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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Responding to Injustice: Empathy and Overload

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
June 5, 2017

Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on the personal empathy often required to spark action in the face of injustice, and discusses with Evan the implications of instant news and information overload on this dynamic.


When you get into a more personal interaction with justice, you’ve written about the importance of starting with an observation


of injustice, of oppression, of cruelty, of horrors where the appropriate Christian response is to stand as witness to that injustice. Can you describe that as a starting point, for seeking justice and for just for living into Christian love in response to..?

Yeh, so I’ve been generalizing from my own experience. An experience in South Africa which awakened me to the issue of justice, so called Blacks and Coloreds describing their oppressive situation and crying out for justice. That really awakened me. If you had asked me before that episode, “Does the Bible speak about justice?” I would’ve, of course, said yes. Did I think justice was important? I would’ve, of course, said yes.

It was seeing those faces and hearing those voices cry out for justice, that awakened me and energized me. And so I think that that’s true for most human beings. I can see that some human beings might pursue justice issues out of a sense of duty. Some might pursue it because they think that’s what virtuous people do. Fair enough. I don’t doubt that. But I think usually people have to become emotionally engaged.

They have to feel empathy for these oppressed, suffering people. Or, alternatively, anger at those who are doing the oppressing. But either empathy with the victims, or anger at the victimizers, I think that for most of us in the absence of such emotional engagement, we don’t do much. So, in my case, it was actually meeting these people, hearing them, listening to them. Films can also do it. You know, we’ve got testimony that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did it for a lot of people in the mid nineteenth century.

Slavery was depicted, the horrors of slavery were depicted so vividly that we’ve got testimony of people crying, breaking down in tears and so forth. So there again, what Harriet Beecher Stowe was doing was evoking both empathy and anger. Anger at Simon Legree, and empathy with Uncle Tom. So that’s my view, that there has to be, for most people, emotional engagement.

Emotional engagement in the start is just witnessing or becoming aware of what’s happening. We live in a curious time, where we can be exposed to world injustices every day, in our social media feeds. It’s something like an information overload for people.

Nicholas: Yeh. That also happens.

Where the awareness, some people simply stop at awareness, and don’t reach an emotional point that brings them to do something about it, that allows them to then respond.


What do you think we can do to foster these kinds of healthy emotions? Empathy for the victim and anger at the oppressor?

So I think journalism doesn’t typically evoke the empathy or the anger. It informs you, but it doesn’t really evoke it. It’s got to be a fairly lengthy film, or a novel, or actually seeing the faces and the voices. Furthermore, even if it does evoke empathy and/or anger, there’s a factor of overload. People feel empathy with the people in so many different situations that they just feel helpless, or a sense of helplessness.

Someone’s gotta help those people and so I say to them “You know, you don’t have to do it all. Take one cause, just one, whichever one touches you especially. It might be close to home, it might not be close to home. But you can’t do it all. So, immobilized hand-wringing is not an uncommon response.