Tikkun Magazine

An Empathy-Deficit-Disorder in this President and Ourselves by Donald W. Shriver Jr.

By now most American voters have reason to recognize that we have a president who suffers from a severe deficit of capacity for empathy. We should have concluded that during the 2016 campaign when he disparaged war-hero John McCain with the dismissive, “I prefer soldiers who don’t   let themselves get captured”—a remark as empirically absurd as it was politically stupid. Even I, an  infantry-trained draftee of the  1940s with little sympathy for the military life, felt insulted by that remark.

On all hands in 2017 we Democrats are being advised that our seeming lack of empathy for the jobless voters of the land accounted for their resistance to our candidate for president a year ago. Three morally astute journalists  (E.J. Dionne, Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann) have echoed this critique in their recent book, “One Nation After Trump”. They call for the practice of empathy between the divided halves of this body politic:

“Trump supporters have every right to ask progressives to stand in their shoes, to see the world as they do from Appalachia or a once thriving and now devastated small town…to muster the social and  moral imagination to understand their struggles, their hardships, and their hopes.’ [As a Trump voter said to a member of the Silicon Valley elite], ‘You have no idea what our lives are like.” So, say these sensitive journalists, “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do and omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

This should be welcome advice to religious people of the land, especially my fellow Christians who honor a Galilean whom we like to describe with Isaiah as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Distressing to many readers of the New Testament, however,  among many illustrations of that  empathy in its profile of Jesus, there is one that seems to contradict  it. The 15th chapter of the book of Mark recounts a trip that Jesus takes outside of Galilee to the northeast area we now call Lebanon. There, in a foreign land, he is confronted by a Syro-Phoenician woman who begs him to deliver her daughter from a demon. He gruffly dismisses her plea for help with an exclusivist cliché, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” To that cruel reply, she replies by expanding  his metaphor: “Yes, Lord, yet even the  dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Convinced—perhaps touched in heart—the prophet from Galilee  answers, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”

This incident has been rightly celebrated by modern Christian feminist theologians. Here is a woman who wins a theological argument with a famous prophet from abroad.  He apparently learns through her to modify his education in the traditions of his Nazareth upbringing.

American Christians have every reason to imitate Jesus in this matter and to be grateful for experiences of getting to know strangers as human beings like ourselves. Toni Morrison, in her recent Norton Lecture at Harvard,  explores the mystery of our learned  human inclination to close off empathy for  strangers. The theme of  her eloquent lecture, “The Origin of Others,” is that “there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves.” If we want to bar all Syrians from entry into the United States, we are resisting that “comity in the Commonwealth” of humanity wherein we are all vulnerable to demons, to “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”–outrages of war, disease, death, exile, homelessness, and slavery.  To avoid  being  reminded of these threats to our personhood, we distance ourselves from strangers  who suffer from them, retiring into the illusion that we are privileged to be insulated from such misfortunes.

The people in my life  who have most protected me from this illusion are, like Toni Morrison, African Americans. And the most eloquent example I know of their capacity for empathy is a 12-Year old girl who not long ago went with her sixth-grade Washington school class to the city’s Holocaust Museum. Looking on the emblems of racist horror in that genocide, she turned to her companion and exclaimed, “See, other people have suffered, too!”

She was bringing to her view of the Holocaust an awareness of what  her own people have suffered in the history of her nation. And she  tossed a rope of empathy towards another people of vast similar suffering.

I do not know  the name of that young African American, but I know that the likes of her are our hope for a more united United States and a truly globalized humanity.

Slideshow image courtesy of Kenneth Lu.