I was recently asked to respond to a new teaching popular in some Reformed circles according to which empathy is a sin. The article that provides the basis for my understanding of this teaching is titled “Have you heard the one about empathy being a sin?” The author, Mark Wingfield, is attempting to summarize the teaching of Joe Rigney, a Reformed teacher who works closely with John Piper. Wingfield writes that according to Rigney, empathy “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.”
The Anti-Empathy Theologians
This is, on the face of it, a very strange position. After all, it is the concept of sympathy which is generally seen as entailing a more intimate relationship of shared experience with the one who suffers while empathy suggests a greater distance, an attempt to place oneself in the experience of another. Thus, if any concept would be in danger of inappropriate identification, one would assume it is sympathy. (Side note: this makes me think of “Sympathy for the Devil” and RIP Charlie Watts.)
This leads me to suspect that the issue for Rigney is that empathy assumes or implies that the non-sinner is at some distance from the individual’s sin and is attempting to identify with that sin and that’s the problem. Thus, he writes: “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.” And so Wingfield concludes that on this view ‘Empathy is a sin.'”
According to Rigney, sympathy keeps you on dry land when another person is drowning but empathy places you in the water drowning with them. Again, this puzzles me for if anything, I would think the opposite should be true.
Regardless, Wingfield then cites another anti-empathy theologian: James White. If nothing else, White helpfully identifies the real concern underlying his opposition to empathy:
“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.”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.”
So what should we think of this? As the article concludes, Wingfield engages with the thought of Scot McKnight who counters the views of people like Rigney and White by stating plainly, “This may be the most unwise piece of pastoral theology I’ve seen in my lifetime. Pastors without empathy are not pastoring.”
Developing a Critique of the Anti-Empathy Theologians
I agree with McKnight and the other critics: I think the analysis of people like Rigney and White is pastorally bad and conceptually confused. But what I want to highlight in this article is how this conversation is important from the point of doctrinal construction: i.e. the complex process of reflective equilibrium by which Christians form doctrinal views.
Let’s return to White’s excerpted harangue against empathy (and, it would appear, sympathy). The danger, he says, is that it has led to Christians revising their understanding of sexual ethics and the nature of marriage. For people like White, if a young man comes to his Christian parents and tells them he is gay, they should not consider any of his experiences when they consider what to think about the ethics of same-sex relationships. After all, to consider that his narrative and that of other gay people like him might provide a practical warrant for them to reconsider what the church has traditionally taught about homosexuality is equivalent to “weeping with the bank robber who botches the job”. In other words, it is to be complicit in sin.
The problem is that this response completely begs the question. Consider another case. For many years, conservative Christians in the United States were widely opposed to interracial dating and marriage and they had a select set of biblical texts ready at hand to condemn interracial relationships. Set against that backdrop, consider the following scenario. A young Caucasian American girl named Betty begins dating an Afro-American young man named Lucas. Like Betty, Lucas is a devout Christian and a wonderful young man, and Betty wants to bring Lucas to meet her parents along the lines of the classic film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But her parents refuse. “Please!” Betty pleads, “If you’ll just meet Lucas, just speak with him. We can change your mind.” But Betty’s dad, a good Reformed theologian, responds sternly: “You want me to have empathy with Lucas and your ‘relationship.’ But that’s equivalent to weeping with the bank robber who botches the job. I will not consider sin!”
The problem, of course, is that Betty’s parents assume the ethical stance of their position and that personal encounter and empathetic identification has nothing to add. But we know that is false: they are racists and their racism is sustained by their refusal to consider people like Lucas as real human beings as well as the profound and meaningful relationship that he enjoys with their daughter Betty.
The point I am making is not that the moral status of same-sex relationships should be considered equivalent to interracial relationships. The point, rather, is that one cannot assume a priori that empathizing with individuals is wrong just because it might lead us to reconsider an ethical position we presently hold: that is true of interracial marriage and it is equally true of same-sex marriage. Experience and empathetic identification are flawed and limited means of theological analysis but the same can be said of our exegesis, our traditions, our rational, aesthetic, and moral intuitions, and every other resource upon which we draw to form our theological opinions. But there simply is no basis to conclude in principle that empathy has nothing to add. McKnight is right: this is terribly unwise pastoral advice. It is also terribly unwise as a directive for theological reflection.