Walter Brueggemann: Not Numbed Inside

My friend, Dean Francis, loaned me a most remarkable book. Written by John Compton, it is entitled, The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors. The book is a carefully researched study about the way in which mainline churches have dramatically lost members and public influence.

Compton’s research suggests that this has happened to mainline churches because younger church members have fallen away from the social mandates of the gospel and have become preoccupied with individualized matters of self-actualization, self-securing, and self-satisfaction, all pursuits incongruous with love of neighbor. Compton thus refutes the notion that mainline churches have been depleted because they have become “too liberal”; he shows that they were always liberal concerning public issues of justice. Indeed that passion for public issues of justice was largely shared by clergy and lay people... until it wasn’t!

The outcome of this embrace of such individualized goals has led to an indifference to neighbors and thus to a “departure” from the commitments of the “liberal” churches. As a result of what was heretofore taken as a widely shared commitment, now has come to be seen as radical and excessively liberal. Compton observes that this “departure” from the church is matched by a more general “departure” in non-church society from the same neighborly values and commitments.

This loss of empathy for one’s neighbors is a striking and widespread social reality among us.

After reading Compton, I have been thinking about “empathy.” The word is an exact etymological equivalent to the word “compassion” that occurs frequently in our English translations of the Bible. Thus:

Em-pathy… feeling with;
Com-passion… feeling with.

The “death of empathy” concerns the loss of ability or willingness (or both) to “feel with” those who count as “neighbors” in gospel horizon (see Luke 10:29-37).

The word “com-passion” (also rendered as “mercy” and “pity”) figures prominently in the Old Testament characterization of God. The word occurs in a strong absolute infinitive in the “credo” self-declaration of YHWH:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, and abundant in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7).

As Nathan Lane, The Compassionate but Punishing God: A Canonical Analysis of Exodus 34:6-7, has traced out, the term is reiterated in that credo recital in numerous contexts:

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing (Joel 2:13).

I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing (Jonah 4:2).

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15).

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8).

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made (Psalm 145:8-9).

Indeed, we may reckon “compassion” along with “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” as the triad that most marks the readiness of God to “feel with” Israel and with God’s creatures who receive life from God:

I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord (Hosea 2:19-20).

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

It belongs to YHWH as a God of covenantal faithfulness to be “all in” in solidarity with God’s covenant partner. Israel has very little interest in the power of God, though there are ample doxological affirmations of God’s power that is taken for granted.

What marks YHWH as decisively different from all other gods, however, is YHWH’s capacity to “feel with” and “feel for” Israel in the deepest, most intimate ways.

That is the reason that Israel’s poets must regularly appeal to images of “husband-wife” and “parent-child” in order to portray the passion of this God who knows nothing of “compassion fatigue.” In her most remarkable exposition of YHWH’s compassion, Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, has shown how the Hebrew word for “compassion” (rhm) is linked to the Hebrew word for “womb” (rhm); both words share the same consonants but with different vowel pointing. Her rendering of Jeremiah 30:20 has these concluding lines:

Therefore my womb trembles for him;
I will truly show motherly compassion upon him, Oracle of Yahweh (p. 45).

With reference to Isaiah 49:14-15, Trible observes:

Heretofore its journey has accented similarities between the womb of woman and the compassion of God (51).

But YHWH’s compassion goes beyond that of a mother. And in Isaiah 63:15, Trible renders:

Where are thy zeal and thy might,
the trembling of thy womb and thy compassion? (p. 53).

These attestations to the maternal instincts of YHWH signify that there is no end to compassion on the part of YHWH, a capacity that runs even beyond the deep compassion of a mother for her child. The God to whom the gospel bears witness is profoundly and precisely marked by compassion, by a capacity to be stirred internally in solidarity with those in pain and in need.

The work of compassion not only pertains to God; it pertains in an equal way to God’s people. Thus Zechariah provides a summary of the covenantal-prophetic mandate to active solidarity:

Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).

In this text, the term “mercy” (rhm) is, moreover, in the plural... many mercies... abundant compassion! We are able to see that covenantal logic insists that God’s covenant partner is to be like God: “like God, like people!” The parallel is fully articulated in the twin Psalms 111 and 112. Psalm 111 traces out the character of YHWH:

He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful (v. 4).

The psalm then identifies the specificity of YHWH’s compassion:

He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the inheritance of the nations (vv. 5-6; see Deuteronomy 10:18).

This affirmation concerning YHWH is matched in Psalm 112 by a sketch of the faithful covenant partners to YHWH:

They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright;
they are gracious, merciful, and righteous (v. 4).

Again, what follows in the Psalm details covenantal performance of compassion:

They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever;
their horn is exalted in honor (v. 9).

Compassion is a defining mark of God’s people in the world, a community fully committed to the practice of empathy, capable of being “moved” in response to the pain and need of the world. This people is not unlike this God!

Well outside my scholarly competence, I am able to see that it is not different in the gospel narrative of the New Testament. Jesus is portrayed as full of compassion (splagchnon):

Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mark 1:41).

He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mark 6:34).

I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat (Mark 8:2).

If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and heal us (Mark 9:22).

Jesus is variously “moved” by lepers, hunger, a possessed child, blindness (and in the parable of Matthew 18:27 by poverty). That is, Jesus “feels with” and “feels for” all of those whose humanity is diminished or skewed. He is, moreover, moved by his empathy to effect transformation. The sum of this testimony makes clear (a) that Jesus enacts and performs the compassion that belongs to the God of the covenant and, (b) that he enacts and performs the compassion that belong properly to God’s covenant partners. In Jesus his followers saw for themselves the performance of the empathy of God and the empathy of authentic humanity.

We may go a step further when we observe that the Hebrew word for compassion (rhm) is linked to the term “womb” (rhm), and when we observe that the Greek word for compassion in the New Testament (splagchnon) refers to one’s “innards” or “entrails.” In both usages in both testaments, the term for compassion bespeaks a bodily movement or stirring or disturbance that evokes attention and engagement. That is, compassion is not just a good idea or an ethical resolve. It is, according to these word usages, a bodily response to the pain, hurt, or need of another person, so that there is bodily solidarity from one to another. Paul appeals to this bodily dimension of solidarity in his characterization of the church as “the body of Christ”:

The member may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it (I Corinthians 12:25-26).

Attention is particularly given to “inferior members,” exactly those to whom Jesus was drawn in his bodily solidarity. This reality of solidarity is lined out in the familiar hymn phrase:

We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bear;
and other for each other flows the sympathizing tear
(United Methodist Hymnal 557).

The church, in replication of Jesus and in response to the compassion of God, is a community that exists in and through and for bodily solidarity with the needy and hurting in the world. This is at the heart of the Bible long before we get to policy or to ideology.

It is obvious that our ethical norms and energies are not determined by rational thought. They are, rather, shaped by pre-rational sensibility, that is, by the natural innards of the self. Or to put it directly, we most reliably “go with our gut,” even if we dress it up otherwise. What happens in our “innards” shape and propel our engagements in our “outtards,” that is, in our social performance.

When our innards are open with empathy (compassion) to our neighbors, especially our neighbors in pain or need, we can and will act in ways of solidarity.

If, however, our innards are numbed or hollowed out, we likely will act in ways of indifference, without notice of or care for those around us in need or pain. The witness of scripture is an attestation that the God of the covenant has lively responsive innards, and so sees the hurt of the world, hears the cries of the pained, and so acts in transformative ways. Indeed, in the memory of Israel that is how the entire enterprise of covenant began:

God heard their groaning, God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them (Exodus 2:24-25).

Thus the God of the gospel is a God of stirred innards who acts with compassion and who, in the agency of Jesus, is “moved to compassion.” When we attend to this good news reality, our innards are prepared to engage the reality of the world in transformative ways. When, however, we are engaged with the idols that have no lively innards, we are sure to be increasingly unmoved by and uncaring about the neighborhood around us. Compton traces out the way in which increasing numbers of people have signed on with the idols of self-securing that will never yield lively innards.

When Israel was in its moment of exilic abandonment, the poet has Israel ask its most pathos-filled question:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger (Lamentations 1:12).

In its bereft condition, Israel wonders if anyone has noticed its plight or taken it seriously. According to Compton’s searing analysis, increasing numbers of members of the would-be church answer:

No, your sorrow is nothing to me;
No, your suffering does not interest me.

That answer, which we may give in our deepest moments of indifference, is reflective of numbed innards. But of course that is not the answer given everywhere. There are many who have answered otherwise:

Yes, your sorrow is indeed something to me;
Yes, I see and honor your wound.

Those who have such lively innards are an embodiment of the “remnant” of the faithful. In the narrative of Elijah, there were still 7,000 in Israel “who have not bowed their knees to Baal,” that is, who have not embraced the gods of numbed innards and unnoticed neighbors (I Kings 19:18). This declaration by the Lord contradicted Elijah’s mistaken sense that he was the only one left! This is the company that remains capable of empathy and prepared to enact compassion.

Thus in every generation, in an echo of Shakespeare (Henry the Fifth IV iii), it is “We few, we happy few, we band of sisters and brothers.” “Happiness,” in context, occurs when we live out the gift of empathy and perform a world of compassion. It is then that we are most fully in sync with the God who gives us life and who entrusts to us lively innards not yet numbed. It is for that reason we sing with joyous gusto when we meet together.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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