Is Religous Liberty Biblical?

If you are a part of the Southern Baptist Convention or follow it closely you know that the past few months have been plagued with disunity and at times even hostility. While some of these issues have been resolved, there are still some questions that need to be answered. One of the most central and important questions that have been asked concerns Religious Liberty. 

The reason this topic is important is due to the controversy that surrounds it. While all religions officially have the right, is it fair for us as Christians to allow the courts to infringe upon this right against Muslims? Since we understand the Islamic faith to be contrary to the Gospel of Grace is it even right for Christians to protect their right? Ultimately, the question becomes is Religious Liberty Biblical?

There has been a debate as to whether Christians are obligated to either support the right of Muslims to build Mosque or whether Christians are called to oppose what we view as a false religious system. While both sides stand at opposite sides of this battle, we need to be reminded that there is no reason to destroy fellowship between a brother or sister over this issue. 

What we need to do is seek conversation and understanding between those who disagree with us. With this being said I would contend to you that it is not only our responsibility to advocate for religious liberty for all, but it is also a Biblical mandate.

There are three primary passages of scripture that justify the necessity for Religious Liberty and they are Mark 12:31, Romans 1:14-17, and Romans 13:1-10.  So that we fulfill the next passage for this stance, Romans 1:14-17 states “I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (CSB). 

We do not get to pick and choose people groups that deserve to hear the Gospel. We cannot hope to share the Gospel with someone that we are actively telling they are second-class citizens who do not deserve the same rights we enjoy and allow others to enjoy. Our obligation to share the Gospel with all people comes before our fear or bias towards Muslims.

Romans 13:1-10 tells us:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. 

“Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. 

“Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  

“The commandments, Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.” (CSB).

The first amendment our founding Fathers established states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

If we truly desire Biblical Purity then we have to respect the first amendment and honor the law of the land which decrees that the government cannot oppose nor support any one religion. Paul ties in the command to love your neighbor because in it is the fulfillment of the Law and to follow the law is an example of loving our neighbor and thus fulfilling the law of Scripture. 

And Mark 12:31 states, “The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (CSB). When we oppose the building of Mosque but have idly sat on the sidelines over the building of Jewish Synagogues, Hindu Temples, or even Kingdom Halls we are essentially telling Muslims that they are not as worthy of American rights as these other citizens. What Christians need to remember is that Muslims are not our enemy, we have one enemy. 

Muslims are not the predator, they are the prey to the true predator. Our enemy is “prowling like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 CSB). Muslims are just as blinded and ensnared by the enemy as we would be without the grace of God that saved us. We must not let our bias against the religion of Islam stop us from showing them the love we show all those who are of different religions.

Christians, we must understand that if we want to enjoy the religious liberty that we have enjoyed since the founding of this country then we must allow all religions to enjoy this freedom. It’s either Religious Liberty for All or Religious Liberty for none. If we are to be justified in our opposition of Religious Liberty for one Religious Group then we must be willing to lay our rights aside as well. However, if we truly want this liberty and desire to hold Biblical purity then we must not condone the beliefs of these religions, but we must support their right to build their places of Worship here in the United States.

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Sin is a Hiding Place

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk By The Sea

His eyes welled up and the tears dripped into his coffee cup. “I don’t know why I keep doing this.”

I was concerned he might get loud and the other patrons of the cafe would take notice, before I remembered that it didn’t much matter. My friend was confessing.

“You know it’s–”

“It’s not okay.” He interrupted. “Don’t tell me that.”

He wasn’t wrong. We’d been praying together for several weeks. Nobody breaks a porn habit in a day, and most folks don’t even break it in a lifetime. The previous week we had talked through how at least half the porn available on the web is there without the consent of the women in the video – stripteases sent to former boyfriends, and the like. It’s never okay to gratify yourself to the image of someone you’re not in it for the long haul with, but it’s especially grievous to use an image or a video that wasn’t meant for your eyes. That goes beyond lust and dives headlong into betraying the sexual autonomy of the woman involved. All sin, at some level, deconstructs into some form of dehumanization toward another human being who bears the imago dei. This heaps on an extra layer.

He had viewed one such video the night before. At the beginning, he said, the woman made an offhand comment that suggested it was a video previously sent to a significant other. It was not meant for him, or anyone, to see. If she knew it was online, she might be horrified. To watch this was to transgress her sexual autonomy and, by extension, the sexual autonomy of all women, everywhere. He watched it anyway. Our convictions melt when they stand in the way of something we want.

It was not okay, and he didn’t want to be lied to. And I didn’t lie to him.

“Why do you think you do it?”

He tried his best to look quizzical. He already had an answer, but it wasn’t fully cooked. I waited.

“It feels safe,” He half-whispered. “Porn feels like home. And I’m usually homesick.”

* * *

Sin is usually a hiding place. We retreat to it because it feels safe and natural. Indeed, it is “safe” inasmuch as it is familiar and unchallenging, and it is natural inasmuch as it comes as naturally to us as breathing. It is a safe haven that guards us from the bold and invading reality in which we find ourselves, where nothing is certain or sound, safety is not guaranteed, and the clamor of responsibility fills the silence and prevents us from drinking deeply of rest.

So indulging in sin is most often an act of sheer cowardice rather than simply licentiousness for its own sake. A man indulges in sexual sin, for example, not simply because he lacks morals or resolve, but because he lacks backbone. He’s lily-livered and yellow-bellied.

What would we do instead? To exist at all, frankly, is painful. Everybody goes somewhere to feel safe. You fish or you drink or you reach for the remote – et cetera.  But if we’re honest, either God is your hiding place or sin is.

In the latter case, you hide from reality because it’s painful to be anyone or anything, then you hide from God because you hid from reality by burrowing deep in your sin. And then you hide from you because you’re embarrassed that you’re who you are. And at this point you ought to be, really. And now you’re in a loneliness too deep for words – especially blog words.

If you read my own entries here with any regularity, you’re probably tired of hearing me say that we’re born communitarians. God’s a trinity – three persons, one substance – which is to say that God is a Community. As such, image bearers that we are, we are created for community. ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ is, at best, secondarily about marriage. We exist to relate to others, specifically, after the likeness of God’s own Trinitarian pattern of love and self-giving. We’re born communitarians. 

It goes deeper than that, though. We are created for community, and we are created for Community. Which is to say, we exist to relate to God. In a way, that is, to participate in the unbroken joy of the Trinitarian Community, each of us, as a community swallowed up by grace in the original Community. We were created for God. Which means that so long as we’re hiding from God, we’ll be haunted by a loneliness deeper than loneliness. There’s no longevity to it. The illusion of safety that sin promises betrays us, invariably. It’s a bad hiding place.

Instead, perhaps, we could take a posture in every situation that says, “I am glad to be here. The pain of this is real, and I am glad that I am here, to be hurt at times like these. I don’t want to escape the ‘shackles of reality.’ They are not shackles. I am free to exist. To be – whatever that entails. I do not want an outlet into which I might retreat to avoid my present troubles.”

I’m suggesting the impossible here. At least, so long as we’re individuals, carrying on as individuals among other individuals while the sun sets and rises and the second-hand ticks toward oblivion. As long as we’re subjects of a loneliness too deep for words, disconnected from the ancient Community out of whose strange creativity we were born, there is no taking this posture. Too much is at stake to risk foregoing satisfaction in favor of faithfulness. If we’re not participants by grace in the fullness of joy within the Trinity’s blessed community, we’re doomed to please ourselves till we die, to stuff our pockets full with whatever might quiet the stir of deep sadness that hangs over us. And yet, our pockets have holes.

* * *

That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full. (1 John 1:1-4)

John wrote the above paragraph, apparently, “so that you may not sin.” (2:1) When I was younger, I didn’t understand what was supposed to be helpful about it. Okay, I thought, Jesus is the ‘Word of Life’ that was with the Father from the beginning. The dots did not connect. This is Sunday school stuff. 

As I’ve grown, though, it’s become the passage I treasure more than any other. “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” John makes explicit what the other New Testament writers assume: that to become a disciple means enjoying the glory of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, not only at a distance as an admirer, but from the inside. No human being becomes God – this is one of the distinguishing marks between Christianity and Mormonism, for example – but we are included, by grace, through faith, in the joy of the already-satisfied God.

In a later writing, John takes to calling Jesus the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,‘ (Rev. 13:8), which is interesting, because He wasn’t slain before the foundation of the world. The crucifixion can be dated rather precisely – it took place at most within a 10 year window – and it’s well after the cosmos was made. Here John is getting at something different: The crucifixion of the Son of God is precisely the condition on which the project of creation was carried out. John writes that ‘in Him all things were made, and apart from Him not one thing was made that has been made,’ (John 1:3). Coupled with the aforementioned passages, a clearer picture emerges:

The Father, Son, and Spirit, wholly satisfied as a self-contained ‘Community,’ needing absolutely nothing and absolutely no one else to complete their happiness or augment their joy, wanted to create a world of other beings that were not them, with whom their perfect satisfaction could be shared, simply for its own sake. They knew, however, that the result would be a humanity so sinful that hell would be a form of social justice. Together, they agreed that the Son would become incarnate as a human being, teach them how to be ‘human’ again, and be crucified, swallowing up the whole wrath of the whole Godhead, and overcoming the forces of Darkness to rescue them for Himself, and complete the project, begun at Creation, of multiplying their own unchangeable joy into the world of creatures they had made.

So the privileges we receive in salvation go further than simply ‘not going to hell;’ We’re invited, for all time, effective immediately, into God’s inner corridors. There is no more Temple, no more Tabernacle, because Christ is the Temple, and we’re invited in to fellowship, as John says, with God our Father and His Son, because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And there, in the deepest chambers of the Triune communion, is a joy that sin cannot compete with, because it’s thoroughgoing. Sin is sweet and toxic, noisy, enticing. But Mercy is thirst-quenching. We chase the ghosts of satisfaction our whole lives, but it lives in the innermost chambers of a Temple we’re invited into. Like I said earlier, nobody ever becomes God. Sin offers us something like godness. Mercy offers the opposite. We’re dethroned as we’re ‘deified,’ Athanasius would have said, because he liked confusing sentences. He didn’t mean that we become a deity. He meant that we become what we were always meant to be – glorious human images of the high and humble King, emphasis on the humble part.

So sin is a hiding place. That’s an awful lot of why you look at porn or bully your roommate or lie to your neighbors and so on. But it’s a bad one. Ineffective, at least. But prayer, daily communion with the whole Godhead, is not. It’s not a hiding place, either. Though it is safe. However therapeutic it may be, communing with God never ends at catharsis. Instead it transforms us.

As you commune with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, your appetites are changed and your capacity to understand yourself as the recipient of an unmerited grace widens. And it makes you weird. We realize there, daily, that we’re forgiven for all of ourselves, down to the marrow. Our self-image dims, in a way. We realize as we drink deeply from the fountain of grace that every kind of abuse we ever put a gay classmate through is abuse we put Jesus through. You realize there that your homophobia held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your racism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your sexism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ And your porn. And your cruelty. And your negligence in not calling your mother every couple weeks. In communion with the Godhead, we’re each haunted by a million sins. It doesn’t crush us, but it’s certainly changing us into something we weren’t and always should have been.

Actually, this is probably why we stick with sin. Joy makes too may demands on us, while sin cathartically drinks us dry. So sin’s a bad hiding place, and you owe it no allegiance. John writes, ‘My little children, if any man does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.’ (1 John 2:1-2). We’re forgiven for everything, forever, and brought back into the communitarian joy we were created for. When we grasp that, we’re furnished with enough to carry us through whatever nightmares await us between the cradle and the grave. That should be plenty of joy to run on, certainly enough that we needn’t hide from reality beneath the blood-stained sheets of sin.

Finding Jesus in a Psych Ward

The particulars of exactly how and why I was hospitalized for psychiatric complications are both too difficult to put into words and also are one of the best blessings God has given me in my 21 years of life. On December 1, my husband brought me to the local emergency room and the next morning I rode in the back of a police car to a larger facility. As I rode in the car the officer was kind and tried to get me to talk about my situation but all I could do was cry. I had been emotionally stunted for months and finally it was all flowing freely.

As my vitals were being taken a kind older woman approached me as my quiet sobs continued. At the time I didn’t know it, but she was also a patient and was going home that day. She took my hand and said, “I know you’re scared honey. But God will be with you here; these are good people. God is here. I just wanted to tell you that.” I think I murmured a thank you before finally being taken to my room to get some rest.

I spent the first day sleeping and observing. I was shocked at the kindness and vulnerability that was evident in every interaction that we had with one another: patients, techs, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, and even the man with dementia who was in the next ward over and kept trying to enter our ward. My friend, who was my roommate during my stay, is a particularly special person. When I arrived the only things I had were the clothes on my back and my stuffed tiger, Limo. When I walked in our bedroom the first thing I saw was her penguin slippers and I knew she was a kindred spirit. She taught me the ropes the first day and we built a friendship that we’ve maintained beyond the hospital.

There was a deep irony in that almost every person on the ward was suffering with some level of depression and anxiety (some of it social). However, one of the ways that we showed we were ready to go home was interacting with each other. I was so scared that I would never get to go home because I was not willing to approach anyone. But I didn’t have to. During my first day, every single patient introduced themselves to me and gave me a piece of encouragement. “Don’t worry, the first day is always the hardest.” “Don’t skip snack time because they serve ice cream and Oreos.” “You have a great psychiatrist.” “I struggle with the same thing.” “Here’s how to work the phones.” On and on until I felt overwhelmed with how much love I was receiving.

Every single one of us there struggled with self-love. We were there because our self-hate had manifested itself in some way that required us to be under constant care. And yet- the words that we gave one another were words of love. “You are so much stronger than what happened to you.” “You are beautiful.” “You have overcome so much.” “You have a great smile.” “The world would be worse without your humor, your story, your smile, your life.” Words that we could not bring ourselves to say to our own bodies and minds and souls we poured into one another.

By the grace of God, I got to spend 6 days with these people. I learned more about community than anything else. For the first time, I was in community with people who as broken as I, and we all knew it. There were no masks, no pretention, no “I’m fine”. Nobody pretended they were fine; we were all openly broken. There was only love and support and encouragement and kindness. We were there to learn to love ourselves, but we learned that by loving one another.

I met Jesus there. I had met Him before and I knew Him, but I didn’t know that He was living inside of a psych ward. But His grace was evident everywhere. It was evident in that I had a support system that came to visit me (including my husband who never missed a minute of visitation). It was evident in the care that the nurses who worked with me showed toward me. It was evident in the dignity that each person was treated with. His grace was evident in the lives of the women I met there, many of whom had been victims of assault, trafficking, abuse, neglect, disease. And by His grace alone we all survived to live through our adversities and meet each other that weekend.

I will never forget the friends I made in the facility. One of my last interactions was with my roommate. We were lying in the dark the night before we got to go home and she opened up to me about her story for the first time. And as we both lay there in the dark crying, she said to me, “I knew that you were a special person the moment I saw you. I felt the Holy Spirit tell me that you had experienced deep pain and that we were both going to be okay.”

Friends, that was church. That was God’s people living together and sharing their deepest pains and their greatest joys with one another without any reserve. When I walk into a church I don’t want to have to hide my mental illness and what I have survived. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to cry with me and listen to me and encourage me, and I want to do the same for them. The church should be a place of true community, of the kind of love and sacrifice that I experienced on the Adult Behavioral Ward.

“Those who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to those not in need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’s sake.”
Dorothy Day

There’s a Place At the Table for the “Faithless”

Originally published to Armchair Theologian.

​I am not God. That’s an ultimate reality. But only because it contains so much in so few words. “I am not God,” means that God exists, almost certainly. I could reason my way into an explanation for the universe that does not require a creator, sure, but that isn’t the point. If something like the Classical Theism we half-read about in our Western Civ classes is true, then God is present, in a way, in the statements, “God does not exist,” and “There is no God.” I happen to think that’s true, and so you can commune with God, live with Him and love Him with the best of yourself if you struggle and even fail to believe with your head and your gut that He is real.

For all of its strange incarnations, Christianity recognizes the contradictions in man. And God, if He’s this God, promises rest to people who need it, so He invites one and all to His table to join Him in His rest. And he knows the contradictions in man, and it is right for the one who struggles and fails to accept even His existence – who cannot with her conscious mental faculties sign off on the proposition, “there is a God,” to join in worship, in the ordinances, and in the whole life of the Church community, because despite her limitations God has accepted her.

Her place at the table is not a special place amongst other specially marked places  for  those whose faith is, like hers, intentional rather than intellectual. The place marked out for the one who cannot believe in God but will not let go of Christ is among all of her brothers and sisters in the faith. It is wrong to say that she has no faith. They have the same faith, and sit at the same table in fellowship with the same God whose real presence makes them one people.

That the God incarnate on earth in Jesus of Nazareth actually exists, not only in the faith of His people but in Himself, means that the sort of belief that saves is not actually an intellectual assent to the right propositions. If anything, that would constitute a “good work” that would put certain people in God’s favor by way of an arbitrary advantage. Instead, saving belief is to entrust yourself to God through Jesus Christ, even in the midst of serious limitations in your capacity to believe.

“I am not God,” means God is distinct from me. That is “good news of great joy.” He has His own being apart from me. He is not ultimately a projection of my unconscious emotional need to believe a higher power. It is true that “in Him we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul quoted Epimenides to the crowd of Greek philosophers in Athens, but that is not the end of the story. We exist in Him but we are not a part of Him. The quest for God is not a journey inward.

The Christian religion teaches that history is a roundabout retelling of God’s journey toward us. He has left His place to meet us, not within ourselves, but as Himself and on His own terms. It is no kind of grace if we seek God and the road brings us back round to ourselves. For the woman who needs desperately the rest of God, it is a nightmare to find that she has nowhere to run. If God is an extension of herself, then there is no help coming. She has only “the power of positive thinking” to hope in. The rest of God is an illusion.

If, however, God is His own person, then also the rest of God in which He invites us to join Him is real. He has the authority to offer it to whomever He  wants. The struggle, the anxiety of existence can be overcome and the hope to do so is real. The world is inhabited by tired people, and if God is real, and I am not Him, then He can offer rest to my tired eyes, and yours, even amidst our utter lack of faith.

Jesus Won’t Make You Not Lonely

Jesus won’t make you not lonely. He never offered to. That’s a false promise from your youth pastor or a kitschy blog post you read.

And yet He does promise to make you complete. Which, apparently, still means lonely. Because if the gospels are any indication, Jesus was plenty lonely. 

There was a time when He wasn’t. “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” (Jn. 17:5)

Jesus was and is God, even though He’s not the Father, or the Spirit, and in eternity past, they were complete together, and they weren’t lonely. 

And creating people such as ourselves had everything to do with multiplying their own mutual satisfaction into creatures that were not them. So there will be a day when we are like them in that we won’t be lonely. Every thing will be as satisfying as it ought to be. 

We won’t be God, but we’ll he like Him in all the right ways even as we’re unlike Him in almost every way, because we’ll be investing in each other without emotional deficits to fill.

Everything we’ll stand to gain from friendship will change because we’ll carry on with one another out of an over-abundance of satisfaction. We will not strip-mine one another for satisfaction.

But today we’re lonely. We wake up and the dread’s there, quiet or clamoring. This is what Jesus felt, too. And it wasn’t because He was single, which He probably was.

Say He’d married Mary Magdalene. After picking her up off the ground and dusting her off, He wraps His robe around her and walks to the courthouse asking for a Baptist preacher. James and John are witnesses to their union. Their mom, too, for good measure.

They have a courthouse wedding and build a life together. He’s a bottomless pit of patience and He helps out around the house. She cooks a mean fish and she knows things the other wives don’t know about, on account of her life of sin before she met Him. Pretty soon she’s teaching every wife in the neighborhood things they couldn’t have known and the husbands are grateful. Jesus is just happy He gets to be the guy who comes home to her every day.

It’s not an end to His loneliness, though. The dread’s still there. Maybe it was clamoring and now it’s quiet. But dread is dread and if it’s there it’s there. Any way we slice it, we’ve got a lonely God-man and that means our loneliness is as holy as His ever was because it’s part of the human experience, and the human experience is holy because the Triune God breathed life into it for His glory – even if the humans that experience  it are damnable. 

What isn’t so holy is what we do with our loneliness. One of the things that sets us apart is the desperation with which we endeavor to eat up the dread that haunts us. We won’t be subjected to it, and anything done in the name of shielding ourselves from its oppression is pardonable, or even praiseworthy, we say in our hearts. Remarkably, this does not appear to have been Jesus’s posture.

There’s always a multitude of angles to everything, and there’s plenty to be said about the how and why of Jesus’s sinlessness, but one angle is certainly this: sin is noise as much as it is anything else. Noise to drown out the cacaphony of dread. It doesn’t shrink our loneliness, but it does compete for our attention. It’s racket that muffles despair. Our career in sin is a humanitarian endeavor directed at ourselves. We’re nursing wounds.

Jesus, lonely and wounded like everyone else who’s ever lived, turned His dread into occaision for worship. He neither revolted against His loneliness nor resigned Himself to it. He sacrilized it. 

Amongst other things, being like Jesus means going and doing likewise – recognizing the sanctity of loneliness and protecting ourselves from the temptation to flee from it. The tyranny of trying to complete ourselves in other people is staggering, and the novelty of romance and sex and even platonic friendship turns on us when we heave the weight of our “wholeness” on it. To quote Derek Webb, “Jesus died a broke, thirty-three year old virgin for the sake of those of us with misplaced values.” Like Jesus, let the existential dread that accompanies being a human being on planet earth carry us to the altar to worship.

The Monsters That Remind Us: Empathy, Civil Society, and the English Major

kojima_of_horiecho_-_tokaido_gojusan_tsui_-_walters_95585

As the sister to two older brothers, I grew up watching a lot of monster movies. My brothers especially loved the old Godzilla films. And when Godzilla 2000 came out, of course my family packed up and went to see one of the first showings. Never mind that I was four years old. Godzilla 2000 has to be one of my earliest childhood memories, which consists largely of closing my eyes in the embrace of my mom and dad. I still have weird dreams about jellyfish aliens; sometimes I swear I can hear the echoing of Godzilla’s roar in the distance. It wasn’t until I watched monster movies later that I came to realize that they have valuable lessons to teach us, even aside from how to hide from three-headed dragons and radioactive moths.

Weird as it sounds, I think that empathy is one of the lessons here. And I don’t just mean for all of the parents who had to comfort frightened children in movie theaters across America.

There are, of course, a myriad of definitions, as well as subcategories, as to what empathy means. It originally came into English from the Greek empatheia, meaning “to feel into.” Aesthetic theorists first used the term to describe “the ability to perceive the subjective experience of another person. The term was later used in psychology by E.B. Titchener, who said that empathy stems from one’s own physical imitation of the pain that another person feels. Empathy, then, is deeper than sympathy in that allows us to feel—or at least attempt to feel—the pain of another person. In a helpful and concise definition, autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen defines empathy as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.” So this practice is two-fold: identifying the processes of the Other, and then responding appropriately.

Stephen G. Post and Ann Jurecic add extra layers to this concept of empathy. Post, first of all, calls empathy a “force” that is on a sort of spectrum. The feeling of empathy is well and good, but this is a weaker manifestation of the force. For empathy to be “strong,” it must motivate us to do something. Inherent to this strong empathy is the “reliable affirmation of the other [that] requires a conceptual act of valuation—that all human lives have equal worth.” Empathy requires the acknowledgment that my life has the same worth as yours. And when I affirm this, I am even more motivated to “identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion,” as Baron-Cohen says.

Empathy is not always welcome or even helpful. Jurecic writes, “Empathy is not salvation; it’s not certainty or knowledge; it blurs the boundaries in ways that can be both generative and destructive. In the end, empathy is a practice, a process that extends in time. To make it work takes both effort and humility.” Jurecic’s definition of empathy as a practice aligns so far with what the other writers have said. And because empathy depends so much on imagination, it is indeed far from certainty. However, her talk of it as destructive comes from a misapplication of the practice. Sometimes the exercise of empathy causes us to misimagine the Other, to project our own thoughts and emotions onto him instead of accepting him on his own terms. We imagine that we fully understand people when we empathize, when really the process of empathy must be far more open-ended than that: a practice that must be ongoing.

If empathy is an ongoing process that seeks to imagine the thoughts and emotions of the Other and to respond well, then the applications of empathy to civil discourse are hopefully apparent. On a personal level, some have written that degree of empathy corresponds to moral action. Goleman writes on the research of Martin Hoffman, “who argues that the roots of morality are to be found in empathy, since it is empathizing with the potential victims—someone in pain, dangers, or deprivation, say—and so sharing their distress that moves people to act to help them. Beyond this immediate link between empathy and altruism in personal encounter, Hoffman proposes that the same capacity for empathy . . . for putting oneself in another’s place, leads people to follow certain moral principles.”

Hoffman’s research demonstrated a correlation between a person’s capacity for empathy and her support for moral principles like aid for the poor. Studies have not concluded that empathy always motivates people to act morally, but they do highlight empathy’s importance in living in a civil society. Acting morally, yet empathetically, better helps us to extend that hospitality in our thoughts, speaking, and listening. As former president Barack Obama once said, “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decision and outcomes.”

On a more societal level, Jeremy Rifkin writes on the “empathic civilization.” (And you can watch a really cool video explaining his thoughts here.) In his work, he speaks on the primary human drive to belong, which he calls an “empathic drive.” He says that empathy is grounded in our shared morality and our flaws. For Rifkin, “When we talk about building an empathic civilization, we’re not just talking about utopia. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other, but with our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.” And when we are able to show that solidary, Rifkin argues, then we are able to truly have civilization.

To illustrate his point, he uses perspectives on human evolution: we first saw ourselves as part of one tribe, then as part of one religion, then as part of one nation state. Humans typically show empathy in order to relate to each other on these levels, showing solidarity as they associate with one another in terms of blood ties, religious affiliation, and national identity. So, Rifkin asks, why can’t we extend our empathy beyond this? Why can’t we see ourselves as part of one race sharing one biosphere? Surely if such empathy extended this far, we would stop seeing ourselves in terms of our differences. If we began discussions with the acknowledgement of our common humanity, then civil discourse could flourish. Disagreements would undoubtedly arise, as surely as they do between family members, but such strong empathy would still allow us to work together civilly for the common good.

Of course, despite some of our perhaps natural tendencies, empathy doesn’t always come easily. In fact, sometimes it is downright discouraged by the culture we find ourselves in. We are tempted to continue to define ourselves by our merely religious, ethnic, or national ties. During World War II, for example, both Japanese and American cultures encouraged the dehumanization of their respective enemies, largely to make it less difficult to kill one another during wartime. Donald Shriver writes, “In its systematic erosion of tendencies to empathize, racism is a peculiarly vicious enemy of forgiveness in politics or justice in any human relation.” Through this negative example, Shriver directly links empathy with forgiveness and justice. Racism, which refuses to extend empathy past a limited idea of “our own kind,” undermines the ability to practice forgiveness and justice well. And interestingly, the U.S. has never apologized for dropping atomic bombs on Japan, and Japan has never apologized for bombing Pearl Harbor.

Now that we have a working, nuanced definition of empathy—that is, an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings, a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse—well, what’s a lowly undergraduate English major to do? How can my discipline help cultivate empathy, as well as civil discourse?

Critics, academics, and writers have often associated reading, especially that of fiction, with empathic readers. Margaret Nussbaum, in a defense of the liberal arts education, writes on a particular type of empathy that she calls “narrative imagination,” or “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone different from oneself.” Reading narratives causes us to see from someone else’s point of view, even feeling what they feel. If we read well, we empathize with the protagonist and other characters. As in Jeremy Rifkin’s idea of extending our empathy to the world, some attribute “to storytelling the extension of the ‘moral circle’ to include ‘other clans, other tribes, and other races.’ . . . [B]y allowing our projection ‘into the lives of people of different times and places and races, in a way that wouldn’t spontaneously occur,’ fiction can change our perspectives,” writes Suzanne Keen.

While there are no significant studies to show that reading does actually increase empathy, the possibility exists for us to cultivate an at least “weak” empathy. Even if this practice does not result in action, by reading, we have at least begun the ongoing process of empathy.

Aside from the potential to cultivate empathy, English as a discipline requires writing. A lot of writing. Looking back at my own trajectory in my time as an undergrad, I know that writing has helped me to create orderly thoughts, connections, and arguments. Not only do I see it in myself, but I am also able to better analyze the arguments and connections of others. Admittedly, I don’t always do that well—hopefully this presentation doesn’t represent that fact—but the rhetorical skills that an English major has fostered an extra concern for words and the arguments that they can represent.

Empathy, the English major, and civil discourse all seem to work well on paper. Empathy oozes from the cracks of what it means to study the language and literature of the Other. And empathy binds itself up with the other virtues in forming a foundation for civil discourse. But instead of simply focusing on the higher philosophies and musings, Finding Civil Discourse has taught me the value of particulars and exemplars. So for this project, I sat down with Dr. Alan Noble, professor of English, longtime editor-in-chief of the magazine Christ and Pop Culture, and recent founding member of Public Faith with Michael Wear. He describes the latter as an organization that’s attempting to reenvision evangelical participation in politics. Instead of the angry, “culture war” rhetoric often employed by the right, Public Faith seeks to promote pluralism and bipartisanism while remaining steadfast on key issues. Dr. Noble wishes to offer an evangelical perspective on political issues, but winsomely. The website publishes key stances in language that invites agreement, with the goal to remain neighborly toward people who do not always agree. We can think more creatively about living together with the Other by engaging in empathic language rather than the sensationalized, enflamed accounts we often stumble across in the media.

Public Faith has released statements on topics like criminal justice, perspectives helped by empathy. However, Dr. Noble says that the real work of empathy is two-fold: we must advocate for the oppressed without abstracting them, and we must seek to understand those with whom we argue. Advocating while abstracting can hurt communities when we do not stop to consider how they might be hurt by certain policies. A civil society pursues the common good, which can only be achieved when we consider the Other. For those who do not see things in the same way, we must empathize in order to communicate well. Dr. Noble has stressed that we don’t necessarily need to win people over to our side through arguments, but we ought to help them understand that it is possible to live as neighbors, and work together in pursuit of the common good. By maintaining a stalwart online presence, Public Faith serves as a practical example of civil discourse and empathy.

Empathy is an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings. It is a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse. And I say, “practice,” because in order to contribute fully to civil discourse, it must continually be put into action, extending to the whole human race. Studying English may be the starting point for cultivating empathy, but organizations like Public Faith show empathy in practice among a culture of uncivil language and thoughts.

When I look back to that fateful viewing of Godzilla 2000 as a kid, I see a terrifying monster, formidable foes, and unthinkable destruction. But I also see the potential for humanity to recognize each other as humans, to work together despite religious or ethnic ties, to put differences aside for a greater good. While I don’t think that a monster will rise up out of the sea, I do think that the monsters of the present day can unite, not divide, us, if we are properly empathetic.