Is Empathy Sinful? (Hint: No).

About this Logbook

It is a sincerely frightening thought to think that I once called James R. White my spiritual and intellectual mentor. Like many others with the same story, my leave from religious fundamentalism has turned out to be a blessing far beyond my imagination. As I write in my book, Deconstructing Evangelicalism:

…this period involved some more unique features—like writing a book defending Calvinism at age 18 (featured in Upfront magazine, and also upsetting some of my theology professors), publishing two others on apologetics before entering graduate school, and serving as the right-hand-man of a notorious Baptist minister from Phoenix, Arizona.

James R. White, it seemed, could mercilessly refute anyone in debates, anywhere, at any time, about anything—from double-predestination to gay marriage to textual criticism to baptism to…intersectionality (which is apparently “utterly incompatible with a belief in the sovereign kingship of God and His divine decree.”[3]) As a teenager with a ’tude heading to Dordt University to study theology, watching another outspoken individual perform heresy-hunts was downright entertaining. So over the years, I attended a number of events, listened to dozens of debates, read books, hung out in the chat channel, and regularly wrote for the blog. But ultimately, my extensive involvement with White’s “Alpha and Omega Ministries” (AOMin) proved to be another case of a young person getting caught up in the confidence and charisma of a religious leader who had all the answers. I eventually—and thankfully—left when I realized (among other things) that God, truth, and academic scholarship had nothing to do with anything. All that mattered in the end was sufficient loyalty to one man’s personal competitiveness and insatiable need to win. (Such is the case with many one-man show “apologetics ministries.”)

This week, we can now add “empathy is sinful. Do not surrender your mind to the sinful emotional responses of others” to other “rational” tweets like:

“Public health” has become nothing more than “panic driven capitulation to tyranny.” (Feb 10/2021)

“Living by lies. This man is not a woman, and forcing us all to pretend he is is not only the essence of evil, it is de-humanizing. Adults are forced to say what five year olds recognize to be a lie.” (Jan 19. 2021)

“Global pastors: If your flock has not come to the Table of the Lord since March, and you are continuing the famine because of “safety,” you have fallen for deception, and your priorities are upside down.” (Jan 12, 2021)

…and to those colored by a slight tinge of transphobia…

“Trans rights are human rights. If you cannot see what this means to *actual* human rights coming from a regime promising to promote the extermination of the unborn, you aren’t listening.” (Feb 9, 2021)

“Trans chihuahuas are Great Danes. Trans parakeets are eagles. Trans kittens are lions. Trans VW Beetles are Abrams tanks. This isn’t difficult to understand. We’ve understood this insanity for a long time.” (Feb 22, 2021)

“Same “transgender” guy was on just a few weeks later with Ben Shapiro and threatened to beat Ben up in a nice, deep, masculine voice. Sort of made the point. But yeah, that was quite the experience.” (Apr 12, 2019)

“The culture of death (yes, the “trans movement” is intimately connected to it) pushing forward strongly in California, one of its favorite places.” (Oct 20, 2018)

“Dear brother: isn’t 99% of transgender madness nothing more than ἀνυπότακτος, rebellion, against God’s rulership?” (Feb 28, 2017)

…and to those colored by a slight tinge of paranoia…

“Soon YOUR bank may ask you to sign a statement “of agreement with social principles,” you know, for the “good of all,” or…lose access to your funds. This is totalitarianism. It is here.” (Jan 11, 2021)

“Over the next few days, as Big Brother cracks down on speech, punishes Christians for opposing the culture of death, and gets the US in line with the Great Reset, remember we are people whose eyes are set on eternity and the City of God.” (Jan 19, 2021)

“Ah, there’s the new phrase, “social moderation.” AKA, Big Brother totalitarian censorship and mind control! Got it. But “moderation” is such a nice phrase, isn’t it?” (Jan 15, 2021)

“Far more truth to this than meets the eye. Phones, tablets, Garmin watches, even the Tile devices you forgot you have. Lock ’em up.” (Jan 15, 2021)

“I’ve been saying the CCP social credit style totalitarianism is *exactly* what is coming—it is EXACTLY what Harris will usher in.” (Sept 28, 2020)

“It is the nature of totalitarianism. They must control all. Everything. You must love Big Brother with all your heart.” (Nov 25, 2020)

“I am thinking constantly about how to build a foundation for a Remnant to provide guidance for the next generations who will have to endure totalitarianism—which itself cannot endure its denial of God’s truth.” (Jun 26, 2020)

“Totalitarianism. All around us. We must fight it for the sake of our grandchildren” [04/15/19];

“Western civilization is finished. The hordes are at the gate” [04/16/19];

“Big Brother already exists. He’s watching, and the left is ready to unleash him” [04/17/19];

“Revolution is upon us” [11/3/19];

“Buy flash drives. Buy huge 2TB+ drives. Download. Store. Get ready for the new reality coming like a runaway freight train” [12/11/19];

“The communists are taking over” [11/11/19])

“Yes, totalitarianism has taken over the universities…not long till it seeks to silence us all. #goodthinkcomes” (Oct 25, 2016)

“Whatever the nature of schooling –– we do not tolerate disrespect for differences” <— the blind, irrational voice of totalitarianism.” (Feb 25, 2012)

Disciples of the 1689 Reformed Baptist Cult (AOMin version—the only orthodox version, of course), as well as the author himself, re-assure readers that “additional context” can make sense of such statements, ideas and institutional paranoia. I digress. (I’m pretty sure nothing short of an insanity plea would do that.) Well anyway, “Truth-believing rational thinkers are now on the endangered species list” (Jan 12, 2021). I might actually agree with this one, but its direction would need to be reversed.

I once regurgitated the modern myths of “men are rational, women are emotional” and, “emotions are bad and must be subordinated to one’s good mind” and the whole dualism of mind/emotions in modern anthropology and other destructive nonsense. In some ways, I still think and speak in those terms. But, I first realized the internal incoherency of these ideas. Given the idea of “total depravity” and “noetic effects of sin” in my surefire “reformed theology” at the time, how can I be so sure my mind is more reliable than my emotions? There’s actually many reasons to believe complex thought processes are more corrupt than my more primitive emotional responses to people’s pain and suffering.

Second, I was eventually and repeatedly confronted with my own insecurities, unstable social moors, and failed belief systems the more that I opened myself up to people, read forbidden books, and accept people for who they are instead of being so focused on changing them. It became clear that I wasn’t always (or even often) the rational one (if such a thing exists), and clear that refusing to deal with my emotions openly and vulnerably with another person is cowardice, not manliness or virtue. Anyone can ignore their intuitions and suppress their feelings—especially if they’ve been raised to do that from a young age. (Growing up on a ranch in South Dakota with two older brothers in a “hard-working” German family, I certainly was.) I also began to realize that I felt things when people talked about sexism and racism, or when I talked about it. It’s clear that people like White also feel things in the same contexts—even when all they think they’re doing is robotically dispensing timeless truth to the masses without any kind of “emotional” involvement attached. Why was this? White seems angry and frustrated about anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, not just intellectually at odds. And there’s nothing about his tone (especially in his endless videos) that parallels, say, Noam Chomsky or James Baldwin or other public figures who have such patience, control, and discipline over their words in virtually any conversation.

Besides all that, I also had to check myself: how could I possibly believe that all my opinions—from anthropology to psychology to sociology to theology to philosophy to politics etc.—could carry the same weight and authority? That everyone was wrong and I was always right? With a reading and podcast audience, I eventually had to put myself in a position that functioned this way. But this was just stupid, and thankfully I realized I was (with the help and shaping of others) more curious and willing to be corrected than creating a public appearance of success and certainty. (If this “apologetics” and “preaching gospel” thing was all about performance and point-scoring, I’m out! I don’t care enough about winning arguments if that means I must become a bigger asshole than I already was.)

White’s world is a uniquely dark one. This tweet is but the latest (culmination?) in years upon years of denigrating “emotion” and idolizing the “rational,” condemning “heretics” and justifying “the saints.” I know this because I lived it, side-by-side with White for years. It’s the kind of world where (let’s assume the emotion/rationality dualism is legitimate for the sake of the argument) there is no possibility for one’s mind or thoughts or rationality to be corrected by their emotions. It’s an absurd notion for today’s anti-empathy fanatics.

When Nazi officers threw Jews into ovens and heard their screams, they should not be like, “oh wow this person is hurting, maybe my racist political ideology is wrong!”

Or when white southern planters raped their black slaves and saw and felt their suffering, they shouldn’t be like “this person is suffering, maybe my racism is wrong!”

Or when Christians were frightened by the faces of Muslim and Jewish children beheaded from their swords during the crusades, they should actively resist having mercy and thinking “maybe my theology is wrong?”

Or when evangelical parents shame and drive their children out on the streets to be homeless because their kids aren’t heterosexual, they should actively suppress the thought that, “gosh my kid is now homeless on the street…maybe I’m not actually loving them?”

That’s always been the problem with ideologies and theologies: if they aren’t falsifiable to those outside the group, then there is no amount of actual evidence to prove anything wrong. People can literally be committing suicide and covering up child rape everywhere around us and it wouldn’t make a difference: “the doctrine” and “beliefs” somehow aren’t the problem (…even though they somehow are the problem when “unbelievers” commit the same behavior…). Things continue as they always have, the same leaders and offices hold the same power, and the adverse results can be explained away (“we’re all sinners,” “we all stumble,” “it’s all in God’s plan,” “they weren’t real Christians,” “You’re attacking my ministry!” etc.). This is, in fact, what continues to happen in countless churches.

It reminds me of a spot-on meme I saw regarding the abuse of Ravi Zacharias:

I gave my inaugural lecture on this broader topic because I think it’s that important.

Anyway, so here’s a few thoughts on this terribly important subject.

  1. Emotions rightly point people to the truth everyday. Hence “following one’s conscience” or “following the spirit” and on and on. Nobody lives strictly according to “reason” or “mind,” as that would be inhumane, and impossible. God gives us intuitions, moral awareness, and various mental and social and psychological faculties for a reason. (Again, assuming the dualism), it’s unreasonable to police your emotions without allowing your emotions to police your mind.
  2. Emotions are not a liability of the human species anymore than their hunger, sexuality, ability to speak, hear, see, or their interest in the culinary arts. If you have a problem with your emotions, or a problem with your emotions always being at war with your head, that’s a problem of emotional unintelligence you need to sort out—not a dogma to be crystallized as divine truth and then codified as absolute truth on Twitter. Everything White and others like him say on this topic says far more about their own psychological problems and emotional instability than anyone else’s.
  3. The Golden Rule requires deep empathy to function. That’s the entire point: you can’t treat someone how you would be treated if you don’t know how they’re being treated. Against the truth-police, Jesus was known specifically for his empathy towards those who were  “sinners.” We should have the same suspicion today towards those who claim religious authority and want to put doctrine ahead of our empathy towards those we are told are “sinners.” That’s right: I’m putting the James Whites of the world (modern day Pharisees if there ever was such a thing) squarely at odds with everything Jesus lived, taught, and stood for.

In conclusion, a person has to be pretty ignorant of recent history, severely emotionally detached, and have a rather skewed reading of the NT, the Greatest Commandment, the Golden Rule, and the Fruits of the Spirit to believe that the problem with the world today is too much compassion and empathy. To quote from a book I published this month:

For many men, loving well looks weak or effeminate. Especially in western culture, men are supposed to be consistently masculine (whatever that might mean) and fairly absent emotionally. Some argue that there are good reasons for this, and important social benefits. These arguments range anywhere from being able to effectively fight in war, to having the ability to kill grizzly bears that wander into a camp, or (most importantly!) shooting dozens of cute little bunnies for a starving family in the woods.

OK, set aside the bludgeoning of cute little bunnies for a moment and just notice how these other engagements require love. If I go to war, there must be love of something or someone. If I wrestle a grizzly, I obviously have a more important reason than my own life in doing so. “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” So even the positive aspects of “masculine traits” (heroism, strength, courage) could be expressions of love.

More importantly, these stereotypes and attitudes in their full colors tend to forge a hardened heart that makes it particularly difficult for men to (a) articulate their own internal emotions to others and (b) open themselves up to the possibility of intimate relationships. How so?

First, it makes empathy itself seem cowardly. Infantry soldiers might be the most deeply affected this way because they’re mentally forced to dehumanize and detach from those who are being killed. (They have to, otherwise pulling the trigger would be impossible. And I don’t know if it’s American militarism, empire mentalities, or just a century of bad movies, but empathy is actually considered a problem for almost everyone these days. One psychologist has actually written a book entitled Against Empathy, while another (wildly popular) speaks of “too much empathy” and “compassion as a vice.” Combined with the rise of various leaders and politicians known for being authoritarian (and frequently abusive) tough-guys, being mean and heartless is now considered cool. (This problem was recently featured by a historian in a book titled Jesus and John Wayne.) To put it bluntly, the kind of radical love I’m advocating is almost considered a threat to society. Our world is telling us that love, empathy, and compassion is for the weak as much as it is telling us that patience isn’t a virtue. . .

You’ll have to read the rest when you get time!

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