhibit narcissistic traits and who have engaged in consistent patterns of spiritual and psychological abuse toward my clients have been attracted to this ‘empathy is a sin’ teaching (and to this church): It feeds perfectly into their narcissism and psychological dependence upon maintaining power and control.”
Maybe impulsivity is the problem
Moe isn’t the only therapist taking on the Desiring God theology. Warren Throckmorton is professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He addressed this conflict on his personal blog.
“Empathy isn’t acceptance of things you don’t agree with,” he writes. “Empathy doesn’t require you to give up any position you might otherwise have. For instance, parents can empathize with their wayward children … and still administer correction and direction. When parents communicate their understanding with care, it helps build relationship even when restrictions need to be imposed.
“Empathy is simply understanding the inner world of other people. It is all about being able to relate to them and understand what they are going through. It is quite important in human functioning and when absent is associated with cruelty and antisocial behavior.”
Throckmorton proposes a different definition of what Rigney, Wilson and others are trying to label as sin: “When Joe Rigney and Doug Wilson talk about someone jumping into quicksand with both feet, they are not describing empathy; they instead describe impulsivity. Sympathy or empathy might move a person to prosocial behavior, but strategy to conduct the behavior is another matter. A thoughtful person would perform the rescue safely; an impulsive person might just jump in. Both would be empathic, but only one would live to tell about it.”
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