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Published Date: February 2, 2011

Published Date: February 2, 2011

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Cover of "Created to Thrive".

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Justice and Empathy

Are you astonished at the lack of empathy some have for women’s experiences in hierarchal and even abusive settings? Women report that once they find the courage to speak to their pastor about an abusive spouse, they are often told to pray, submit, or improve their sexual appeal.What is lacking from this response is empathy for these women, rooted in biblical love of neighbor as self.

I am indebted to Patti Ricotta, who, during her CBE workshop, was able to generate empathy for women in hierarchical relationships through audience participation. You may want to try this exercise yourself. The results are quite powerful. Here is what Patti did. Inviting a willing man from the audience, she asked him to describe his best male friend. After learning more about their years of friendship and their shared faith in Christ, Patti pressed a critical point. She asked:

Imagine if, the next time you met with your friend, you announced to him that “I believe that Scripture teaches that I should be the head of our relationship. As God’s appointed head, I will be a servant-leader and, as such, I will make decisions on your behalf, should there be a difference of opinion. As a servant-leader, I am committed to considering your feelings in all decisions. And, as God’s appointed head, I will hold loving authority over you.”

Here is where it became very interesting. Patti then asked this willing male, “How do you think your friend would respond to this proposal?” You can probably imagine his reply. It took him only a few seconds to say, “My friend would think I was high on drugs.”

I so appreciate this empathy-building exercise, which I’ve used many times in my own public lectures. Without exception, the males placed in the same situation have offered a similar response–contempt for the idea that any friend would presume to make decisions on behalf of their friendship, which, by definition, was built upon mutual respect, mutual trust, and therefore mutual authority in decision-making.

CBE staff member Liz Beyer proposed that this exercise could be taken one step further. In an effort to create empathy and understanding for abused women, a willing male could additionally be asked how his friend might respond if he were also told that his failure to submit might lead to his own abuse. And, that rather than leave the abusive relationship–which was the result of his unwillingness to submit–he should work harder at submitting, pray more, wait for God to intervene, become more physically attractive, and let a pastoral team (who supports unilateral authority) intervene. After all, that is the advice Christian women often receive from pastors.

Friends, creating empathy in the gender discussion is challenging but also necessary. During the abolitionist movement, it took many years to develop empathy for the plight of the slaves, given that slavery had always been part of human culture. In addition to showing how slavery violated Scripture’s teaching on the sacredness of marriage, the responsibilities of parents, and unity within the body of Christ, abolitionists had to also show how slavery was at odds with Scripture’s call to love others as we love ourselves. Abolitionists were thus pressed to create empathy for slaves. In the same way, egalitarians must also show how male hierarchy is at odds with Scripture’s teaching on unity within the body of Christ and marriage as a one-flesh relationship, and work to create empathy for devalued women.

Empathy is clearly implicit in Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ. Paul says that when one member suffers, all are injured (1 Cor. 12:26). Paul places empathy at the center of the husband’s responsibility in marriage. As a sacred one-flesh relationship, the husband is specifically called not to hold authority over his spouse, but to love his wife as his own body through extreme empathy–by viewing her as part of his own body, not hating her but nourishing her as he would himself (Eph. 5:28). Of all people, Christians are called to empathy, to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15).

To read Patti Ricotta’s complete role play, see the Autumn 2007 issue of Mutuality (vol. 14, issue 3).