Empathy Amidst Change
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’1
Thus sings the prophet Dylan. Released in 1964, his folk ballad was an anthem for an era of social upheaval. The U.S. was on the precipice of full-blown war in Vietnam. The black civil rights movement and sexual revolution were in full swing. Four young Englishmen had staged a coup and assumed command of millions of screaming girls across the anglophone world. The times they were a-changin’.
Many a Christian or social conservative today may hear Dylan’s tune play in their ears every time they check the headlines. Church attendance is in decline, and the number of individuals unaffiliated with a religion is on the rise. Same-sex marriage is normative across much of the country. As of this writing, the Supreme Court seems poised to declare that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right any day now. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Olympian Bruce Jenner’s transformation to Caitlyn Jenner has been front page news for nearly every outlet I’ve read in recent days. The reactions reliably range from affirmation and jubilation on the left, to horror and resignation on the right, of course. Still, the headlines are ubiquitous. The sentiment that, for good or ill, Jenner represents the “new normal” is also ubiquitous.
As noted, the conservative hot-takes flying about social media have been—to put it mildly— less than enthusiastic. Rod Dreher referred to the controversy as “the Caitlyn Jenner freakshow.”2 Matt Walsh, ever the epitome of Christian charity and grace, called Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover “a disturbing Photoshopped picture of a mentally disordered grandfather dressed up as a college girl.”3 Over at The Gospel Coalition, Alex Duke’s first point of emphasis isn’t about the human being at the center of the debacle but that Christians should expect hostility and that God will be mocked.4 To be fair, Duke does get around to Jenner’s struggles—sixteen paragraphs down. Reactions born from empathy rather than outrage, like this post by Jon Bloom at Desiring God, are rarer creatures.
In another life, I was a punk rock-listening teenage atheist with a stubborn liberal streak. I sneered at religion, defending my position on subjects like abortion by quoting the Bad Religion lyrics. In the decade since, many of my views have turned 180 degrees (not without pain!), and these days I suppose much of my thought could be characterized as conservative. I take no pleasure in the term, but the shoe does fit. I’m genuinely sympathetic to many of the theories undergirding—or supposedly undergirding—conservative polemics: Scriptural authority, complementarianism, traditional marriage, etc. I even feel tempted to extricate their arguments from its cynical baggage and repackage them in kinder language to make my views more palatable.
In full confession, I do feel that the world has gone mad when I see it lavishing praise and honor on an individual for embracing a disordered mental state. I am alarmed by those who strive to rewrite history by erasing all mentions of “Bruce” from the records and replacing them with “Caitlyn,” and much of the logic behind affirming transgender identities still seems to me as spurious as affirming a young boy’s claim to be a train.
Yet it is the times that I am most certain that I am right, that I am most certain that my opinion must be heard, when I realize that the most important thing I do is listen. Ideological victories matter very little if the suffering individuals at the heart of the debate go unheard and uncared for. I don’t agree with progressives on many things. However, I do believe that I should listen intently and seek to understand the stories of those around me: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”5 “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Simone Weil wrote. Our triumph in debates will count for very little in the next world; our empathy, love, and patience will carry far more currency in the kingdom of heaven.
What then shall we say when faced with changes that tempt us to shout pronouncements the ramparts? Voice questions, not prescriptions. Don’t shout that Jenner underwent these changes because of sin or man’s fallen nature. Instead, ask about the emotional difficulties Jenner faced over the decades and still faces. Ask about the pain of gender dysphoria and the social ostracization. (For more on this, read this article by a psychology professor who studies gender dysphoria).
No human life is without suffering. There are cracks in every edifice. Pain is our point of commonality, the universal language where we understand one another without words. When we share in this pain, when we have compassion, that is when the Gospel begins its work.
As cultural trends shift and swirl around us, there is an urge to battle the changes to the point of victory or martyrdom. There is an urge to stand atop the ideological podium with a gold medal around our necks. If the Lord commanded us only to think rightly, then perhaps such urges would be justified. We are also called to act rightly, to serve with love and patience. This entails no small amount of empathy. A supernatural amount, you might say. I believe that is in no short supply.
In our desire to be the first place winners in our battles against cultural change, it behooves us to remember the words of our Lord: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”6 Or, as Dylan turns this passage into song:
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
1. Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’. 1964
2. Rod Dreher, “The Real Reason for the Caitlyn Jenner Freakout.” The American Conservative, June 3, 2015. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-real-reason-for-the-caitlyn-jenner-freakout/
3. Matt Walsh, “Calling Bruce Jenner a woman is an insult to women.” The Matt Walsh Blog, June 2, 2015. http://themattwalshblog.com/2015/06/02/calling-bruce-jenner-a-woman-is-an-insult-to-women/
4. Alex Duke, “Caitlyn Jenner and Love in the Future Tense.” TGC, June 2, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/06/02/did-bruce-jenner-or-caitlyn-jenner-win-those-olympic-gold-medals-wikipedia-says-caitlyn/
5. James 1:19 ESV
6. Matthew 19:30 NRSV
Photo by GeneralMills at Flickr Creative Commons used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0