Empathy is quickly becoming a buzz word of the 21st century. I don't think that this is our intent, but I don't think we often consider what empathy truly requires of us.
Empathy requires moral courage. Moral courage means taking risks while knowing the consequences of doing so. It is not the risks or the consequences that make empathy an ethical choice. Knowing the risks and consequences and still acting is what makes empathy an ethical choice. [A short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hde8IHusgJ8 that can be helpful.]
Empathy requires moral imagination. Moral imagination means allowing the mind to communicate with your heart. This mind-heart communication means that you will not just hear about people starving at home and around the world, but you will seek to understand those persons' plight from their point of view and life circumstances. You will "see through their eyes" and "feel through their pain." This feeling and seeing emboldens one's moral courage.
So, why this talk about empathy right now? As I read the news and hear pronouncements from government officials (as well as some of our fellow citizens) about immigrants and the services we will no longer provide for children and families, I know that empathy is not among the social values and principles guiding our national conscience and domestic or international policy.
Likewise, as we become more and more embroiled in what is labeled the "abortion debate," we reveal again our failure to be a national moral community. Too many politicians and citizens are claiming religious moral high ground as they push to overturn Roe v. Wade. Calling this a debate about abortion rather than a struggle to keep in place just public policy for reproductive choice is one of many signs of the kind of absolutist morality--binary, rigid--that guides our national life. Empathy cannot thrive in the context of absolutist morality.
Some will say: "That's politics. You're being idealistic." If politics were disembodied from persons and groups making decisions, I might agree with you. People make political decisions. Politics can be guided by principles of empathy.
How are you engaging the world with empathy? Start where you are and don't limit the ways and means of your engagement. There is no one way to protest. There is no one way to educate others about controversial issues. There is no one way to be a witness to divine activity in the world.
Are you going to advocate and practice a politics of empathy?
Come out on a limb with me.
What a week! Yes, I do know that it’s Thursday, because I woke up this morning “clothed in my right mind.” I have heard this black church elder’s testimony uttered in two versions (there may be more): “I thank God that I woke up this morning clothed and in my right mind” or “I thank God that I woke up clothed in my right mind.”
As this week hurls to a close, either version will do. To be clothed—having reasonably good health, a place to live, and a way to make an honest living are praiseworthy ways of being in a country where health is becoming more and more by way of policy a matter of wealth—who can buy health insurance, pay for health care in the hospital emergency room or doctor’s office, and who gets a tax break—I truly do know as a Black woman in the US, except for believing that God is ultimately on the side of justice, that I might not be clothed. In my right mind—having psychologists almost daily this week confirm the long-term effects of racial trauma, hearing Black women bloggers across a spectrum of ages, faiths, education, economics declare the righteousness of rage, and reading the Georgetown Law research study reporting that black girls are viewed less innocent than white girls—I do know as a Black woman in the US, except for believing that faith and justice go hand in hand, I might not be in my right mind.
I am focusing on being clothed in my right mind today. Perhaps, as an academic knowing that I am fully cognitive is reassuring. However, it is that and more than that. As I read the report on young black girls, my own experiences and those of friends emerged and emotions—anger, sadness, courage—surged. Anger (ENRAGED): someone finally “documents” the experience of black girls past and present, so now it’s real. Sadness (DESPAIR): some black girl somewhere is living the pain of being the subject of an authority figure’s unspoken but acted out disdain for her upon her mind and body (and that I carry that pain and she will too into adulthood). Courage(EMPOWERED)—reaffirming that, in spite of it all, Black girls do grow into Black women who “turn the world right side up” as Sojourner Truth predicted when she declared “Ain’t I a Woman.”
What a week! #sayhername is a recognition of and a clarion call to all Black women to be our truest selves, despite and amid everything and everyone who denies our truths. Black club women of the 19th century issued a clarion call to “Awake, Arise, and Act!” Those women, our ancestors, are still issuing the call and their hearts beat within us each time we thrive, even though “we were never meant to survive. (Audre Lorde)
What time is it? A simple question when asked during the day. A not so simple question when asked at this moment following this election.
What time is it? At this moment, do I turn to Ecclesiastes 3? Or, might I turn to Genesis 1? Or, what about Matthew 6?
When I turn to Ecclesiastes 3, I am not sure what I want to make of the opening line: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” That opening line introduces a parallelism of times: “a time to break down, a time to build up;” “a time to seek, a time to lose;” “a time to keep silence, a time to speak;” “a time to love, a time to hate;” and “a time for war, a time for peace.” These are a few of the times that are poignant for me right now. Which time is it?
When I turn to Genesis 1, I am reassured by the activity of God to create a universe that includes human beings as one aspect of God’s Creation that is declared good. Thus, I hold this present moment in time in the moments of God’s creating, and I take the seventh day Sabbath pause of Genesis 2:1-4, suspended in the divine moment of God’s rest from the labor of Creation. Isn’t God still creating?
When I turn to Matthew 6, I am drawn to verses 7-14 where the Lord’s prayer is offered as the section concludes with the admonition to forgive others their trespasses. Likewise, verses 25-34 remind me to release anxiety about what is and is to come: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” How shall I lean into today’s trouble?
As a person of faith, as a preacher of the Gospel, as a theological educator, as an African American, as a Womanist ethicist, I want to offer some Word, some thought, some ethical insight that can help us to live into this present moment with moral courage. But, I offer only this: We need one another to live into this moment with moral courage. With whom are you in solidarity for answering the call to choose a time that is most likely to engender a just peace? Who are your creative partners for doing the difficult work of re-creating of racial/ethnic, sexual/gender, and economic justice that lies ahead? Are you ready to acknowledge today’s trouble daily and work to transform that trouble from sun up to sun down?
What time is it?
As the circumstances around the death of Mr. Freddie Gray continue to unfold, I find myself dismayed by news media reports. I do think that investigative journalism is important and needed. However, the blow-by-blow construction of a narrative about how this man died does not represent for me that type of journalism.
As news outlets, like CNN and nightly network news, interview various legal experts, police consultants, politicians and/or political pundits, news anchors as well as those being interviewed offer interpretations that are deeply embedded in histories of problematic relationships between all of the groups involved-- African American people (male and female), lower socioeconomic classes of people, and the police. The relationships between these groups have been and are fraught with distrust, fear, and brutality on all sides.
Brandon Scott, Baltimore City Councilman, offered important commentary on CNN Live this morning as he called on everyone to stop leaking contradictory information and give the state’s attorney opportunity to do her work. Yes, he was on CNN, but Mr. Scott was not there offering an interpretation; he was most importantly calling for accountability, due process, and justice. All of these—accountability, due process, and justice—are not easily attained in these matters. However, why not seek to reach for them from whatever role we are playing in this sociopolitically charged moment?
Furthermore, the reporting on Toya Graham and her public disciplining of her son is a mixed bag. I am glad that the news outlets have chosen to interview Ms. Graham, thus allowing her voice to be heard. Still, as Michaela Angela Davis (African American cultural critic) reminds us in her interview on CNN Live today, “Toya Graham is complicated; she is a symbol and not a hero.” Ms. Davis elaborates upon this point by calling attention to Ms. Graham’s response as one that can be assessed as a response that bespeaks of the feeling that your only option is violence because of the terror of systemic violence that daily impinges upon her life. The CNN Newsroom anchor Carol Costello tries to provide a balance (corrective?) to Ms. Davis’ commentary, pointing out that the son was a big guy who was unhurt by his mother’s slaps. Why not simply seek clarity from the cultural critic?
What do you think about news reporting during this event, and/or in the 21st century generally?
Come, join me out on a limb . . .
Womanist ethicist grappling with questions about religion, justice and peace in our time.