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Alana Yu-lan Price
Alana Price
Alana Price is managing editor at Tikkun.



Lord Krishna Dances In

Jul7

by: on July 7th, 2009 | 6 Comments »

Blue God-I

"Blue God I" by Salma Arastu

The Hindu Lord Krishna began to dance his way back into Salma Arastu‘s paintings, years after her conversion to Islam. How and why did it happen?

I wanted to tell this story in “Painting Past Borders,” my article in the July/August issue of Tikkun, but didn’t have the space.

Looking through Arastu’s beautiful art book, I became curious about her “Blue God” series. Like the rest of her work, the lyrical lines in this series echo the flow of Arabic calligraphy, which the artist studied after leaving behind her Hindu past and embracing Islam. But the paintings also hint at the Hindu stories of her childhood, weaving together both of her spiritual lives. How did Lord Krishna dance back into Arastu’s paintings?

Here’s the story she told me:

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The Latest on Empathy in the Court

May29

by: on May 29th, 2009 | 2 Comments »

sotomayor2

President Obama has reportedly dropped the word “empathy” from his speeches about the Supreme Court, likely in response to conservatives’ claims that empathy has no place in our justice system.

How strange. The president is expected to end each speech with a religious invocation: “God bless America.” But he gets smeared for seeking to infuse our public institutions with empathy, one of the most spiritual human impulses.

Since my post last week about this issue, the empathy debate has continued to boil on, and has even taken a few unexpected turns.

Yesterday Charles Krauthammer delivered a fairly routine argument against Obama’s invocation of empathy, saying “empathy is a vital virtue to be exercised in private life” and in legislation, but not in the justice system.

Today, however, David Brooks took an unexpectedly strong stand in defense of empathy, describing it as a basic force in all human decision-making and suggesting that Sonia Sotomayor “will be a good justice if she can empathize with the many types of people and actions involved in a case, but a bad justice if she can only empathize with one type, one ethnic group or one social class.” In other words, the more empathy the better.

Stanley Fish succeeded in cutting to the heart of the debate in his op-ed this past weekend. The empathy controversy, he explained, is rooted in the fissure between justice and legality:

You might think that “legal” and “just” go together, and sometimes they do; but in the real world “just” and “legal” can come apart. A decision is just when it reflects an overarching vision of what is owed is to each man and woman. A decision is legal when it can be said to follow from established rules, statutes, precedents.

In this framework, an empathetic judge is one who rules on legality with an eye toward justice.

Fish goes on to explain that influential lawyers have criticized the Brown v. Board decision as lacking a strong legal basis. Only empathetic judges (rather than those rigidly obsessed with precedents) could have made that ruling, which we now see as so basic and foundational to our society.

It’s disappointing that despite Obama’s strong words about empathy, he appears nevertheless to have picked a nominee who seems inclined to hew narrowly to precedent, rather than taking a more expansive view of the courts’ role in advancing equality.

Pastors Push for Health Care Reform

May21

by: on May 21st, 2009 | 1 Comment »

Rev. Rayfield Burns calls for health care reform in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo from www.piconetwork.org.)

Rev. Rayfield Burns calls for health care reform in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo from www.piconetwork.org.)

The Religious Left is alive and kicking!

The latest evidence? A group of pastors and priests have launched a national radio ad campaign calling on the government to ensure affordable health care for all.

The ads hit the airwaves today in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nebraska, and they’re set to continue airing on Christian and mainstream radio stations throughout the Memorial Day congressional recess.

The parties involved might not all self-identify as members of the Religious Left, but their rhetoric has distinct echoes of liberation theology’s call to attend to injustice and need in this world, rather than focus on the afterlife.

This morning Rev. Rayfield Burns of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist in Kansas City, Missouri, told reporters:

Jesus was concerned about more than just the souls of men and women — he was concerned about the whole man. We should be concerned, as well…. We don’t have to become victims of bad government. We don’t have to settle for emergency rooms as a means for taking care of our health care needs.

Gordon Brown of PICO said 586 clergy from 42 states and 38 different religious denominations have agreed to preach on health care in their congregations as part of this campaign. A number of imams are involved in the PICO network, which has also worked closely with the Union for Reform Judaism, he said, but this weekend’s ad campaign is Christian-focused.

It’s a bit frustrating how uncontroversial the radio ads are. The sponsoring coalition (composed of the PICO National Network, Faith in Public Life, Faithful America, Sojourners, Gamaliel Foundation, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good) has opted not to weigh in on specific policy debates about public vs. private insurance plans, instead issuing a very general call for “affordability.”

Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see pastors lending their charisma to the fight for universal health care, framing it as an urgent moral issue.

"Empathy" Is Not a Dirty Word

May19

by: on May 19th, 2009 | 1 Comment »

The controversy over President Obama’s search for an empathetic Supreme Court judge continues to rage on, with many people arguing that empathy has no place in our justice system.

It all started when Obama announced that he intends to replace Justice Souter with someone who understands that “justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book” but rather about “how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives.” Here’s the sentence that landed him in the fire:

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.

At this point, numerous conservative leaders have taken high-profile stands against empathy in the courtroom, including Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and John Yoo (the former Justice Department official who drafted the torture memos during the Bush administration).

To me, the most disturbing aspect of the anti-empathy argument is the claim that it’s impossible to simultaneously feel empathy for multiple parties in a conflict. Wendy Long, the legal counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network, told Fox News, “If you have empathy for both sides then that’s the same as having no empathy at all.”

For real?

The world would be frighteningly bleak if empathy actually canceled out in this way. The fact that empathy doesn’t cancel out seems foundational to the pain and beauty of life in community.

When two children are fighting, empathy for both sides is what allows a parent to mediate with an eye to reducing harm overall. And in the struggle against domestic violence, empathy for both sides — or in other words, the ability to recognize the humanity, woundedness, and potential for good in all the parties involved — is what enables anti-rape groups to set up functional rehabilitation groups for abusers, even as they channel the rage and pain felt by survivors of abuse.

The harm reduction approach to drug users offers an inspiring model of what empathy-based justice can look like: it calls us to reduce the pain and damage to all parties rather than siding with some and punishing others.

I spent a summer observing custody and domestic violence cases at the Philadelphia Family Court, and it’s clear to me how positive it would be to have empathetic judges in a setting like that. The judges were constantly ruling on ambiguous questions like whether a person was in imminent danger or whether a person was fit to be a parent. They would have reduced more harm if they had actively sought to empathize with all the different parties that came before them. As it was, it seemed that they unconsciously gave more credence to the litigants who were more familiar to them — litigants who looked and talked the most like them — while claiming total impartiality.

Envisioning what empathy would mean at the Supreme Court level is more complicated, since the court is ruling so specifically on the constitutionality of specific policies or actions, rather than on messy family affairs. I haven’t totally worked it out.

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