Empathy, Anger, and the Righting of Injustice
Nicholas Wolterstorff asks: What is the role of the emotions of empathy and anger in the struggle to correct injustice? And why is it that some people feel empathy with certain victims of injustice, and anger at those who are oppressing them, whereas other people do not? How can empathy and anger be aroused?
[lighthearted music] So I’d like to talk to you about the role of, basically the role of emotion in the struggle for justice. Let me begin by describing for you the two episodes. That first moved me to think, speak, and write about justice, and led me to get active, become active in various justice movements. I call these my two awakenings.
Some of you have heard me describe the first of these. I hope you won’t get bored by my doing it again. Not so many, I think, have heard about the second. So, here goes. I was a Philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When in September 1975, I was sent by my college to a conference on Christian higher education in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Potchefstroom is a medium sized city, about an hour and a half drive from Johannesburg, so pretty much in the center of the country.
At the time, only whites were admitted as students to the University of Potchefstroom. Times have changed now. Most of the South Africans present at the conference were Africaners. A few of them were, from South Africa were from the English Community of South Africans. There were a fair number of, what we called in those days, ‘colored and black,’ blacks from South Africa.
There’s a sizeable contingent from the Netherlands. Some of us from North America, a few from Asia. Oh, and some from other parts of Africa. The conference was not about the South African system Apartheid. Most of you remember what Apartheid was, correct? Okay, it was not about Apartheid. Recall though, that 1975 was some fifteen years before the downfall of Apartheid. Though, Apartheid was not the topic of the conference, it was the dominant topic of conversation at coffee breaks, at meals, and so forth.
And it constantly threatened to intrude into the conference. Especially the Dutch were extremely angry at the Africaners. And Dutch and Africaners, Africaners are derivative of Dutch, so the Dutch and Africaners could understand each other. The Dutch were very angry. And they did whatever they could to intrude the topic of Apartheid into the conference.
Question period, a Dutchman would get up and say, Professor Vanderwhite, the first thing you mentioned in your talk was very interesting, but that reminds me of Apartheid. [laughs] And so it went. Until finally the Africaners, clearly thoroughly exasperated by this whole business, consented to hold a late night session devoted explicitly to Apartheid.
Ten o’clock in the evening. It was the most intense session I had ever then attended. And I think it probably remains the most intense that I have ever experienced. As I said, the Dutch were very angry at Apartheid. And they were very well-informed. Later I learned that the Africaners usually defended themselves against critics by saying, ‘But you don’t understand.’ They could not say to the Dutch, ‘But you don’t understand,’ So their response to the Dutch was, ‘But you’re so judgemental. You’re so judgemental.’ So it went for, I don’t know, thirty minutes.
The Dutch and the Africaners back and forth. Until neither party had anything new to say to the other. But I noticed that they kept on talking for awhile, even when they didn’t have anything new to say to each other. But it quieted down. And then the so-called ‘blacks and coloreds’ spoke up. They spoke up to my ear at the time, but I’d want them to say. To my ear, more in tones of hurt and anguish than of anger.
But it may have been anger. They described the indignities that the system of Apartheid wreaked upon them. And the ordinary indignities that they experienced in person to person contact. The system of Apartheid herding them off into the Bontu Stones, Ripping them up from their ancestral homes in Cape Town and so forth. And they issued a call for justice. I was profoundly moved by that call for justice.
Coming from these victims of injustice. But more than being moved, I felt that I’d been issued a call from God to speak up for these people. I didn’t hear any voices in the air. It was their voices that I heard, I heard God’s call coming to me in their voices. In such a way that I had the profound feeling that I would be unfaithful to my God if I did not speak up for these people. The response of the Africaners at the conference, who defended Apartheid, to this plea for justice to me completely aback.
They did not contest the charge of injustice. Instead they insisted that justice was not a relevant category. A relevant category, they said, was order. When I got the impression from them that there was a Communist behind every bush and every boulder. But more important, they said, you have to understand, that we Africaners are a benevolent people. You see, in South Africa, there are ten or eleven different nationalities, depending on how you count.
And the goal of Apartheid was this visionary goal of each of these nationalities, being able to, well separate development, being able to develop in its own way, its own literature, its own language, its own style of basket weaving, of rug making and so forth. And if each nation or nationality is going to develop in its own way, they can’t be mixed through each other, right? They’ve gotta be separated. They’ve gotta be pulled apart, hence Apartheid.
So it’s a great good that we are pursuing. Granted, some suffering comes along. But that happens for lots of great goods. And then in tradition they told stories about their individual treatment of so-called ‘blacks and colors.’ How they gave clothes that their children had outworn to the black family in the backyard and so forth. In short, The Africaners presented themselves as a very benevolent people. And they complained that almost always, their benevolence went unacknowledged. No gratitude was forthcoming. One of them, I should never forget. Elaine, that was her name, but you don’t know who Elaine was so I can use her name. Elaine, tears dripping down her eyes, on the platform. Saying, ‘But why can’t we just love each other? Why do you always criticize us? Why can’t we just love each other?’
What I saw before my eyes, as I had never seen before, was benevolence being used as an instrument of oppression. Self-perceived benevolence, of course, but it may, in some cases it may have been sincere. So I returned home a changed person. I did what scholars do, I bought yards of books about these situations, South Africaners’ historical origins. I read avidly. I began to think, speak, and write in general about injustice in South Africa, about the particularities of it. I returned to South Africa quite a number of times, befriended a great number of the blacks and colored, and some of the whites. And so forth. That was my first awakening.
Now, for my second. In May of 1978, I attended a conference on Palestinian rights on the west side of Chicago. Remember I was teaching in Grand Rapids, it was a three hour drive around the tip of Lake Michigan. I don’t know why, I never discovered why I got this invitation in my box. And I never understood in myself what it was that lead me to accept the invitation, but I went. The conference was sponsored by an organization called ‘The Palestine Humane Rights Campaign.’ There were about 150 Palestinians present. Mostly Christian.
If you had asked me in advance, Wolterstorff, do you think there are any Christian Palestinians? I suppose I would’ve said yes. But I didn’t natively think of Palestinians as Christian, I though of them as Muslim. But these 150 Palestinians were Christians. And they poured out their guts in flaming rhetoric. Rhetoric that I later learned was too hot for most North Americans to handle. They likewise described the indignities daily heaped upon them. They told of how their ancestral lands and orchards were being confiscated.
And how they were being evicted from their homes and their homes bulldozed to make way for Jewish Settlers. They told of collective punishment. And of the multiple ways in which they were daily demeaned. They too cried out with passion for justice. And there were, parenthesis. The U.S. State Department allowed the head of PLO at that time, Terzi was his name, to attend the conference. With the proviso that he see to us that when he spoke, no more than five people were within earshot. I just have to say that I felt infuriated.
If the U.S. Policy was so fragile, that Terzi speaking so that ten people could hear him, then there was something profoundly wrong about our policy. So once again, a cry for justice. Once again, I was deeply moved by that cry. And not only was I moved, once again I heard God saying, Wolterstorff, you gotta speak up for these people.
You would be religiously disobedient if you just went home. So I went home, here we go, bought yards of books about the situation in Palestine and its history. Spoke and wrote about injustice in the Middle East. I became head, for awhile, of the organization that had organized the conference, The Palestinian Human Rights Campaign. I traveled to the Middle East several times, became friends with a number of those who were protesting the situation, both Palestinian and Israeli.
And when the Oslo Accord was signed, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, on September 13, 1993, I concluded that the situation was now in the hands of the Israelis and the Palestinians. That they would now solve it, and that there was nothing more that outsiders could do. What an incredible piece of naiveté. So, that was my second awakening. Now some reflections. I’ve often reflected on why these two experiences were so moving for me. I had been a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Campaign, though I’d not actually gone down south to participate in any protests or marches. I’d been a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, and I’d spoken out publicly in opposition.
And a couple years ago I re-read some of the things I wrote at the time about the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, and I noticed that I used the category of justice. But I had not felt called in the same way as I did when I was confronted by the so-called blacks and coloreds in South Africa and the Palestinians. I had not been motivated to think, speak, and write about justice. I didn’t. So here’s the question I’ve asked myself over and over. Why was that? What made the difference? I had read Christian scripture, Old Testament and New Testament since childhood. The theme of justice pervades scripture. We read that God loves justice, and enjoins me to imitate God in also loving justice.
I’m sure I knew that in 1975. But it hadn’t sunk in. You know that’s how it often is with scripture, right? It takes an experience of a certain sort to make his message here, his message there sink in. So why was I so moved in these cases? The answer that I eventually settled on was this, I had seen the faces and heard the voices of the oppressed.
Face to face, telling their story. Whereas that had not been the case, or had barely been the case, for my participation in the Civil Rights Movement and in the Vietnam War opposition. In his wonderful book, Just Mercy, it’s a wonderful book, Bryan Stevenson calls seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the wronged, proximity. That’s a nice word. I had experienced proximity. In these two awakenings. That answer suggests a new question, obviously. And what was it about hearing the voices tell their own story, and see the faces?
What was it about that that so moved me? You could put it like this, what difference does proximity make? The answer to that question that I eventually settled on was this. Seeing the faces of the wronged and hearing their story in their own voice evoked empathy in me. Empathy. By empathy I don’t mean compassion, and I certainly don’t mean pity. I did feel compassion. But the compassion was incorporated within empathy.
Look, I found myself empathetically united and identified with these people. Emotionally identified with them. I felt anger with their anger, hurt with their hurt, humiliation with their humiliation. You know what I mean? Empathy, feeling with. Now I don’t doubt, I don’t doubt that some people are moved to struggle to write injustice by a sense of duty.
Maybe some people are moved to struggle for justice because they think that that’s what a good and virtuous person does. Maybe some are motivated by the conviction that this how we are called to imitate God.
But I’ve come to think that, generalizing from my own case, I’ve come to think that for most people, being motivated to struggle for justice requires emotional engagement. In my case it was empathy with the victims. Sometimes it’s anger with the victimizers. There’s a wonderful organization in Honduras called The Association for a More Just Society. And I’ve gone down there several times. They do wonderful work.
Head of the organization is Carlos Hernandez. And I shall never forget, Carlos showing up for lunch one day, and saying that he’d spent the morning at a meeting. And found himself sitting across the table from two people who had, about a year before, murdered the main attorney of The Association for a More Just Society. And Carlos said he just felt anger welling up within him at the thought. Not just the thought, but the reality. That these guys were still free to perpetrate their evil deeds. So in my case it was empathy. Empathy with the anger and the hurt of the blacks and the colors, so-called blacks and colored. In Carlos’s case it was anger. Either way, here’s my suggestion. I think for most of us human beings, some sort of emotional engagement is required. Duty doesn’t usually do it.
Merely the call to be a good and virtuous person doesn’t do it. I should mention parenthetically, that you don’t actually have to be face to face with the victims or, the victimizers. Film can also evoke empathy, powerfully. And drama and fiction can do so. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by all the testimony we have, was powerful in evoking anger at Simon McGree. And empathy for Uncle Tom and his family and so forth.
Whereas journalistic reports, in my impression, usually don’t evoke much in the way of, I mean they give you information. But they don’t evoke much in the way of empathy and anger. So what’s the difference? I think the difference is this. When we actually see the faces and hear the voices of the wronged, or when we find them vividly depicted in film, or drama, or fiction. I think what happens is that imagination gets energized.
We imagine, to some extent, we imagine what it’s like to be a person of that sort in that sort of situation. I think it’s this imagining that evokes the empathy. And it strikes me that journalism seldom evokes this imagining. Whereas to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin is [laughs] is not just to be invited but to be, what word do I want? To be, propelled into imagining what it was like to be Uncle Tom. And so forth. And now we get to a question that, another question that has rattle around in my brain for a long time. From the time of my first awakening. Empathy with the wronged was evoked in me by this face to face, voice to voice encounter.
But empathy with those same people was not evoked in the Africaners, who were defending Apartheid at the conference. In spite of the fact that they had a lot more face to face, voice to voice contact with these same people than I did. And it’s not evoked, lets face it, in most of the Israelis, who meet the same Palestinians that I met. So why the difference? Why me and other people? And not those people?
As I say, they had far more contact with the faces and voices than I ever did. I suppose one [laughs] explanation to consider is that the Africaners and the Israelis lack the capacity for empathy. I suppose in a few situations, a few cases that’s the right explanation.
But a person who lacks the capacity for empathy is a sociopath, right? Just cold and unfeeling. A sociopath. Most of these Africaners didn’t strike me as sociopaths. Most of the Israelis didn’t strike me as sociopaths. They had a capacity for empathy. So why didn’t they feel it? The view to which I came was this. To which I came was this. Most Africaners had the capacity for empathy. And most Israelis have the capacity for empathy.
But the empathy was blocked. Let me used Biblical language. Their hearts were hardened. They had hearts. But their hearts were hardened. You see, I’m assuming that most human beings do have a capacity for empathy, but the sociopaths are the exception. So in this case, hardening of the heart. And now you can see the next question. I’m taking you down this sort of [laughs] trail of questions. And what explains the blocking of empathy in these cases?
What explains the hardening of hearts? Let me mention briefly five factors. I don’t doubt there are others, but five will be more than enough. Here’s one reason. The hard-hearted person has learned to dehumanize the victims. Or if not precisely to dehumanize them, to think of them as lesser in some way. You all know the language. They are vermin, scum, jabs, deygos, Jew boys, terrorists. Meant to, treat them as semi humans.
An Israeli general was once quoted to say that the Palestinians are, I quote, ‘Drugged cockroaches running around in a bottle.’ If that’s how you think of them, you’re not gonna empathize with their plight. Arabs are just commonly said by the Israelis, respond only to force. The assumption being that other human beings, like you and me, we respond to reason and other things than force. You see, they’re different. Not quite human. I think that’s one powerful empathy blocking, heart hardening factor.
Here’s another, a second. Another reason why empathy is often blocked and hearts hardened, is that the people have embraced a story, a narrative. Which says that the plight of the whoever, of the victims, that the plight is of their own making. And if it’s of their own making, you don’t empathize with them. I mean, you regret, but you you don’t, it’s their own fault if the poor are poor. The Palestinians fled their villages in 1948 of their own accord.
They weren’t driven out, they just left. Because some Arab leaders suggested that they leave. And they just refused to negotiate. It’s their own faults. It’s of their own making. Empathy is out of place. The poor are lazy. Whatever. A third reason, somewhat similar, for the blocking of empathy and the hardening of hearts, is that the hard-hearted have embraced not so much the narrative of historical narrative, but have embraced a visionary ideal of some great good to be achieved by the present policies.
That’s what the, You know I indicated that’s what the Africaners thought, that there was the great good of separate developments. Causes some suffering. You know great goods cause suffering. And that’s unfortunate. But the great good outweighs the present suffering. So you harden your heart. And you do what must be done to achieve the future great good. There’s a film, a wonderful film about Cambodia and the revolution there. And in the film, Paul Potts, the leader, really says this to his followers at one point. Quote, ‘You must rid yourselves of emotion and become purely rational.’ Now, I don’t know what Vietnam word the English word ‘rational’ is translating, but that’s really striking.
You must rid yourselves of emotion, empathy, and become purely rational. There’s a great good to be achieved. A fourth reason why empathy is often blocked, is that one feels loyal to one’s own people. I shall never forget. So, one of the great heroes in the South African Revolution was a white person, Beyers Naudé. Christian Beyers Naudé. Who came from a very prominent Africaner family. Was a preacher.
Eventually he just became a profound critic of Apartheid. I shall never forget an Africaner sitting in my living room in Grand Rapids at dinner. This Africaner whom we had to dinner was a defender of Apartheid. And with enormous, and we started talking about Beyers Naudé, and Christy, who was the Africaner in my living room. Christy says, ‘Beyers is a traitor.’ You see the point. A traitor to his people, the Africaners. He’s a traitor.
If that’s your attitude, [laughs] you don’t feel empathy. And a final fifth explanation for, that I have come up with for why empathy gets blocked and hearts get hardened, a fifth one is this. Maybe this is the most common. Empathy is blocked by the realization, perhaps half-conscious, that feeling empathy would lead to acknowledging one’s own complicity in the plight of the victims. Acknowledging one’s own complicity would require a drastic change in one’s life, and that’s more than you can handle.
You give up friendships. Beyers Naudé gave up all his traditional friendships. Gave up his position in the church. And that’s more than most people can handle. So best to harden one’s heart. Make contributions every now and then to charitable organizations. And then nothing has to change. Excuse me. Now, to evoke empathy for the victims and those whose, let me just stop. How do you evoke empathy in those whose hearts have been hardened? What do you do? Thus to advance the cause of justice.
Well the answer is pretty clearly this. You’ve got to diagnose the cause of the hardening. Which of these five factors is at work? Maybe some other combination no doubt. You have to diagnose the particular cause of the hardening. And then do what you can to remove that cause. And in each case you’ve got to craft, here’s what I’m saying, in each case you have to craft your approach to what is the factor. Is it some visionary ideal that’s at work? Is it a story about the past that’s doing the work? Is it just the dread that if I acknowledge it I’m going to have to change my life and I can’t stand to do that. You’ve gotta diagnose the cause. And then do what you can to change the cause. And your scholarship. Your scholarship often plays a significant role.
A number of Israeli historians have shown that the standard Israeli narrative, which says that the plight of the Palestinians, the original plight of the Palestinians, is of their own making, is simply false. It’s not true. That’s a contribution that scholars can make. And Adam Hochschild, in his wonderful book, ‘Bury the Chains,’ about the abolitionist movement in England, describes how the anti-slavery advocates of nineteenth century England succeeded in persuading the British public that they could abolish the slave trade without causing economic collapse in England. So it wouldn’t cause [laughs]
You see, it wouldn’t cause a radical change in lifestyle. And that argument proved to be significant than the British saying it’s a bad thing, and since it won’t cause all that much change in the lifestyle, let’s go for it. Sad to say, Pressures to remove blockages to empathy often fail, obviously. Are often unsuccessful. And then pressure of one kind or another has to be applied. That’s what happened in South Africa. The boycotts clearly had an effect. So that was about why, why was empathy evoked in me, and not evoked in people who saw the same people far more often than I did. Now a different but related point.
Sometimes empathy is evoked but no passion for justice is motivated. Right? And a common example of that combination, empathy, but no passion for justice, is hand wringing. It really is too bad, it breaks my heart. But there’s nothing to be done. There’s just nothing to be done. It’s most unfortunate. I wish it were different. I wish the Africaners would treat the so-called ‘blacks and colors’ better, but there’s nothing to be done.
In other cases, I think that’s the hand wringing, the empathetic hand wringing response, is common. In other cases, empathy evokes charity and benevolence, rather than justice. I’m gonna say it again. In other cases, empathy is evoked, and it’s not hand wringing, but it’s charity and benevolence. We see photos of pitiful looking little children in Haiti. Or orphans. We are touched. We really are, we feel empathy.
So we send a contribution for the alleviation of their plight to the charitable organization, whose name appears below the photo. And we don’t ask whether these orphans are the victims of injustice, we’re just moved to charity. Benevolence. Let me develop that point a little bit. Why does empathy so often evoke benevolence rather than justice? The attempt to write injustice. Why does it so often evoke charity for the plight of the oppressed, rather than the attempt to alleviate their plight? I’ll put it very pointedly.
Why is it easier to get support for relief and development projects than for justice projects? Unless the justice projects are in some distant land? Let me say it again. Why is it much easier as it is, to get support for relief and development organizations and projects than for justice projects, unless the justice projects are off in India? Or Nigeria, or something like that. Well, sometimes the empathetic person genuinely does not believe that justice is at stake. Really doesn’t believe that justice is at stake.
The thought of justice doesn’t cross his mind. Or it does, but he thinks it’s a natural misfortune, it’s not injustice or whatever. Whatever the cause, he’s oblivious to the injustice. He only sees suffering people. And so he just spends his charity. And here again the work of scholars and journalists is really important to identify for us, cases in which injustice is at stake. It’s not always. There was an earthquake in Haiti, right? Earthquakes around the world, too. The Africaners who spoke up at the conference did not strike me as sociopaths. They did not strike me as hard-hearted in general.
Some of them were genuinely empathetic, they really felt the plight of the so-called ‘blacks and colors.’ But they didn’t believe that justice was the issue. Or so they said. And so charity and benevolence. So I think that’s one reason, what do you think? I think that’s one reason why empathy with the victims often evokes charity and benevolence, rather than the struggle for justice. The people really aren’t aware that injustice is involved. The social analysis that would bring it to light, they’re not aware of.
Let me give you a simple example of, a few weeks ago I was talking with a friend of mine, who’s member of a congregation in inner city Grand Rapids. And he described to me the following episode. For the past two years, he said, at Thanksgiving, the congregation had distributed food baskets. Thanksgiving food baskets to the people in this area of more or less impoverished Grand Rapids.
After the second times they’d done that, the owner of a local 7-Eleven store came to them and asked them would they please stop. Why is that? He said, ‘You know, I barely manage to keep this 7-Eleven store open here. The biggest weeks in the year are the weeks before Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I had almost no business these past two Thanksgivings, because you people were distributing all the food. I can’t go on.’
So the congregation said, ‘From now on, at Thanksgiving, we’ll buy as much food as possible from your store.’ But in this case they really were ignorant of the fact, oblivious to the fact, I should maybe say, that they were doing injustice to this owner of the 7-Eleven store. Sometimes ignorance is the account, explains why it is the empathetic people go for benevolence and charity, rather than for justice.
But I think in other cases, what do you think? I think in other cases, what happens is that they resist acknowledging that injustice is at stake. It’s not so much that they’re ignorant, but that they resist. And that’s because, let’s face it, dispensing charity is, in general, a lot more comfortable than struggling to write injustice, correct injustice. In what way is charity more comfortable? Well, at least two ways. The struggle for, the struggle against injustice almost always evokes hostility and anger. Seldom do relief and development projects, I mean sometimes they do, but usually they don’t evoke empathy and anger.
But when you struggle against injustice, you’re opposing the victimizers, and they want to keep on doing what they’re doing. And a lot of us human beings, we don’t like conflict, right? Certainly, we don’t like dangerous conflict. Had I mentioned that Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, about what, four years ago. His head lawyer was assassinated on a main street in Tegucigalpa.
The work that ASJ does, Association for a More Just Society, is dangerous work. They get people angry. The heads of the organization have around the clock body guards assigned to them and paid for by the Honduran government. Most of us, [laughs] we don’t like conflict, and we certainly don’t like danger. So let’s do relief and development. And I think there’s yet a second way in which dispensing charity is more comfortable than struggling against injustice.
And this, finally, really as I see it, gets to the heart of the difference between charity and justice. Not only does charity usually not get you into conflict, it’s usually morally optional. If justice does not require that I give clothes to the so-called ‘blacks and coloreds’ in my backyard in South Africa, if it’s simply a matter of benevolence and charity, it’s up to me.
Whether I give them the secondhand clothes or clothes to somebody else. I’m in charge. It’s up to me decide whether or not to give the clothes. And I can set conditions on the benevolence, as the Africaners did. They said to the so-called ‘blacks and colors,’ ‘You’ve got to behave.’ The Israelis persistently say to the Palestinians, ‘You’ve got to behave, you’ve got to stop the terrorism. We won’t talk to you if you engage in acts of terrorism. You have to behave.’ Now that’s what benevolence can do, it can set conditions. It’s optional, you can choose these rather than those, you can choose the ones you prefer.
But justice is not morally optional. If justice requires that I give the clothes or whatever, then I ought to give the clothes. Okay, so let me conclude. My main theme has been this, that emotional engagement with the victims and perpetrators of injustice, are the most powerful motivators, as far as I can see, of the struggle to correct injustice. Empathy with the victims, anger at the victimizers. To say it once again, I don’t claim that everybody is energized by emotional engagement. Some people may be energized by duty. Some may be energized by this is just what good and virtuous people do.
But if I can generalize from my own experience, I think it’s emotional engagement. And if that’s correct, there’s this moral, right? If you were the sort of person, or you and your friends, if you want to engender support for a social justice movement, you’ve got to do what you can to evoke emotional engagement with the people that you’re trying to help. For those whose hearts are not hardened, I think the best strategy is face to face engagement, or otherwise film, drama, powerful, powerful fiction. And as for those whose hearts are hardened, you have to figure out why they’re hardened. What are the blockages?
And what, if anything, can you do to remove them? Tell a different story about what happened? A more accurate story. Puncture holes in his visionary story of the great good that’s to be achieved by murdering half of the Cambodians, and so forth. And you’ve got to do what you can to counter the all too human response of hand wringing, of doing nothing. Let me close. I’m a Christian, speaking in a Christian college, university, Biola.
But I’ve scarcely mentioned scripture. I’ve alluded to it, but haven’t directly mentioned it. So what role does scripture play in the struggle to correct injustice? Need I tell you that empathy with the wronged is blocked in Christians as well as the non-Christians. All the Africaners at the conference identified themselves as Christians.
Need I tell you that Christians, as well as non-Christians, often prefer hand wringing or charity, to getting involved in the dangerous, conflictual struggle to correct injustice. Ever since my two awakenings, a good deal of my writings has been devoted to trying to open the eyes of my fellow Christians. To the stirring Biblical message that God, our God, loves justice.
Renders justice to that quartet of the vulnerable that comes up over and over again in the Old Testament, the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the impoverished. That God loves justice. Especially for them, since their daily lives are lived in situations of injustice. And that God hates injustice, and that God enjoins you and me to join God in struggling for justice and against injustice. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
Open the eyes of my fellow Christians to that Biblical message. But it’s been my experience after [laughs] some years, It has been my experience, that unless Biblical exegesis Is joined with the sort of emotional engagement that I’ve been discussing this evening, nothing much happens. So tonight, I’ve not done the Biblical exegesis, I could’ve done that, but instead the emotional engagement part of it. Our hearts have to be engaged, not just our hermeneutical heads. Thank you very much. [applause]
Man: What do you perceive as being the greatest injustice in the world today, and do you have any recommendations on how to a person can go about righting it.
Say it again?
Man: What do you perceive as being the greatest injustice in the world today, and do you have any recommendations on how to right it. [laughs]
The mics picked that up for recording. What do I perceive as the greatest injustice? Count them. [laughs] I don’t know. What’s happening in the Middle East is, unspeakably unjust. In every country in the Middle East. I think in our country, U.S., it’s how we treat prisoners is a good candidate for being the grossest case of injustice. I have friends in my church who are deeply involved in prisons in Michigan.
And the stories they tell, it’s just vindictiveness, it’s vengeance that’s at work. And arbitrary. So certainly among the gross cases of injustice in American society, is the prisons. I supposed worldwide, it’s the Middle East. International Justice Mission does a fabulous job with enslaved labor around the world. They claim, and for all I know it’s correct, that there are more people in slavery today than ever before in the world’s history. We just don’t hear much about it. So, it’s all around us. Now, the fact that there are so many examples of gross justice in our country and around the world, immobilizes a lot of people.
That’s another cause of hand wringing, and not so much that nothing can be done, but you know, there’s so much that where do we start? My advice is simply, be alert. If one touches your heart, go for that one. It was the blacks and colors in South Africa, the Palestinians that first touched my heart. So I went for it. There were cases of injustice in Grand Rapids, Michigan that I could’ve worked at instead, but my advice is, go with the cause that God drops on your doorstep. And don’t just say, ‘Oh, I wish God had dropped some other one on my doorstep.’ Go with the one that drops on your doorstep. I think that’s my best advice for not being immobilized by countless situations of injustice around the world.
Another question? In the front, we’ve got several. Over here.
Yes, sir. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your engagement with those who would fit the role of the persecutor. And how, I mean we have kind of a unique, maybe not a unique, but a special command to love our enemy. To reach out to those who are doing the injustice, and the victimizers. How would you, how does one engage with the ones who are doing the victimizing?
So, I think you, I mean always when one works in situations of injustice, you have to set priorities. And I think the first priority is to stand up for the victim. But, you’re absolutely right, love your neighbor. So once again, what ASJ does, Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, is for me, really admirable. They basically do two things.
When someone was raped, or land rights were violated, or instead of the medicine that was supposed to be distributed by the government it proves to be chalk powder, and on and on. First of all, they stand beside the victims. In Honduras, I’ve learned, there’s a lot of corruption. But maybe worse, there’s a pervasive lack of trust. The ordinary people don’t trust the police, and the police don’t trust the prosecutors.
The ordinary people worry that if they tell the police what happened, the police will tell the guys who committed the crime, and then they’ll come back and assault the family and so forth. So it’s pervasive lack of trust. So they’ve gotta work to build up trust. Get witnesses, encourage witnesses. In Honduras, it’s possible for a witness in court to be completely concealed, in a robe and so forth, and to have their voice altered.
So that the accused doesn’t know who the witness is. That’s not allowed in Anglo Saxon law, you have to know who the witness is, and so forth. So what they try to do is stand beside the victims, and then alongside that, get the government to do what it’s supposed to do. Investigate the crime and so forth. Now how do we treat, how do we love the enemy? I would say two things.
In Leviticus 19, shortly before we get love your neighbor as yourself, what we read is this, reprove your neighbor, if the neighbor has done wrong, lest his guilt be on you. Now that’s really interesting, isn’t it? So, concerned for the moral character of the other person, is part of loving the neighbor. And you have to reprove, and sometimes forcefully reprove.
As I mentioned today, there’s a story about the seventeen year old in Texas, who was drunk and killed somebody while driving. And his defense was that he was afflicted with affluenza, right? And his parents had never taught him the difference between right and wrong. [laughs] I suppose that’s true. I regard that as a profound dereliction of duty on the part of the parents. They should’ve reproved him.
So, one thing that we owe the wrongdoers is reproof. To make clear to them that they’ve done something wrong. And the second thing that we owe to every human being is to see to it, that the way in which we reprove them is consistent with recognizing that they’ve been created in the image of God. So, treat them too with dignity. And what strikes me about the stories I hear about the Michigan prison system, is that the wardens, well not all of the of course, but many of them consistently treat the prisoners with, they aim to treat them with indignity. That’s part of what loving even the enemy consists of. Sorry that I’ve gotta, but the light is shining [laughs] straight in my face.
Man: It’s bright up here. Let’s go to Twitter, and Mary Lou asks, about another blockage of empathy. She’s asking about removing the blockage of American civil religion. Or you might think of, I guess the American approach to talking about religion in society. How can that blockage be removed?
Now I wonder how she’s thinking of that as related to the blockage of empathy. Do you know?
Woman: Yes, I can answer that.
Man: And that is you.
There we go.
Man: Let’s get this woman a microphone.
Yeah, let’s give her a voice. Give her a voice.
Woman: I think the idea of, this is a Christian nation blocks empathy. Because all the choices we make are good, because we’re a Christian nation. And so I think a lot of times, so that’s just something I refer to, I use that term ‘American civil religion,’ where we get them confused, and we get them mixed up. And have you had success? Have you come across that, and have you had success at evoking empathy with that ideological barrier?
Hadn’t thought about that, but the idea’s sort of, hey look, we’re a good people. We’re a good Christian people, we’re a good people. So, How can we possibly be doing something wrong as you claim we’re doing? Yeah. I suppose that’s closely aligned to one of the ones I gave, right? Identification with, Identification with one’s people.
The Africaners identifying with, an Africaner identifying with the Africaner people, and Christy in my living room, saying about Beyera Naudé, he’s a traitor to the Africaner people. Yeah, it’s another factor. Yep, good point.
Man: I think we’ve got a few more in-person questions. Over on this side. Two in this row.
Woman: Hi. So, let’s say you’ve already decided God has called you to care about this particular cause, this particular injustice. When it comes to something like, you need to rally more man power, you need to convince more people around you who aren’t directly inflicted by this to care, keeping in mind how many different causes people are barraged with constantly, how do you go about that? How do you differentiate between this isn’t the cause this person is called to care about? And no, this cause deserves your attention right now, above all million and a half other things that you’re hearing about.
Well, you and I live in a wonderfully open and vocal society. So, [laughs] So once again, as you gather, I’m a great admirer of Association for a More Just Society in Honduras. They have supporters in the U.S., and what the do is, they have a website. They hold a conference, various conferences, dinners, actually. Once a year at various points scattered around the U.S., and they bring heads of the organization from Honduras to speak. And these people are incredibly eloquent, the ones.
And then they show films of the people that they’re aiding in Honduras, and so forth, and how the cause is going. You utilize the media, in whatever way you can. And some causes fall flat, you find that, you think is really important, but you just can’t muster any supporters, and you regret that, I mean you really do, and you turn to some other one. [laughs] Best I can do. International Justice Mission, how does it enlist people?
It’s a terrific organization. Once again, it’s been very successful. I mean, what it does is websites, and it tells the stories. It vividly tells the stories of enslavement in India, and Afghanistan and so forth. And it shows pictures. So it does exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. You see the faces, and it’s not just journalism. It’s not just black on white reporting, but it’s enabling and inviting us to imagine. That’s what you try to do. And for some causes it doesn’t work, or doesn’t work right away.
Man: There was another question in this room.
Docot Wolterstorff, I wonder, it seems there would be a difference, if you’re trying to awaken empathy, in people who have blockage. It seems there would be a difference between doing that as someone who is observing a conflict from the outside, and doing it as the victim within a conflict.
I wonder if you can speak to how it works for the second group. So, you’re the victim within a situation of injustice. How do you evoke empathy in the part of those who are doing you wrong?
Yep, that’s a very good question. A more elaborate analysis of social protest movements would distinguish between supporter movements and what do you wanna call it, participant movements or whatever. Those who are actually suffering from the injustice and those who are supporting the cause of those who are suffering from injustice.
So, I got involved, you know, in various ways in the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and that was largely a participant movement. There were outsiders, but it largely a participant movement. And they adopted various strategies, marches, prayer services, songs, music played an incredibly, and music often plays an incredibly important part. Music played an important part in the Civil Rights Movement.
So, music, posters, they enlisted art of various sorts. I didn’t mention that, but, so in the case of the South Africans, protest movements, art, lots of worship services, and just keeping alive the cry in all kinds of ways. This must not be. Remember Sharpeville, there was a massacre at Sharpeville, so one of the cries in the protest movement in South Africa, was ‘Remember Sharpeville,’ and that’s fairly characteristic that, especially the participants will, keep memory alive of some outrage.
Remember John Brown in the Civil War, and so forth. Those are some of the strategies. But it’s important to distinguish between participant movement and supporter movements. In the case of the Abolition of Slavery, it was largely supporter movements. The slaves themselves, a little bit, I mean they were almost immediately squelched, it was supporters in England and the U.S.
Man: I’m gonna do another Twitter question. This comes from Nick. When a blockage to empathy is removed from an oppressor, how can we aid in moving the oppressed and the oppressor toward reconciliation?
Ah, yes. It’s often, very difficult. It was achieved to some extend in South Africa, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, committee, commission. By, the commission insisting on the victimizers telling the truth of what had happened. They hoped that the victimizers would express repentance, but they didn’t always succeed in that. But it turned out that telling the truth was important. But there was another part of it.
They made the decision that they would not punish all past infractions of justice. That was a controversial decision. But I think reconciliation in South Africa, I think the fact that reconciliation was to a fair extent achieved, I think the fact that they didn’t pursue punishment of everybody was an important, was an important consideration. Ford decided for social peace, not to, decided to pardon Nixon. A lot of people were adamantly opposed to that decision. But I’m inclined to think it was probably the right decision.
Part of what happens is, under certain circumstances, forgoing punishment, or forgoing part of the punishment. That raises the question, are we, by forgoing punishment of the victimizers, are we [laughs] once again victimizing the victims? Reconciliation. Ideally, reconciliation occurs when the wrongdoer repents. Then it’s easier. It’s when the wrongdoer doesn’t repent that it becomes more difficult.
Man: Are there audience questions? Toward the back.
Man: Thank you very much for you talk, Doctor Wolterstroff. It’s a privilege to hear you today because I’m working on this topic of human dignity for my dissertation here at Cook School of Intercultural Studies. My question for you is, I grew up in India, and I’ve had first-hand experience in terms of seeing victims who have bought into the narrative, as you mentioned, has been embraced by victimizers.
And because it has eternal consequence in terms of if they come out of that structure that’s been created within the culture, they may lose out in terms of their eternal reward. So they wish to in some sense remain under the same structure. So, my question for you is, given that in India there is this negative sentiment against Christian religion in this particular point in time, how should we talk to people who are being victims, but have bought into the narratives, or ideology being created by people who have victimized them?
So, how do we engage, critique, correct the narratives that victimize? Of course, let me begin by saying sometimes, of course, the victims themselves, have bought into the narrative. They have themselves internalize the critique, and said, ‘Yeah, we are second class. We don’t have the dignity that the others do.’
And that’s one of the saddest things of all, when, I mean, some of the blacks and slavery conditions in the U.S. South, had internalized what the whites were thinking about them. So I think the only thing [laughs] I think the only thing to do is, so far as I can see, is tell as loudly and as popularly as we can, the correct narrative. Say, ‘You’ve got it wrong.’ As loudly and popularly as we can. That’s what Israeli historians have done, but they have by no means succeeded in persuading the Israeli public in general. Sometimes it takes a long time to correct the narrative, the story of how it happened. I’m not giving you a good answer to your question, because [laughs] How would you answer your question?
Man: The way I approached it, is by dealing with the world of where they are, as you mentioned. Telling the truth, as it is. But I’ve not found much influence, in terms of changing their views. That’s my struggle. And I’m hoping that I would find something in terms of reaching out to them and making them aware that they shouldn’t be there, where they are, and being victims. But I haven’t found an answer yet. That’s the very reason I’m working on this topic. For my dissertation. [laughs]
Man: Other audience questions? I’m going to go to you up here, they’ve been waiting.
I’m sorry to be sort of shielding myself. It may look like I’m avoiding your faces, but I’m listening to your voices. [laughs]
Man: So I think one thing that blocks my empathy, is just kind of the overwhelming overload of information. How fast things travel. Ever since I was little, I’ve seen people run planes into buildings, and people getting shot up on T.V., and I think I found myself not being able to watch news, and kind of be informed, because I find myself in this constant state of mourning. And I kind of numb myself from that. What do you think is one way I can, kind of combat that and get back into feeling empathy, and de-numbing, I guess?
So, the problem of overload. You listen to the news on television, and you’re reading the paper, and there are these injustices and assaults across the world, and you feel overload. So my advice really is, pick one or two. And in some ways it doesn’t all that much matter. The one that for some reason strikes your heart, or God just drops it on your, look, when I went to South Africa, I wasn’t looking for a cause when I went to this conference on Palestinian Rights. I wasn’t looking for a cause. The cause came to me. And I opened my heart to it.
There were some other people there, who were not particularly from North America, and so forth, who were not particularly energized to engage themselves with the so-called ‘blacks and colors,’ or the Palestinians. But open your heart and select the one that touches your heart. Sort of listen to the others, but say, ‘Look, I’m focused on this. That’s all I can do.’ That’s fine. Support prison reform. And say, ‘Yes, I know, terrible things are going on in Syria. Yeah, I know that, but I’m working at prison reform in Southern California.’ So, that’s really my advice. Focus. And you do that by whatever touches your heart. And not entirely block out the others, but sort of receive them as information. And that’s okay. You’re not God. Neither am I.
Man: Going online to another question, how do we deal with violence in response, from the victims? So, when victims also take to violence. This occurs, this guy Paul, online is saying, he references, Black Lives Matter, in the Black Lives Matter Movement, or at other public events, I’m not sure, but this matter of when the victim is pushed to the edge of violence themselves.
So, it is important, as I said, it happens over and over again, that you don’t succeed in unhardening the heart, and opening up empathy, so pressure has to be brought to bear. It’s really important that, only as a very last resort, and I’m not sure, it’s really important that the pressure be non-violent.
The people in the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa were almost, I think I can almost say were uniform, well, there were a few exceptions, but all the religious leaders, Busca, Tutu, and so forth, were all strenuously opposed to violence. They thought it was wrong, and anyway, they thought it was counterproductive. But they were extremely inventive in devising other forms of protests. Marches, and as I say prayer services. Some of these prayer services got the Africaners very angry. There was a famous prayer service held outside of Cape Town, in a suburb of Cape Town, for the downfall of the Africaner regime. Did you hear what I said? A prayer service for the downfall of the government.
Now, behind that has to be a certain harmonic of what Paul says in Romans 13, about our relation to the government, and so forth. But they said, but the government isn’t doing what Paul said the government should do. It’s an anti-government, it’s not serving the cause of justice. So they prayed for the downfall of the government. And the government fell. [laughs] So here’s a question for you and me as Christians.
Can we say that God, in response to that prayer service, brought down the Africaner government? Do we dare to say that? Do we dare to identify, in that way, God’s action in history? The leaders of the prayer service, which was held, I forget, nine months before the Africaner regime actually fell, held another prayer service to thank God for having answered their prayer. I guess it gets a lot of us kinda nervous, but should it? Where did this start? [laughs] What the, Whose question was it?
Man: That was from
Oh, that was from, yeah. Okay
Man: It was online. Why don’t we do one more in-person question? There was someone in the back. Over here on, yeah, thank you.
Woman: So you mentioned anger against the perpetrator, and I see a role for that, because it seems like that legitimizes what the victim has been wronged, right? But then you also talked about how vengeance is a bad thing, like in prison, just because these people maybe have been convicted of doing wrong, doesn’t mean that we get to treat them a certain way. How do you keep your anger from becoming, shall we say, vengeful anger, instead of righteous anger?
Yup, so that’s a really good question. So I think for Christians, vengeance, payback, retribution is out. Jesus says, and Paul repeats it in Romans 12, and other times in the New Testament, ‘Do not repay harm with harm.’ The usual translation is, ‘Do not pay evil with evil.’ We pay harm with good. I think, you know the Christian tradition, most of the Christian tradition, I guess, or at least a great deal of it is, supported retribution, payback.
I can’t read Jesus and Paul, except as saying, payback is out. I don’t think that means that punishment is out, or hard treatment. Do you remember the passage in Leviticus that I referred to? Reprove you neighbor, when the neighbor has done wrong. So reprove, but don’t pay back. And so my example is, when parents punish their children, unless there’s something extremely sick in the relationship, the parent doesn’t think of paying back. Johnny you’ve gotta be, you don’t use this word to little Johnny, but you’ve gotta be reproved for what you did. You’ve gotta be reminded. I don’t want you to be infected with affluenza, okay? I don’t want you to be infected with affluenza.
So, anger, So I think, you know, I think it’s the duty of all human beings, but certainly of Christians to keep anger alive, to say this must not be. And to say this must not be, even when you don’t know what to do about it. The Russian Christians, before the downfall of the Communist regime, a good many of them said, this must not be. And then we Americans are to say, ‘Then why don’t you do something about it, then?’ What were they supposed to do? So I see anger as the cry, this must not be. But it must not turn into payback.
Man: Can we please thank Doctor Wolterstorff one more time? [applause]
Thank you. [lighthearted music]