Our Crisis of Empathy

 (Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP)

(Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP)

It was dark, but I could still discern in the headlights’ glare that a shotgun was pointed directly at my chest.

“Son, that’s a good way to get your head blown off,” said the voice behind the gun.

Perhaps I’d better back up and offer you some context here.

This was the mid-to-late seventies in rural Oklahoma. I was only 17 but this was not the first time a rural law enforcement officer had taken a look at my shaggy hair and fast car and decided I was a trouble maker. (That’s right, kids. I had long, thick brown hair.)

Only an hour earlier I had graduated from high school. At that moment, many of my classmates were headed out to keg parties to celebrate by getting blitzed.

Three other friends and I were headed over the mountain to a larger town to grab a nice dinner. You see we were the good kids. (eyeroll) We were walking the straight and narrow. Trying to stay out of trouble.

Halfway to our destination, as we passed through a tiny town notorious for being a speed trap, I noticed a pickup behind me with a flashing yellow light. I assumed it was some sort of road construction or utilities vehicle, so I eased over to the shoulder to let it pass. It didn’t pass, but rather stayed right behind me.

So, I pulled on over on a pitch black stretch of two-lane highway and stopped my vehicle.

The pickup stopped at a distance behind me, as a powerful door-mounted spotlight, commonly used in that part of the country for illegally hunting deer at night, illuminated the back end of my ultra-sweet 1972 Cutlass S. As I looked in my rearview mirror, all I could see was the blinding glare of that spotlight.

Deciding this might possibly be some sort of weird law enforcement traffic stop, I did what I had been taught to do in my Driver’s Ed classes. I remained in my vehicle, rolled the window down, shut off the engine, and waited. And waited.

Eventually I heard a person from behind my vehicle shouting for me to get out of the car. So I did so and started walking back toward that retina-burning light. That’s when I met Mr. 12 Gauge.

“Son, that’s a good way to get your head blown off.”

“Okay,” I agreed. I had no clue what he was referring to but I wasn’t feeling inclined to explore the matter.

He fired off a series of questions: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Who is your daddy? (Seriously, he wanted to know who my dad was.)  Then he looked at my drivers license for a minute, handed it back, and sent me on my way with no explanation.

It was a terrifying, traumatizing experience. But quickly the residual fear I felt morphed into anger. In fact, nearly 40 years have past since that night and thinking about it right now still cheeses me off.

So do my memories of another run in—roughly six months earlier—with a local Neanderthal deputy sheriff. He, having made about a half-dozen incorrect assumptions about me, pulled me out of my after-school job bagging groceries, hauled me down to the sherrif’s department, and tried to intimidate me with foul, abusive language and crazy accusations that made absolutely no sense to me.

I can vividly recall my feelings of powerlessness and anger when dealing with a person with a badge and a gun who (wrongly) thought he knew something about me based upon the way I looked.

For a long time I really wanted to hate that guy.

Perhaps this gives me a tiny headstart in understanding why so many of my black friends and acquantances are battling a storm of mixed emotions at this moment.

I can’t possibly know what it’s like to live in their shoes (or their skin), but I can empathize. And I do.

I wish more of my fellow white brothers and sisters could find their way to some of this empathy. We’re so quick to minimize the real wounds good, decent black citizens carry around; and minimize the fears and resentments they live with every day.

This isn’t helpful.

On the Other Hand

I pray every one of my black brothers and sisters in Christ battling feelings of resentment and bitterness today (I see your social media feeds) can find some empathy for what law enforcement officers face daily—and especially nightly.

Being a cop, particularly in a major city, means dealing with the worst aspects of our society for a lot of your work-life hours. The job involves seeing and mopping up after the very worst that fallen, broken humans are capable of.

Addicts, pimps, prostitutes, child abusers, wife beaters, pedophiles, muggers, rapists, con men, thieves . . . the violent, the self-destructive, the drunk, the stoned, the cruel, the amoral, the twisted, the psychotic, the psychopathic. Police work requires wading around in all of these all the time—all while surviving and maintaining an awareness that the next person you encounter may very well be a decent human being.

It also means receiving training about staying in command of situations and speaking authoritatively. It is, by necessity, drilled into the police officer that losing control of a situation can easily get them killed.

I wish every one of the Black Lives Matter protesters throwing rocks and rebar at St. Paul police last night would do a few overnight shift “ride alongs” with a police officer. I suspect it would be an eye-opener.

Perhaps they might find some space in their wounded, angry souls for a little empathy as well.

Social Media Bubbles and Echo Chambers

Empathy for others has always been a challenge for all of us—for some more than others. But the advent of social media has ampflied this problem many fold.

We have built our own newswires out of sources that confirm our biases and people who see things just as we do. It feels good to have your assumptions validated. It feels bad to have them challenged. We prefer to feel good.

So, if a source or person brings us information that we don’t like—that doesn’t comport without preferred way of viewing things—we can mute or unfollow with the click of a mouse.

Thus the custom-made information bubbles we live in get purer and purer.

And we get surer and surer that the world is exactly as we believe it to be.

It is Clear to Me . . .

. . . that Mankind’s oldest and bitterest enemy is keenly interested in dividing people along racial (tribal) lines. It’s his oldest, tiredest, and yet still most effective trick.

Cain Kills Abel

Cain killing Abel.

Tribalism has been the spawning ground of murderous hate ever since the very first farmer grew resentful of the very first rancher back in the Garden.

In a 100-day period back in 1994, somewhere between 500,000 and a million Tutsis were killed by Hutus—most of them hacked to death with machetes—because . . . tribes. Us and Them.

Here in America, tribalism now goes by the more sophisticated name of identity politics. We call our tribes “communities.” The enemy of our souls doesn’t really care who you hate, just as long as you pick a side and let the news and social media fuel your tribal fire.

The devil is a sadistic, twisted kid nudging two hungry dogs toward each in hopes they’ll fight to the death over a scrap of food. I’ll pass.

As a citizen of a kingdom in which race and sex are meaningless concepts (Gal. 3:28), I have only one side to take. The side of love.

Some Random Strung-Together Independence Day Thoughts

1861 Flag Sky

Captive people long to be free.

After several generations of freedom, free people start longing to be taken care of:

  • To be insulated from risk.
  • To be immune from the consequences of their own bad choices.
  • To have somone else look after their neighbor so they don’t have to.
  • To be generous with other peoples’ money instead of their own.

A people can never be both free and taken care of.

Free people gradually trade their freedom for false promises of security and comfort.

The impulse to craft a governmental solution to every human ill is a religious impulse. It’s messianic at the root.

Big government is a false messiah. It promises utopia, heaven on earth, but can never deliver on those promises.

Freedom means equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

Real freedom means freedom to fail, pick yourself up, and start again.

 

Giving Honor Where Honor is Due

I attended a funeral service in the old hometown in Oklahoma yesterday.  Dr. J. N. Baker was of one of the finest Christian men it has ever been my privilege to know. He was 96 when he passed into heaven last week and was buried with full military honors yesterday.

At my house growing up he was a respected and beloved family friend, and very much a surrogate grandfather to my younger sisters. For many who knew him as the former Dean of Students at OSU and then the president of Eastern Oklahoma State College where my parents were on the faculty — he was always “Dr. Baker.”

For the thousands of fighting men who served under him in both World War II and the Korean conflict, he eventually became “General Baker.”

He was born in 1919 in rural southeastern Oklahoma but was orphaned before he was old enough to begin attending the one-room school nearby. One of his daughters noted at his service that he liked to observe: “My parents came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon, yet I’ve lived to see men walk on the moon and to hold a powerful computer in the palm of my hand.”

ThunderbirdIn the 1930s he joined the Oklahoma National Guard while still in high school. (Apparently that was possible back then.) For the next three decades he was an integral part of the Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Division—the Thunderbirds—established in 1920. The 45th was one of the very first guard units called up when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941.

In 1943 the Thunderbirds were part of the tip of the spear in the invasion of Italy, beginning with the amphibious assault on Sicily and then the intense fighting at Anzio and Monte Casino.

This was followed by an amphibious invasion of southern France at Dragoon, then the push across France and into Germany. Ultimately it would be the 45th that liberated the infamous German concentration camp at Dachau.

Their work finally done, the division got to come home in 1945. Five short years later Cold War hostilities erupted on the Korean peninsula. At that point, only 20% of the men of the 45th had fought in WWII, but Dr. Baker was one of them.

Eventually, he became the Thunderbird’s final commanding General, serving from 1964 to 1968.

Three surviving World War II veterans who served with him were there at the funeral to pay their respects  yesterday. Yes, members of ” the Greatest Generation” were in the house — but we’re losing them rapidly. Soon the last of them will be gone.

However, it wasn’t the military man my family knew and loved—although his perfect posture and a meticulous, squared-away approach he brought to every project and enterprise hinted at his training. Otherwise, you might never have guessed his background and rank.

He wasn’t the course, gravely George Patton stereotype. Quite the opposite. He was soft-spoken, humble, gentle, immensely thoughtful, and carried a deep, abiding faith in God.

He a was regular guest at my parent’s Sunday table for lunch after his cherished Helen, his wife of 64 years, died after a long illness that left her blind in her final years.

Whenever someone would remark admiringly about the tender, extraordinary efforts he was expending in caring for her in those years of heartbreaking decline, he would smile and brush them off. “She took care of me for sixty years. It’s my privilege to take care of her now.”

Whenever any of us was home for a weekend visit, it was our privilege to participate in those lunches with him. As the elder statesman at the table, the honor of blessing the meal frequently fell to him.

I remember being deeply impacted by one of those Sunday lunch prayers a few years ago. I can honestly say it changed me.

As we prepared to dive into mom’s pot roast, it wasn’t his prayer’s eloquence or profundity that marked my soul that day. It was the genuine gratitude that welled up out of his heart and flowed from his lips.

“Heavenly Father, you’ve been so very good to us. (long pause) . .  Thank you. (longer pause) Thank you, thank you, thank you . . . “

This was no perfunctory, religious saying of “grace” over a meal. Those repeated thank yous were an offering.

Thank you, Dr. Baker.

I’m grateful to have had the example of a life so well-lived.  Strength in kindness. Confidence in servanthood. Gratitude in selflessness. Cheer in hardship. This was the gold standard of Christian manhood.

Now he has joined that great cloud of witnesses who waits to see how we’ll run the balance of our races.

You’ll have to excuse me now . . . I’m suddenly feeling the need to lay aside some weights.

J. N. Baker (1919-2016)

On the Patience of God

Luther

Martin Luther once wrote:

“God will not be able to bear this wicked world much longer, but will come, with the dreadful day, and chastise the scorners of His Word.”

Luther died in 1546.  God is still bearing this wicked world. And the spirit that moved immature disciples to want to call down fire on those who rejected them still lives, as well.

One Final Word on Trump and This Greek Tragedy of an Election

 

Steve_Buscemi_Armageddon 2

In a climactic moment in the movie Armageddon, a team of drilling experts valiantly attempting to save planet earth from complete annihilation has everything that can possibly go wrong, do so.

When it seemingly becomes clear that the entire universe is conspiring against the success of their noble efforts to save the world, the team member played by Steve Buscemi looks in awestruck wonder at the FUBAR-ity of it all, and the enormity of the tragedy they’re about to witness, and mutters:

“It’s a g#######d Greek tragedy.”

That profane line of dialogue has come to mind on numerous occasions as this election year has rolled along.

What a difference a year makes. A year ago I was optimistic that after eight long, heartbreaking years of watching a great nation intentionally weakened; her standing in the world diminished; and her blood-bought liberties eroded;  we had our best opportunity in decades to put a conservative statesman in the White House. (It’s been since 1980 since we had one of those.)

On one hand, the Democrats were set to put forth the weakest, most flawed, most beatable group of candidates since 1968. Old, tired, corrupt, extreme, unlikable and white.

On the other hand, the Republicans boasted one of the most impressive crops of candidates in living memory. Young, intelligent, articulate, proven and ethnically diverse.

Then came Trump. And everything instantly went to hell.

Early on I dashed off a few thoughts in posts titled, “On Donald Trump,” and “Deconstructing the Appeal of Donald Trump.” This will be my final post on him.

It now seems clear that one of two scenarios is inevitable:

  • Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination and loses to Hillary Clinton in the general election.
  • Or some sort of brokered convention snatches the nomination from Trump with the result of alienating a significant swath of vital Republican voters.

Either outcome puts Hillary Clinton in the White House for eight more years of calamity for America. The only wildcard that might avert this Trump-caused catastrophe is a multi-count federal indictment of Hillary between now and November. Not likely (although appropriate.)

The Enigma of Evangelical Attraction to Trump

In a non-Armageddon-like universe, Ted Cruz would have owned the Evangelical vote. But here in Bizzaro world, he hasn’t. Instead, large numbers of Christians have cast their vote for a profane casino-owning huckster who boasts about the proportions of his genitalia in televised presidential debates.

Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., FBC Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, Beni Johnson (wife of Bethel’s Bill Johnson), and numerous others are vocally endorsing and defending a man who thinks personal insults like “loser” and “clown” are an adequate substitute for cogent policy arguments.

He has not once given objective listeners a reason to believe has has thought deeply or read seriously about a single issue important to Christians or conservatives.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has doubled down on his promise to “force Mexico to pay for a border wall.” (He can’t. Of course, he knows that. He’s just betting that you and I don’t.)

He has suggested that as President he’d  make China assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. (Uh, again, no.)

He talks about the presidency the same way liberals and children do, as if the office conveys god-like power. Again, he doesn’t really believe any of this. It’s marketing.

In an email to his subscribers, liberal comedian Louis C.K. recently had a word of warning and advice for conservatives. “He is not one of you. He is one of him . . . He is playing you.”

It’s true. And it’s disappointing to find a significant number of my fellow evangelicals either blissfully unaware of that fact, or bafflingly indifferent to it.

It feels like a tragedy. A Greek tragedy.