Empathy and the Cure for Violence

Holy Spirit, Jesus, Psychology, Social Issues, Violence

One of the hot topics in psychology/counseling right now is empathy.  Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered, by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, addresses a lack of empathy in society that the authors see as connected to some of the brokenness of contemporary US society: things like murder rates, gang activity, structural oppression, and other social issues.

Empathy is defined as:

  • a person’s ability to appreciate another person’s perspective and experience in a way that makes them care about that other person.
  • It is the skill/ability that helps us do things for the other person’s good, even at some cost to ourselves.

Perry and Szalavitz write about the developmental (i.e., human physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and moral growth) connection to the development of empathy and assert that those who grow up in highly stressful environments (inconsistent care from primary caregivers, abuse, neglect, etc.) are more at risk in developing empathy.  While a person can develop empathy even with severe deficits in learning/development in childhood, it is much harder to learn this important skill later in life and, according to the developmental model, some important time-periods for brain development tied to the growth of empathy are lost.  What this means is that the more a child is deprived of basic human needs in their life the more difficult it will be for them to develop the important skill/trait of empathy that assists them in contributing good things to their relationships and to society.

To jump to a topic not too far from the empathy discussion, we’ll look at some practical connections with nonviolence and peacemaking.   The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking, a book planned and partially written before his untimely death by John Howard Yoder and edited by Glen Stassen, Mark Thiessen Nation, and Matt Hamsher, addresses a problem that Perry and Szalavitz find within their social science understanding of human nature.  While we all have the capacity for empathy, we all have a tendency to what Perry & Szalavitz call “Us vs. them thinking” and what John Howard Yoder calls “violence”.  Both agree that this is an inherent piece of being human, and while Perry & Szalavitz see it as a sometimes useful evolutionary mechanism, Yoder sees “Us vs. them thinking” or “violence” as a result of the fall of humanity and prototypically expressed in the story of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in the book of Genesis in the Bible.  Both see this human trait as cyclical: those who are hurt lose the ability to empathize with the perpetrator and have a visceral need for retribution. Yoder contends that what is needed to address this violence within the human being is recognizing the natural human need for retribution and the subversion of the cyclical violence of retribution by the sacrifice of Jesus:

Yoder states “We have projected the tacit claim that there is something uncouth about the destructive reflex itself, rather than granting it a deep anthropological legitimacy.  Instead of posing the foundations for a nonretributive society upon ways of processing the deep demand of blood for blood […] we have tried to make our culture ashamed of its vengefulness […] Only when we retrieve an awareness of the foundational place of retribution in our social psyche can we hope to discover the role of redemption in a newly pertinent form”  (Yoder, p. 33).  He writes also, “The good news is that the violence with which we heirs of Cain respond to our brother’s differentness is the occasion of our salvation.   Were it not for that primeval destructive reflex, there would have been no suffering servant, and no wisdom and power of God in the cross” (Yoder, p. 32).

What we have then from Yoder’s understanding of the Christian Gospel is a way to satisfy and render powerless our deep need for retribution, for an eye for an eye, for blood payment, for sacrifice.  It is submission to the very instrument of our torture that is used to bring an end to that torture.  “Innocent suffering is the victory over the vengeful urge, and over the institutions that exploit it, on a anthropologically far more fundamental level than our usual theories of the state or of social hygiene” (Yoder, p. 33).  Justice has been done already for those who believe in the work of Jesus on the Cross, a work that was proven enough by His resurrection from the dead.  Empathy is essential, but it can only provide a safeguard against the violence in our hearts if it is not accompanied by our transformation by the work of the Spirit of Jesus.  Indeed, empathy for the perpetrator should be increased for those whose Lord is Jesus because we know that their retribution has been dealt with by a God who is in control of His universe and who has spoken the Sermon on the Mount:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matthew 5:38-48, NIV, 2010)


One thought on “Empathy and the Cure for Violence

  1. I totally agree in regards to forsaking empathy and doing violence with motivations of revenge:

    “14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

    17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

    21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:14-21, NIV).

    Although, the tough question comes when resistance to evil (hopefully non-lethal) seems to be necessary from a deep sense of empathy in one’s heart (rather than retribution) to protect the innocent, weak, and powerless, as well as for the perpetrators.

    Thanks for the book link to Born for Love, I’ll have to pick it up!

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