Be ready for the next big political showdown. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens prepares to resign from the highest court in the nation, politicians, the president and pundits will debate who will replace him. No doubt, in today’s political climate, it will be an arduous road.
Usually justice candidates fall in one of two camps. One camp includes the strict, or conservative, constructionalists. These justices look at the Constitution as something fixed and literal; justices do not seek to define or make policy so much as police the traditions of the American legal system.
The second camp is made up of the loose, or liberal, constructionalists. These justices, Stevens included, see the Constitution as a living, breathing document that contains principles that transcend time. These justices are said to utilize empathy to help enlighten how the Constitution can shape a more perfect union.
The intriguing aspect of this debate, which I have incorporated in my government class a time or two, focuses on to what degree a judge commingles justice with empathy. Justices that lean too heavily on empathy risk having their feelings override legal precedent, whereas justices that have very little empathy seem to already have their minds made up about certain cases even before lawyers deliver opening statements.
Although the media always presents these two camps in absolutist terms, the truth is that many justices fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to empathy. Judges decide cases to the letter of the law, but also seek to understand how human communities shape the laws being applied.
As Christians, we are called to be just and merciful in all situations. We have no choice but to show empathy when we relate to our neighbors, families, and coworkers because empathy is something God gives us in order to understand others.
Empathy is not about, as Sean Hannity once declared, “social engineering.” Empathy is not so mechanical or predictable that it can be applied to “fix” society.
Rather, empathy is a personal commitment to invest in the feelings, disparities, and needs of another. This requires an ability to listen to others and to one’s own feelings, all the while examining our responses to situations. Empathy acknowledges context and ambiguity, compromise and development.
A rich story of empathy can be found in Mark 8, in which Jesus and his disciples fed a crowd of four thousand. In the story, Jesus taught the crowd over the course of several days, and the crowd grew hungry.
The text says that Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus’ empathy became a catalyst for a miracle, and a mere handful of food fed the multitudes.
The greatest lesson of this story comes at the end. The Pharisees, known for their staunch reading of Old Testament Law, had little use for empathy. If an individual broke the law and any one of its 600-plus commandments, then the individual was punished without hesitation.
Jesus called this line of legalistic thinking — a type of thinking that fails to see the human equation in the midst of law — “yeast” that infects a social community. So, I guess in a way, empathy is social engineering in that it allows God to engineer our motivation in helping others and coming to terms with the precedent that Jesus’ compassion set so long ago in the high court of the human heart.
The debate over empathy and its role in the justice system will go on for decades, but for Christians who follow the compassionate Christ, the debate of how we are to respond to others was settled long ago.