Social Justice ... With a Side of Salt
August 24, 2017
Updated March 6, 2018
5 comments 300 views
When dealing with justice-related issues, an essential component is empathy. Empathy is the EMOTIONAL ability to understand how someone else FEELS. It is the ability to CARE and relate to another person and their situation.
For example, when seeking justice for immigrants and refugees, we must consider what it would be like to be in their situation. How does it feel? What emotions are at play? How can we RELATE TO what immigrants and refugees are going through?
The tricky thing about emotions is that they are, by their very nature, relational matters of the heart. Our empathy toward someone in a particular situation draws from our own reserve of life experiences. Have we been in a similar situation? Have we known someone else (a close friend or family member, perhaps) who went through the same type of thing? If we don't have any PERSONAL experience with a particular issue, then our emotional response will draw from our exposure to this issue in things like movies, TV, books, and media stories.
In other words, our empathy and emotional response to any issue of justice is completely dependent on our prior personal experiences. Another word for "prior personal experiences" is bias. Yes, my friends. Our emotional responses to any issue are biased, and based on our own pre-conceived notions (whether real or fictional).
If that's not bad enough, our emotions are also the easiest part of us to manipulate. The right music, the right spokesperson, the right story, the right theatrical timing, the right word usage. All these things can manipulate our emotional stockpiles and can be drawn upon later to achieve the desired response.
If it sounds like I'm saying our emotions are sometimes dangerous and unreliable guides, it's because I am saying that. What is the solution?
2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Psalm 119:105 make it very plain that Scripture is our ultimate, over-powering, constantly-essential guide for everything. "Everything" obviously includes issues of justice, and righting the wrongs that exist in our world.
Proverbs 18:15 and numerous other verses in the Proverbs extol the value of knowledge in discerning right from wrong. Knowledge is the understanding of facts, of history, and of other relevant information. Knowing these things, and being able to apply them in a Scriptural way, is essential to a proper discussion of justice issues.
Another way to describe wisdom is "common sense." Proverbs 3 proclaims the immeasurable value of wisdom in all areas of our lives, including a proper understanding of Biblical and societal justice. As the saying goes, "common sense is all too uncommon." Thankfully, James 1:5 offers the answer.
The final component is the ability to think critically and apply Scripture, knowledge, and wisdom in a connected, all-encompassing way. This is called logic. It is teaching someone HOW to think, not necessarily WHAT to think. It is analyzing the information and leading to a final, correct conclusion.
Scripture. Knowledge. Wisdom. Logic. Taken together, these are the antidote to the unreliable consequences of emotion. Don't believe me? Try to think of a single Scripture verse that says our words and deeds toward issues of justice (or anything else, for that matter) should be governed by our emotions. That's my point.
Am I then saying we should all be cold and calculating, like Vulcans? That we should stifle our emotional response to issues, and never try to empathize with someone who is experiencing the injustices of society?
Of course not.
The book of Hebrews compares Scripture to meat. I like this analogy. Considering our list of essential items above, if Scripture is the meat, then Knowledge is the bread, Wisdom is the vegetables, and Logic is the beverage that washes it all down.
And what is emotion? Emotion is the salt.
(See, I told you I'm not advocating that we all completely ignore our emotions.)
A little salt goes a long way. It seasons the whole meal. It adds flavor and dimension to our palate. But certainly no one would ever dump an entire salt shaker on their food and say it was a good idea. Or even worse, skip the meat, bread, vegetables, and beverage altogether and just eat spoonfuls of salt! Yet that's exactly what we're doing when we let emotion take the primary role in determining our words and actions. Not only is emotion incapable of taking a primary role, it should be the LEAST influential component of our decision making. Scripture, knowledge, wisdom, and logic do not NEED emotion in order to achieve a good outcome. Yes, emotion and empathy can help. But our society's over-reliance on emotion has seeped into our churches and how we deal with complex issues.
Why do I bring this up? Recently I have witnessed multiple interactions where issues of justice were being discussed by people with opposing ideas and viewpoints. Controversial issues. Such discussion is healthy and Scriptural. At some point, though, an appeal to emotion entered into the discussion, and took the field by storm. No amount of Scripture, knowledge, wisdom, or logic could displace the emotional argument. In fact, such attempts were usually met with even MORE emotions ... offense, anger, sadness, and indignation. The person offering the Scripture/knowledge/wisdom/logic side of things was accused of being uncaring toward vulnerable people, and was ultimately forced out of the discussion.
The person bringing meat, bread, vegetables, and drink was buried in salt.
(If you're experiencing an emotional response to these words I've written, and your reaction is to immediately reject what I'm saying, shut me down, or otherwise make sure these words never see the light of day ... aren't you proving my point?)
We ought never claim to know the internal motivations of other people to the point where we label them as uncaring, hateful, or unloving, simply because they offer a different perspective than our own.
We should be secure enough in our own convictions and ideas to let them be challenged by others, without appealing to emotion to shut down the other person.
We should put all ideas on the table, as long as they appeal to Scripture, knowledge, wisdom, and logic. And then let the best idea win.
We should always remember that a little salt goes a long way.
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I appreciate your perspective here. Having emotions/empathy inform and season our judgments rather than rule them is wise advice, I believe. Of course that has to be balanced with passages like James 2:13 that tells us “Mercy triumphs over judgment”. Is this a definitive statement to only exercise mercy, and not judgment? In the context of the first half of that verse and the rest of scripture we have to say no. But it does seem that the mercy that we exhibit in our judgments necessarily flows at least in part from our emotions or our empathetic response. All that said, I think scriptures such as James 2:13 don’t contradict what you are saying, but they do hammer home the dreadful evil of merciless (read: lacking in empathy) judgements. Where I think your post excels is in calling us not to automatically assign a lack of empathy (which is to assign evil motives) when we disagree with another’s perspective.
I would caution against shorthanding wisdom as “common sense”. I think this is a woefully inadequate shorthand for wisdom. As matter of fact, I think the opposite may be true. It seems to me that biblically speaking, we might call wisdom the essence of the knowledge and character of God, while we might quite accurately call common sense the knowledge and character of man. Eve likely appreciated Satan’s common sense appeal to eat the fruit. All manner of foolishness has been done under the guise of common sense. In my professional regulatory role, I have all manner of people appeal to “common sense” in the face of legal requirements. These appeals are as widely varied as the individuals who I encounter. I often say (amongst my coworkers, not to those people) that “one man’s common sense is another man’s idiocy.” Hence my somewhat visceral (def: emotional – oops!) reaction to the characterization of wisdom as common sense.
Eric, thanks for your well-reasoned input.
I admit my fingers paused for long time after describing "wisdom" as "common sense." I was going for brevity and ease of understanding, and probably lost accuracy in the process.
I like your suggestion of "the essence of the knowledge and character of God."
Amen! Yes, I could disagree with some nuances of this post, but Amen!
I was born in Québec as the eldest daughter of a Belgian immigrant and a Québécois mother in the 1950s, and when I started attending public school in French, most of my classmates and even the teachers had NEVER heard or seen a name like Gyselinck in their lives before. In fact, I was only schooled in the French sector because my mother was a French Canadian of Roman Catholic confession. Most children of immigrants went to schools of the local Protestant school boards, and so since I was different and vulnerable the other kids started to pick on me and bully me. I only found acceptance once my parents moved me to an English high school so I'd learn English since the teaching of English in Québécois schools was AND IS pathetic. My experience as a first generation child of immigrant parents was that the nation to which I was born was and remains very ethnocentric. Even now most francophones in Québec--especially those who trace their ancestry to French ancestors who immigrated in the 17th and 18th centuries--struggle to include and accept immigrants who look different and have different religions like Islam.
I'm NOT rejecting anything. Actually, I would agree that people tend to let their emotions run away with them when it comes to matters of justice, especially when it comes to immigration--since let's not kid ourselves--immigration is a big-ticket issue these days both in the States and Canada as people of Haitian origin have been streaming across our border, as they fear deportation back to Haiti following your president's order that the protection offered by POTUS 44 after the earthquake of 2010 be rescinded as of Jan.2018. The stream of July has dwindled down to a creek, but we're going to be processing cases for months if not years to come here in Québec, and all of them are getting basic welfare and free medical care until they can get a workers's permit and be allowed to look for work. Do they get that in the States?
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