Jewish Journal

“Sharpening Our Instincts for Empathy”

by  David A. Lehrer

January 19, 2011 | 2:46 pm

Last week, when President Obama delivered his moving address in Tucson it was hard to predict what its impact might be. A brief moment when we were asked to appeal to our better angels that would pass as the trauma of the awful shooting faded from memory or, perhaps, a pivot after which we would all ask ourselves if we couldn’t each contribute to a more civil and temperate society.

Today’s news suggests that maybe, just maybe, the nature of our discourse might change a bit.

The president had urged us

“to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds…. let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

The press reported this morning that the governor of Alabama delivered a speech yesterday, the day of his swearing-in, at a Montgomery Baptist church where he declared that,

“If you’re a Christian and you’re saved…it makes you and me brother and sister….Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters…so anyone here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister and I want to be your brother.”

On its face, these remarks could easily spark indignant responses from Jewish and other non-Christian spokesmen. Indeed, the head of American Atheists called the remarks, “outrageous”.

But, the head of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, Richard Friedman, was temperate, indeed, it was as if he had absorbed Obama’s admonition “to pause for a moment and make sure we’re talking in a way that heals.”

He spoke about sensitizing “our leaders to the fact that there are non-Christians in this state, and encourage them whenever possible to be sensitive to that.”

And in a comment which seemed to reflect Obama’s suggestion to “expand our moral imaginations,” the Federation’s head assessed the context of the governor’s comments,

“these folks typically don’t mean any harm at all…it never occurs to them that they’re saying anything that would make others uncomfortable. They are simply motivated by their passion for their own religious faith.”

Friedman appropriately said he would assemble a delegation of Jews and Christians that would try to meet with the governor “as soon as possible to initiate a dialogue.”

This incident could just have easily devolved into name calling and nasty assertions of bigotry. The Jewish leaders could have ended up as media stars on cable news networks and a flashpoint for demagogues and publicity hounds would have been created.

Instead, our “instincts for empathy” were sharpened and an opportunity created for greater understanding and less rancor. The Birmingham Federation’s leader didn’t assume the worst motivation so as to “score points and further the pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle” (the President’s words).

There is always time for anger and outrage, an effort of understanding can’t hurt.


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