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The Disciplines of Empathy and Hope in the Fight Against Racism
God is heartbroken again
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr., taught me about the prophets of the Old Testament (and prophets of all kinds). Heschel argues that prophecy is empathy with the pathos of God. What does that mean exactly? It means that the prophets feel what God feels. This is a small problem for the doctrinaire of us because following the tradition of the Church Fathers and Mothers, Christians often hold the view that God is “impassible.” That is to say, God isn’t moved by human experiences, because God is the Unmoved Mover, the prime moved, the first uncaused cause. For Greek theologians, the idea that God is not moved is essential for God to exist at all; for Christians, it has been important for how they have thought of God as worthy to be worshiped. Sometimes this is referred to as God’s “asiety,” God is who God is independent of creation or anything else. I can appreciate that theology.
But what Heschel brings to the forefront is how much that well-constructed argument misses. In my opinion, though the “first uncaused cause” may be transcendent, I fear that it moves from God’s immanence. God is actually interested in us, cares about us, and is moved by us. God suffers with us, especially through the person of Jesus Christ, and cries out when we go through suffering. God is enraged when God’s people are oppressed. And God stands with God’s people in their oppression. And in some mysterious way, our oppression allows us to be closer to God, a God who feels relatable. Those who feel what God feels are prophetic.
I think it is essential to see God as one of the pathos during these troubling times, as we confront the deadly scourges of the twin plagues: coronavirus and racism. I think God observes the horror that we are going through and is heartbroken. I am reminded of what the writer of Genesis recorded God as saying right before God wiped the face of the earth with a flood. “The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” That verse is quite intriguing on its own, but what I want to focus on is God’s heart breaking. It comforts me to know I worship a God whose heart breaks when I suffer. The other side of that is that God’s suffering can influence me to suffer too. God’s feelings are the feelings we all might have.
So when God is angry, I want to be angry. When God is sad, I want to share in that sadness. And I think God is both angry and sad at the moment, and so those who want to be close to God and want to help share what God has to say about this moment, must share in God’s grief in this moment in time.
We can all share in this righteous anger
When we see examples of people of color being angry, they are channeling God’s righteous indignation. Do not mute or temper us, because in doing that you may actually be muting and tempering God. The prophets of the Old Testament were infamous for having the Kings of Israel try to tamp them down. After Elijah confronted Ahab about worshiping another God, Baal, Ahab called him a “troubler of Israel.” I think Elijah was troubled because God was troubled. And I think we are troubled at this moment in time because God is troubled.
I think that everyone can share in that feeling of being troubled. Everyone can empathize. Empathy is a discipline. God’s anger and God’s pain, experienced by people of color, is not something that white people should simply observe, but also participate in. It's a cop out to say you can't imagine; we need to discipline ourselves to imagine! You can enter into that pain and anger, and feel it alongside of us. Yes, you can actually imagine how it feels, especially if you relate to God, the one who authors these feelings by experiencing them! Instead of rebuking our expression of pain, share in it, as God does, but also as we do with God.
The intimacy that’s created with that shared emotion creates a refuge for the weary. And I need that refuge because feeling the sadness and anger, the grief and the trouble, requires respite. God is where I find that. God is the refuge of my weary soul, where I retreat in my pain. I know God is safe for me because God shares in my feelings because God has authored those feelings. It is so hard to navigate a world that is this scary, a world that hates me and is threatened by my existence. I need to know that I worship and serve a God who loves me, is pleased by me, and feels for me. God is a refuge for the weary, for the oppressed, and for those who feel alongside of them.
And that respite for me does two things: it transforms my anger into love, instead of hatred. And it allows me to enter into the discipline of hope, it saves me from cynicism.
Jesus turns anger into love
Anger is an entirely appropriate emotion when faced with the systemic racism in our society, and the police’s endorsement of that racism and contribution to it. When we witness the murders of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement, grief and rage must follow. And in a society that seeks to silence that rage, it is prophetic to express it. I believe that that rage is holy because God feels it. It is righteous and justice because God feels it.
But what follows that anger is important. Willie Jennings says that it is Jesus that turns that anger into love instead of hatred. What can follow that anger is hatred and violence. It’s important to note that both hatred and violence are what we are angry at to begin with. Mimicking what we are angry about does not bring about transformation. In my time and experience, only love and Jesus have brought about transformation. That is what I learned in my own refuge with God. You may have a different experience, and I want to listen to that. I am simply sharing my own.
Anger can turn to love and hope
The reason the transformation of anger into love, instead of hatred, is essential is because it allows us to hope, and not despair. It allows us to believe that a new world is possible, instead of succumbing to cynicism. It turns our dreams into lived experiences. Hope is a discipline. We wake up every day and decide to be hopeful, decide to do our part in God’s work of transformation. We believe that our dreams can become a reality. This is important for our own resilience. This work that we’re doing is difficult. We are undoing a way of being in the world, an addiction to power and addiction to hatred. These systems of sin are so ingrained into our society and into our bodies that it will seem almost impossible to do the work. We will cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?” But in order for this work to be sustainable, we need hope and we need to discipline ourselves to have it. Our hope doesn’t just sustain us though, it expands our imagination, it allows us to dream, and it allows us to believe that our dreams are possible.
In sum: a God who feels what we feel, and disciples who feel what God feels, fosters that discipline of hope. God being a refuge strengthens us for when our emotions wear us out. And Jesus transforming our anger into love instead of hatred allows us to demonstrate the kind of people we can be. People of love, which is the antithesis of racism.