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Confusing Empathy with Pity within the Church

Let's talk about cheese - I mean empathy.

Today I watched a teaching on YouTube from Dwell Community Church titled Loving Outrageous People. The teaching was given by Ben Foust, who occupies a high-level position within the church as a Senior Sphere Leader. As a reminder, Foust was a part of the leadership team in my 2006 home church that counseled members of the church not to provide any support to me or my family after I was involved in a devastating car accident (see here for that fun story). The crux of this particular teaching can be summed up in Foust's exhortation that:

Jesus loves disgusting people and so should we.

Foust goes on to provide a humorous anecdote from the children's fiction series Diary of a Wimpy Kid in order to illustrate the foundations of feelings of disgust and what we should do about them. The story highlights a kid on the playground who touches a piece of gross, moldy cheese and is then shunned by his classmates as truly disgusting himself. Students of the Old Testament may identify this story as having fundamental parallels to biblical purity laws, but that is aside from the point here it seems. Rather, Foust gives examples of how we can overcome our disgust for people and love them like Jesus, one of the solutions being a call to empathy. Foust states, "Seeing the people, [Jesus] felt compassion for them because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. He was like aww man... these guys are so broken and lost. Empathy is to understand that the world is broken."

I found myself scratching my head a bit at this description of empathy, which sounds a lot more like pity. Empathy, both cognitive and affective, is the ability to understand, comprehend, and inhabit the feelings of others, while pity is a feeling of compassion or sadness often connoted with paternalism, condescension, or superiority. We pity those that we find to be disgusting, weak, or broken. Pity is the enemy of empathy. Pity comes from a place of superiority and certainty, empathy from a place of equality and ambiguity. Pity is a response perhaps appropriate for God, while empathy is an action better suited for his creation.

I couldn't help thinking that Xenos-Dwell views me as not just the boy who touched the moldy cheese, but rather as moldy cheese incarnate. The call from Foust is to replace disgust for moldy cheese with pity for moldy cheese, recognizing that moldy cheese is a corruption of some original, un-moldy cheese made in God's image and that, with humility, we can recognize that we are all pieces of moldy cheese. It seems that God just has a thing for sad, moldy cheese rotting on the school playground. It is lucky that God is kind enough to pity our fundamental moldiness. Now we too can look upon others and have compassion on them even though they are totally gross and annoying.

But the biblical love of God is not a love of pity!

The Bible is filled with compelling stories of the desirous and jealous love of God, a jealousy that is often compared directly to romantic love in marriage. This is no relationship of pity or moldy cheese, this is a relationship of desire, even akin to sexual love. Consider the following words of the first century Jewish Rabbi Akiba ben Josef as quoted by a medieval rabbinic source:

Had the Torah not been given, the world could have been conducted by the Song of Songs alone.

This claim by Rabbi Akiba ben Josef is extraordinary in its scope and revolutionary in its implications. Consider that all the stories of sin, genocide, and judgment are replaced with "O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!" (Song of Solomon 2:6) The God of the Bible does not view humanity with disgust as moldy cheese but as "fair as the moon, bright as the sun" (6:10). God searches for man as a lover who is "leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills... like a gazelle or a young stag... gazing in at windows, looking through the lattice" (2:8-9).

To confuse empathy with pity is a serious mistake, whether we are religious or not. To empathize is to see from another's perspective, and the world is full of perspectives of infinite complexity, many with significant validity. Empathy is born of the contemplation of the following: how can I be a moldy Kraft single to one group and a finely-aged camembert to another? Am I camembert to my lovers, my friends, my employers, my God? Am I moldy cheese to those at Xenos-Dwell? Am I both or somewhere in between... perhaps a camembert a bit past its prime? Empathy is the power to hold even paradoxical concepts in the mind at one time, and when we manage to hold those ideas even just momentarily, it opens up the possibility of true understanding. Pity is a closed feeling. It speaks with a voice of authority and absolutism: you are a piece of moldy cheese, but I will dare to touch you anyway. To misunderstand the love of God as pity is to misunderstand the entire scripture.

People cease to be disgusting when we truly empathize with them. God's call is not to love disgusting people, it is to view people with empathy such that they cease to be disgusting, such that we learn to appreciate them in and of themselves. In reality, this is actually not so hard when you think of individuals as the fine and varied cheeses that they truly are - cheeses that appeal to some palettes greatly and others not at all. But when you approach the world with empathy and openness you will find the strength to try a few cheeses that you may even learn to love one day.

Note: Here is the beautiful speech that got me thinking about Rabbi Akiba ben Josef

Is empathy - particularly cognitive empathy - incongruent with dogmatic belief? Is is possible to treat other perspectives as valid while holding contrary beliefs?

Does a lack of empathy potentially explain the inability of Xenos-Dwell to acknowledge allegations of spiritual abuse against the church as valid? Does a mindset of pity allow the conscience of the church to remain intact?

Can we consider it spiritual abuse if God commanded it? Who is right? Does it matter? How do we know? (You may ask the parallel question regarding the view that the conquest of Canaan was in fact a call by God to commit genocide.)

Does empathy always imply a negative feeling? Can we exercise empathy for beliefs or perspectives that are dramatically different from our own but recognize their beauty and validity? Can we recognize other religions or cultural beliefs as valid and positive?

Are people fundamentally evil pieces of moldy cheese? How do we view humanity and its variations in perspective, beliefs, values, and preferences? What if we viewed people as a smorgasbord of various cheeses, some moldy but in the most excellent manner?

Can we grow in empathy when we primarily interact with those who are exactly like ourselves? How do we know if we are empathetic or not?


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