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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Words Matter: Empathy vs. Judgement

I am so jazzed about what I'm learning I just had to share some of it with you.

Some of you know that I'm attending the Board Meeting of the RCRC - Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice - based in Washington, DC.

We - people of all faiths: Christian, Jew, Muslims - are meeting today with Representatives and Senators on Capitol Hill regarding issues of Reproductive Choice and Justice.

Well, the word is actually "lobbying" but we don't want to say that, exactly. Which, in fact,  gets directly to my point.

Which is: Words matter. A. Lot. More than we realize. Especially in the super-heated political climate that is our current national reality.

It really is 1984, kids. And, Big Brother is not only watching, he's listening. Closely. Very, very closely.

To. Every. Word.

It's all about how you frame the discussion. It's about connection. And, it's about the power of story.

It's all about relationships - the one thing the church says She's all about and yet fails miserably.

It's not about proving your point or making sure your opponent knows that you are right (right as you may be), but eliciting from your opponent not a sense of judgment or righteousness, but rather, a sense of empathy.

Here's the thing: We know that the Religious Right is wrong. Very wrong. But they have won many of their arguments on the mere supposition that they are right and to be right is to "win" - to be "superior".

And, in this time of economic fragility, superiority has a currency all its own.

We know of another regime which will not be mentioned which killed millions of people who were considered "outcasts" because they did not fit the narrow description of what "they" determined was "right". Or "good". Or "normal". Or "superior".

We are in serious (no, I mean serious) danger of repeating history.

We do not want to become what we reject. What irony! So, the idea is to move from the repugnant judgment of the Right to a stance of empathy.

For example:

Yes, we want to protect the religious liberty, conscience and health of all individuals by opposing attempts which would allow discrimination by religiously-affiliated institutions.

Liberty means protecting choices, not eliminating them.

Instead of talking about "choices" we want to talk about "personal decision making".

We want to affirm dignity, respect, empathy, families.

It is a big job to be a parent and every woman needs to be able to decide when she wants to become a parent so she can be the best parent she can possibly be and share that parenting with a man who will be a great father to their child.

We want to move away from the self-satisfaction of calling someone "anti-choice" to a place where we can say that they are what they are: people who think that a woman can't be trusted to make her own decision.

It doesn't trip off the tongue as easily and it's not as self-satisfying as throwing judgement at judgement, but it not only says what is truth but....and this is important....elicits empathy.

We want to acknowledge that it's okay to differ - this is, after all, America - and this is not about "them" or "they" but "us". Americans. Dedicated to the idea of liberty and justice FOR ALL.

And then, we want to back all of that up with personal stories.

As one person pointed out: "They may forget what you said, but they'll never forget how you made them feel."

It was very humbling as well as deeply enlightening to hear these young people prep us for our meetings with Representatives and Senators on Capitol Hill. This is the stuff of true religions - to be humble. To not boast or judge. To 'lay your life down for a friend".

In the end, I think this will win the war. Oh, we'll lose a few skirmishes and even a few battles, but empathy and not judgment will win the war.

And, make no mistake: this is a war. It's a Jihad being waged by the evangelicals and Roman Catholics. I don't like that language any more than you do, but it is what it is.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Those are the first words of the first chapter of John's Gospel.

Words matter.

Word to your mother.


Bill said...

In thinking on the power of words, I went back to a book I'm currently reading:

John Dominic Crossan writes in his book “The Power of Parable” page 182
“We say proverbially, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names (or words) will never hurt me.” That is not true even in itself, but more serious, it ignores our experience that names and words often escalate through sticks and stones to ovens and crematoria. Once ideology and rhetoric have dehumanized opponents, power will often consider it a duty – even a divine duty – to eliminate them. In other words, I propose to take ideologically based rhetorical violence very, very seriously.”

Edwin Rutsch said...

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

MarkBrunson said...

I'm beginning to understand that these Republican/Libertarian yahoos actually, really, positively believe that the only reason someone is poor is because they simply haven't done anything. They truly, truly believe that living in a society does not mean that you owe your success or wealth to the contributions of anyone else - it's all you. They actually do believe that the only reason that you would support equitable redistribution of wealth is because you yourself are jealous of the rich, want all their money, and are too mediocre and lazy to go out and get rich yourself - that you only care about you (which, btw, tells us who they care about). They honestly believe that taxation is theft - they got the money with absolutely no help or contribution from the government or anyone else and so to take it is stealing.

The only thing that will cure it, is being poor, living the lives, the grinding, despairing poverty that others live. Maybe they should have it forcibly taken from them, or be forcibly removed someplace to fend utterly alone and without any society for a time.

I've also resolved that I refuse to acknowledge a person with these sort of views as Christian - I simply refuse. It's not a judgment, it's a fact, from everything we can know about Jesus, they are absolutely outside everything that He taught, did, or believed about money, community, and mutual accountability. Their salvation is between them and God, but they are NOT Christian.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill - You are so right. And, obtw, I'm so glad you are reading JDC. He's really wonderful, isn't he?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Edwin - Thank you for that resource. I will most definitely check it out.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - They are certainly not Christians I would recognize from the teaching of Jesus. Funny thing is that they refuse to call people like you and me Christians.

Where does that get us? No, really. That's a questions.

Anonymous said...

I hardly recognize myself in the picture painted by Mark much as he would not recognize himself in the images of him that I conjure. Some of the major mischaracterizations that I perceive include the following:
1. "We" don't think that what we have is the product solely of our own ingenuity and labor. I, for one, think that all any of us has belongs to God and we are stewards of that provision.
2. "We" think that government does a lousy job of providing for anyone excpet government. More and better jobs and more opportunities are created by private enterprise so taking money out of the hands of those who would re-invest their resources in economic activity is counter-productive to achieving economic growth and economic opportunity.
3. "We" are not Malthusians. From my experience, Conservatives are far more giving in their support of the needs of others than those who see it as the role of government to provide for those needs through increased taxation.
4. I do not doubt that you would advocate forcibly taking from those with more resources at their disposal than you think is fair to support those endeavors you deem worthy of support. And when they come for you (and "yours") who will be left to defend you from such benevolent wealth re-distribution?
Dave Golub

Jon DeepBlue said...

Wonderfully penned! We've got to stop that senseless "tennis match" of throwing judgement back and forth. And I think that's what "turning the other cheek" really mean. It's not fighting intolerance with more intolerance, judgement with more judgement but by showing true compassion and empathy, and steppin out of that "us vs them" attitude.

It's should not be about left or right, republican or democrats, conservatives or socialists, etc. And not even about nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation but about us, the humanity, about us, the Creation!

Unfortunaltely, democracy is not a system where you vote and then spend four years sitting in frot of the tv complaining and critisizing all the time. We must take responsability for our choices and get invloved.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David - You've not made yourself look any better. Your words carry the distinct sour smell of someone who has been grinding his teeth. I'm disappointed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you Jon. I appreciate your words.

MarkBrunson said...


Dave "gives." Wow.

Gives what? What is yours? What is mine? It is all God's. You and I own nothing, you and I are nothing apart from others. Yet, you believe yourself a Christian.

If you are "giving" - then how come others lack while you have more than you need? I am poor, by the standards of people like you - no car, a house falling apart, poor health because I can't afford medical care, garnishments because I couldn't get a decent job without a college education which I couldn't get without loans because my father died young of cancer from the chemicals in a factory run on laissez-faire-capitalist principals, no cable, no home internet, an employer who thinks things like paid sick leave, compassionate leave, health insurance are all luxuries that only bad choices on his employees' part make necessary because he doesn't have to provide them by law. Yet, I am phenomenally grateful for what I do have, because I have enough - just enough, and have needed help from friends on a few occasions - but enough. It's enough to give to others from, too, I've found.

You, with so much, are terrified that someone may take from your too-much, because it's yours! Snarl. Snarl. Get away from my food dish. You throw a dainty from the window, when you think about it and you "give." These undeserving poor you guys are on about, who get "your" money - they never spend it, huh? Wow. That's quite a trick. They get "your" money and never spend it on "your" goods or services or in "your" community. Amazing. Maybe we could learn from this perpetual-motion machine.

I used to be like you - spoiled, too much and never enough, convinced that God was rewarding me for "good stewardship." When I became really poor and on my own, I discovered how much I had had, how much I still had, and how valuable every "undeserving" life truly is. You need that.

What holy person are you following? Who taught that holding on to "yours" is God's will? St. Francis? Jesus? Elijah? Moses?

You give - but only to those you like, or you don't have to interact with, not those you consider undeserving? Are we taught to kick the dogs for licking up the children's crumbs?

Now, if you don't self-identify as Christian, none of that's an issue; if you do, you misidentify, because it's the opposite of Christ's way. Perhaps the same can be said of any in the Judeo-Christian family.

The only biblical saying I hear in Libertarianism/conservatism is "Am I my brother's keeper?"

MarkBrunson said...

From a purely logical standpoint, the argument that jobs are "created" by wealthy investors is, to put it plainly, a lie. Jobs are there to be done, with or without investors. If there is a need, it will be met.

What wealthy investors do do is buy up means of production, pay to create artificial "needs" and then profit from others' work while doing none themselves, and sharing out only as much of the wealth generated as they are forced to do by law and the growing dissatisfaction of the general populace. They are capable of buying the interest of legislators, so, effectively, it is only the growing dissatisfaction that demands their attention.

Government has done a lousy job - because it panders to and is dependent on the private sector and the wealthy individuals who run it. Eliminate their disproportionate "sharing" in the wealth, eliminate their influence, and - most importantly - eliminate the ability of legislators to partake of any wealth apart from that provided as a strict government salary at minimum wage, and the government will perk right up. Promise. When your well-being is perceived as independent of the general well-being, you become slack. When it is understood to be dependent on the general well-being, you tend to the community.

In a real sense, putting more money into the hands of private enterprise is what we are doing and have done, and it is disastrous and corrupting. In a literal sense, it was the policy of the train-wreck of a society called Victorian England, and the robber-baron misery of early-20th-Century America. We tried that. Didn't work. Stop trying to make it work by simply hiding it as "regulation of industry" by legislators who are paid for by private wealth. It is a lie, and beneath us as a people.

MarkBrunson said...

One final thing (sorry, Elizabeth!):

If you are one of these Republican/Libertarian types and none of what I said here applies to you . . .

. . you have no excuse. You're just a bad person, not misled, or ignorant - just lacking in humanity. I'm giving the compassionate understanding.

What you've said, Dave Golub, is simply a restatement that reinforces everything I said. Of course, you believe that what you have is because of you - simply calling it stewardship doesn't change that. You don't understand that a steward is not an owner, and doesn't spend on personal luxury. You believe you have that right because you are the generator of your own wealth, but cover it up in theological niceties, and that self-centrism is what provides the rest of your rationalizing.

"Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the LORD is their refuge."

"Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers who eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the LORD?"

You are afflictor, not afflicted, and, when you "profit" disproportionately, you eat up people like bread. You would profit spiritually by living as those at the lowest economic level or by having to actually live by your own effort alone.

Anonymous said...

"Your words carry the distinct sour smell of someone who has been grinding his teeth. I'm disappointed." And I too am disappointed Elizabeth that philosophical disagreement disappoints you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dave - I'm not - never am - disappointed with philosophical arguments.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - Thanks for your stories and your words. We have so much work yet to do.

Anonymous said...

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of this online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree—even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

At least they sounded like good ideas.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, Dave, that's the sour smell again.

JCF said...

Who was it who said [para.] "We've got too many rich born on third base, who thought they hit a triple"? [Obviously, the speaker was a baseball fan like me---Go Giants! :-)]

MarkBrunson said...

I don't see I've violated Elizabeth's rules. I've explained why my view are not exaggerated, but based in observable fact. As for the rest, if the truth that I observe, and to which you are given the same opportunity to respond, seems abusive to you, then you will find great difficulties as you go through life.

Simply claiming you're misunderstood and really a great guy who gets abused (by being disagreed with)is not really a useful response, however.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Playing the victim card is a strategy that fits in with the theology. Most do it sub or unconsciously. Makes some folks feel "convicted" in their faith. I wrote an article about it, once, for Christianity Today - the Evangelical magazine. The editor said it was 'angry' and wouldn't print it. It wasn't. It just pissed him off. So, it got published in The Witness. The editor of CT wrote a letter to the editor of TW, saying that I was just an "angry lesbian" (not to be confused with "angry black woman but much the same dynamic of dismissal).

Ah, see how these Christians love one another.