Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Empathy Among the Existing

Reverend James Martin has reassuring words for the afflicted on Japan and beyond:

The Christian believes that God became human and that God underwent all the things we do. Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Christians do not have an impersonal God, but a God who understands what it means to suffer. People can relate more easily to a God who understands them.
Sure, people can more easily relate to fictional characters who suffer as they do -- anyone who has felt the pull of conflicting loyalties, and the no-win situations these can impose, can relate to Hamlet. People who feel uncannily alien in their own life and society, and find themselves burdened with unbidden, unaccountable, senseless flux, can relate to Gregor Samsa. People who are fighting mad at sea creatures can relate to Captain Ahab. Likewise, people can read of Jesus and relate to a man suffering a grave injustice at the hands of scheming, unscrupulous powers.

The trouble is, Jesus is said to belong on the non-fiction shelves, and moreover is said to love everyone and possess all the necessary power to prevent suffering. For relations among the truly-existing, empathy works best, and seems most authentic, when it is mutual. That Jesus endured great pain while knowing someone up in the clouds could rescue him at any instant suggests, to my way of seeing things, that Jesus should be roughly the last person to allow this sort of thing to happen to others. So where is the empathy?
Where is God? God is right there with the people who are grieving and sorrowful. In my own life, when I have felt great sorrow I have trusted that God is with me in this and that I’m not facing my struggles alone.
Jesus is right there with the suffering people, says the reverend, but what is he doing? Evidently he is paring his nails, or rubbing coffee stains out of his robe, or fiddling with his smart phone, or whatever, but -- don't get the reverend wrong --he is, like, totally relating to the plight of the suffering people nearby. He doesn't bother to set his visual property to TRUE, nor does he do what even the most feeble human being willingly does in this situation, which is to give counsel from experience and offer personal condolences. It is impossible to distinguish Jesus's form of empathy from the empathy we would expect from a fictional character.

Still, sure, we can relate to Jesus if we squint hard enough. Blurring away the details, we see he was reviled, misunderstood, maltreated, a righteous malcontent who was wrongly persecuted. Born to the wrong time, he passed through an adolescence about which he didn't like to speak in detail, and ended a tumultuous adulthood miserably. Almost anyone can see himself in this to one degree or another -- there's some Gregor Samsa in that portrait, even some Hamlet, and if not any Ahab, certainly some Ishmael.

At the same time, it's not so easy to relate to a figure who also knows everything about everything -- past, present, future -- and who seems to place heavy emphasis on the aspiration to have millions of groveling goobers sit beside him singing his praises while billions more endure agonies far worse than his and for infinitely longer. At his moment of maximum hardship, he could look at the condemned guy hanging one crucifix over and not only read his every thought, but know whether, in fact, he would be joining Jesus in an eternal post-death party. I don't think I'm alone in saying I find nothing in my own experience or self-understanding that connects with that, and if anything, I am relieved to say so.

The reverend continues with the putatively good news:
Oftentimes people become more religious in times of sorrow. They find that they are able to meet God in new ways. Why? Because when our defenses are down and we’re more vulnerable, God can break into our lives more easily. It’s not that God is closer, it’s that we’re more open.
Oh wait -- that's not good news. That's a load of crap, and it's a good thing it is (in a way), because if it were true, it sounds downright cultish and predatory, portraying Jesus as a manipulative opportunist who feeds on the misery he doesn't bother to prevent. Worship that if you like, but if you do, I suggest keeping an eye on your valuables and maintaining regular contact with the people in your life -- the ones who demonstrably exist and who will reciprocate your empathy.

No comments: