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how I learned to stop worrying and love: empathy in politics


I was giving Melody* a drive back to campus and her car. All of the grad students had met up at Moe’s for dinner, and it had been a rousing time– lots of conversations, ideas being hashed out, laughter… You put a dozen humanities grad students at the same dinner table and what you wind up with is a whirling dervish of friendly discussions. That night, we’d even managed to get around to politics, and the resulting debate had been lively, entertaining, and intriguing. There were as many political stances as there were people, and I found myself feeling comfortable with my lack of political identity– no one else at that table was any more firm than I was.

But, during the drive back to campus, Melody laughingly said something that has stuck with me:

“You’re kind of required to be a socialist if you’re an English major. You don’t read Dickens or Dostoyevsky and walk away a capitalist.”

My instantaneous reaction to that was rejection: I wasn’t a socialist, and I doubt I ever would be. I no longer fell inside of the “capitalism is the only biblical economic system!” camp and I’d already given up my Reagan worship, but socialism? No, I didn’t think I’d ever think that was a good idea.

And then.

My second-to-last semester in grad school, I took a course on Utopian literature, but most of the works we studied were dystopian– 1984, We, The Handmaid’s Tale . . . For two of the projects, I worked with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which is the inspiration for Bladerunner) and V for Vendetta (primarily the film adaptation of the graphic novel). Part of studying these works was asking the question what about these works makes them dystopian? which is a bit harder to answer than one might think.

In Do Androids Dream, one of the primary themes of the book is studying what it means to be human. In the book, part of how humans identify themselves is by setting themselves against the otherness of the androids– I am not an android, therefore I am human. However, this alignment is based on the belief that humans have emotions, primarily empathy, while androids don’t. When Deckard discovers this is not the case, his identity begins unraveling.

As I worked through Do Androids Dream for my project, I found myself heavily contemplating the idea that emotions, especially empathy, are a basic human quality. And, in other research I was doing about disordered conditions and character disturbance, the more I realized that Philip Dick was right– empathy should be universal, and when it isn’t, we notice.

At least, we should.

My project for V for Vendetta revolved around comparing V’s rhetoric to Sutler’s rhetoric, with the premise that you can lie to tell the truth. Sutler almost always tells the truth as he sees it, but it’s actually a lie, and V almost always tells a twisted version of the facts that are the truth– both to himself, to Evie, and to society at large. But, I also realized that the truth they told had everything to do with the world they saw: Sutler saw a world where people were essentially bad, a world that needed a strong, moral, Christian government, or it would spin into chaos and perversion. V saw a world where people are neutral– neither essentially good or bad– but capable of freedom, of making personal decisions that affected them and no one else, with empathy to guide them.

And then . . .

I met one of Handsome’s friends from high school and college. He works with a social program in Detroit– helping young men and women get their GEDs, take college placement exams, and training them in some kind of career skill. When he talks about his work, everything about him lights up. When he talks about the people he works with, there’s love and joy in his voice. He sees the steel-edged hardness of their lives, and he believes in doing everything he can to enable them toward a more hopeful future.

We were sitting on his living room floor, playing a board game, when he started talking about Marxism, and I remember inwardly flinching when he somewhat flippantly threw out “Karl Marx is my hero, man.”

I couldn’t help myself. “But didn’t Marx advocate for bloody revolutions?”

“So what?” He shrugged. Inwardly, I cringed, somewhat horrified. How could he say so what? “Thomas Jefferson said ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ Marx wasn’t arguing for anything very different from that.”*

I was speechless.

Karl Marx, and Thomas Jefferson, in the same sentence? It felt like sacrilege.

And then . . .

I met Handsome’s sister, who was working toward her degree in social work. She’s spent a substantial part of her college career overseas, and at the time I met her, was working with convicted sex offenders. She would go on to assist in a program dedicated to helping single mothers in Chicago. All I did was listen to her, and to the stories she told. I listened to her talk about how ineffective she felt, how her hands were tied against actually helping anyone because of the endless bureaucracy and red tape, how the system was infected with apathy.

After I heard her stories, I went looking for more. And I started soaking them up, and for the first time, listening to the suffering going on around me that I had no idea was there. Once the scales fell away from my eyes, I couldn’t look away. I started going back, sifting through all my old memories.

I went back to the single time I walked through the government-subsidized housing in my hometown. I remembered what I felt, what I thought, walking through that neighborhood. The absolute disdain and revulsion I felt for the people who answered their doors. Crack heads and alcoholics, all of them, I was positive. Wasting good government money on booze and cigarettes. Lazy. Perfectly willing to sit on the tax payer’s dime, laughing all the way to the bank. If a man doesn’t work, neither should he eat, I would think as I invited them to church and ask them if they were going to hell.

I relived a moment at the grocery store, when I saw a woman pulling out food stamps to buy her processed food. She should be buying meat and vegetables with that, not macaroni and cheese. I had absolutely no idea that meats and vegetables are some of the most expensive food items you can buy– until I started doing my own grocery shopping on $80 a month, and I spent most of my time in the grocery store enviously looking at fresh produce when I couldn’t afford it.

More and more, I started shrinking away from everything I thought I’d believed about economics, about politics, about society. Phrases that I’d had pounded into me started echoing louder: if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart, but if you’re not a conservative when you’d older, you don’t have a brain. All this time, I’d believed that being a liberal meant being stupid. When I started talking about the ideas I was wrestling with, I was dismissed– as ignorant, as young, as foolish, as stupid. I was told that I’d grow out of it, that, eventually, I’d learn to see it “their way” again, and I’d realize how silly and nonsensical I’d been in my 20s.

I pray to God I don’t.

Because, out of everything I’ve learned in the past few years, the basic lesson has been in empathy, in “loving your neighbor as yourself.”

*specifically, in an an interview at the Chicago Tribune, he said “no great movement has begun without bloodshed.”


the sky is falling, overreactions, and facts

sky is falling

If you have conservative Christian friends on facebook, then you’ve probably seen this article on how Christians are about to be court martialed for talking about Jesus. The first time I saw this article appear in my news feed, my eyebrows shot up into my hairline. A few years ago I would have begun immediately panicking and doing everything I could to stop this terrible atrocity from taking place (i.e., signing this petition). But, that was then. Today, I searched for the headline, realized that there wasn’t a legitimate news source reporting on it, and I also noticed that most of the places running the story were . . . well, corners of the internet I’m familiar with, and no longer trust. Yesterday, the Washington Post covered it, and they actually went and obtained some facts. Like, an actual statement from the Pentagon, instead of the inflammatory, inciting words of a rather intense political idealist.

But, my instantaneous thoughts when I read all of the original articles were tempered by my own personal experience. I’m a military brat, so I have a passing familiarity with military procedure and policy, and military culture. It has been long-established military procedure to reprimand anyone who gets pushy about their faith– or non-faith. It’s just not allowed, especially because of the rank system. That’s one of the first things people miss: military life is absolutely nothing like civilian life. We don’t even operate under the same court system. Military personnel are required to live by a stricter code; they still have First Amendment rights like every other American, but the practice of those rights is a helluva lot more limited than it is for say, someone like Westboro.

And, as someone who feels a tear-jerking patriotic swell anytime I see a “God and Country” bumper-sticker, I can tell you, honestly, that the Christian culture in the military can be obnoxious at times. Just like Christians everywhere else, we can get pushy and demanding and get carried away and do or say something ridiculous. Which is what Weinstein, the man who called proselytizing “treason,” is reacting against. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s not pretty.

In short, the sky is not falling.

So why did so many people run around acting like it was?

The answer lies in something called the persecution complex. This is not a new idea, and it’s certainly not limited to Christians. I’ve seen it happen in pretty much any group of people who collectively feel passionately about something. Sometimes the concern is valid, and should not be dismissed as merely the persecution complex when that’s not what is happening. Marginalized groups who talk about racism aren’t reacting to nothing, and when feminists start talking about the War on Women, we’re not making it up. But, sometimes, our passion and fervor can run away with us and we start jumping at shadows.

In my experience, however, conservative Christians are almost entirely reacting against a perceived threat that just doesn’t exist. Just because our government isn’t operated purely on fundamentalist views of “biblical principles” doesn’t mean that Christianity is under attack.

One of the problems with the persecution complex and how it shows up in Christianity is that there’s a couple of verses that have been twisted in order to teach that if you’re a Christian, you should expect opposition:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” — Romans 9:33
“Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” — I John 3:13
“If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” — John 15:19

There’s a tactic that shows up a lot in Christian sermons and discussions, and it’s illustrated by the above. When there’s more than one verse that sounds like they’re talking about the same thing, then, suddenly, it’s perfectly alright to ignore context– having more than one verse means that you are using Scripture to “comment on Scripture,” and that’s supposedly sound hermeneutics. Wrong, but that’s worth its own post. So, before we move on, let’s look at context.

John’s passage is in the middle of Jesus’ explanation of the role of the body here on earth, where he uses the Vine & Branches metaphor. He follows that depiction of grace, growth, community, and love with a warning: our life isn’t going to be a bed of roses, and sometimes, people are going to despise us. On occasion, whole governments have tried to expunge Christianity. This happens, I’m not going to deny it (although Christians aren’t the only ones singled out for their beliefs). This passage, however, does not give Christians free license to believe that simple disagreements are persecution. Just because someone doesn’t think the way we do and feels strongly about it doesn’t make what they’re doing “hate.”

I John, 3:13 is in the middle of verses that are focused entirely on the body of Christ loving and caring for each other. In my Bible, the section is headed “Love One Another,” and its concluded with an entire portion dedicating to laying down our lives, and not closing our hearts to the needy. So, it seems pretty clear that if the world does hate us (and again, disagreement is not hate), what’s our reaction supposed to be? Run around screaming and Signing All the Petitions? Not exactly– we love,  and we continue on with our lives.

The Romans passage is probably the one that’s been the most twisted and the one most harmed by terrible applications. This is the verse a lot of people turn to when they start talking about the Gospel being inherently offensive (which, problems), and the fact is that the context has nothing to do with how it usually gets applied. First of all, it’s in the middle of Romans 9, which I will be honest and say I barely understand. But, it appears at the end of the chapter, after a thorough dissection of justice and the law. And, verse 33 follows Paul’s question about how some have conflated the Gospel with the Law. He’s making a reference to Isaiah 8:14, which, ironically, is preceded by this little gem:

For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warmed me not to walk in the way of this people, saying, “Do not call conspiracy all that his people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.”

So, a verse that in the New Testament, completely removed from any context, has been used to say that “the Gospel offends people,” is actually a reference to not believing in conspiracies and living in dread.

Huh. Irony.

I’ve seen the damage that this “persecution complex” can do. It allows people who claim to be Christians to be filled with vileness and hate. It’s been used to justify the actions of so many preachers and evangelists who use this verse as a “get out of jail free card” anytime they want. Oh, you’re offended? Obviously, it’s not me and what I’ve said and how I’ve treated you, it’s the Gospel! You’re just offended by Jesus, and the Bible, and you think it’s foolish. That’s not my problem, it’s yours. And oh, poor me, the world hates me and says I’m a bigot and a hater, welp, the Bible said they’d say that! I’m just preaching truth here!

Things like this are why it’s hard for me to stay quiet. Because this, this is wrong. Not every single person who posts conspiracy articles on facebook are like this, and I’m not accusing them of that, but this is where that mentality leads. This is how Scripture, which is overflowing with love and grace, has been used to hurt and wound. Because of three verses surrounded on all sides by a call to love, Christians have formed an entire system for evaluating each other: how persecuted are you? Because, after all, a good Christian is one who everyone hates.