Empathy and Confrontation


“Walk a mile in my shoes” was the title and subject matter of a class I taught 50 years ago. One class, one month, the purpose being the obvious: to appreciate what other people were going through. For a day at a time, walk around campus blindfolded, help in a poverty center, work at a repetitive, non-challenging job, and visit a nursing home. 

This summer, my wife and I travel back and forth between two somewhat different worlds. In a cabin in Maine we collect water off the roof and generate power from a small solar panel charging a battery. Total dependence on the vagaries of weather force us to appreciate the fickle nature of Mother Nature. And in our Vermont house, close to the campus of Dartmouth College, we bask in the wonders of upper-middle-class modern America, power available on every wall, unlimited running water, and the best medical care, all set within the context of academia.

On our last trip back to Vermont, we happened to be passing through an area of New Hampshire that sponsors an annual weeklong motorcycle rally, with lots of gray-haired boomers, but mostly middle-aged tattooed guys sporting loud Harleys with booming radios. Not Maine, not Dartmouth, not anything I know about. 

Re-supplying, we shop at a Walmart, where a seemingly unstable young man walks back and forth waving his arms wildly above his head, a woman struggles with four unruly young children, a pleasant woman cashier struggles with her English, and a quadriplegic tries to wish us a good day as we walk out the door. 

Empathy is derived from two Greek words, “em” and “pathos,” translated as “in” and “feeling.” To be empathetic is to feel life in the place of another.  It is a difficult challenge if we even try to do it. But if we turn our backs on our fellow humans and forgo empathy, we lose a little bit of ourself over and over again. We become alien not only to others, but to ourself as well. One cannot help but be reminded of John Donne’s poem, No Man is an Island, with its final word, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We are all one. 

But there is more. “Dialectic” is a word that describes a situation in which two competing, if not contradictory, statements are both held to be true and the current political/social situation in America today presents just such a dialectic. In the attempt to understand the fascists around us, we are advised to be empathetic and also non-confrontational, to try to understand who they are and how they became that way, good advice that we must follow. But empathy does not obviate confrontation. As in raising a child, we can say, yes I understand, but that is not allowed. What the maga fascists propose, as found in Project 2025, is a terrifying portrait of the future they seek, and the role of white Christian nationalism in this project is a total rejection of what Jesus had in mind. He was completely empathetic, but the overturning of the money-changers’ tables in the Temple [historical or factual, the gospel writers saw this as part of his personality] shows the other side of the dialectic. The system of oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful, as exemplified in the tables, Jesus fought with love and understanding and empathy, but now also by what can only be described as an act of violent confrontation.

Violence, we have heard, is as American as apple pie, and our history is replete with illustrations, the latest being the storming of the capitol on Jan 6. Should scenes like this be repeated, and the fascists have told us that they will, how do believers in democracy respond? It is not an easy question, and we have responded in a variety of ways throughout our life as a nation. This question may be the number one ethical issue after the upcoming election. Walking a mile in another person’s shoes does not mean following them off a cliff. The sum of the Law, Jesus said, is to love your neighbor as yourself. How best to do that is the question.


Carl Krieg, Ph.D. received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith,   The Void and the Vision,  The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God and How The Rich Stole Jesus. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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