On Faith: Finding empathy in angry times is worthy work
October 15, 2021
It was one of those appointments I wasn’t looking forward to. The confirmation program had made a big change and the kids and parents weren’t happy, to put it mildly. Tension had been building for months and finally had boiled over into open conflict.
Ron, whose daughter was in confirmation, had asked to come talk to me. I knew the conversation was going to be difficult. He came into my office, closed the door, and took a seat. He immediately vented his anger, making his case that the kids were being treated unfairly and that the rules kept changing on them, that they had had four teachers in three years and things had been an absolute mess. Ron then veered off topic and began leveling anger indiscriminately at anything that came to his mind regarding the church.
It was difficult to not become defensive and lash out in kind. I will admit in similar situations I have done so, to my deep regret. But something occurred to me at that moment, perhaps a nudge from the Spirit, and I waited for him to finish.
He eventually wound down. We looked at each other for a while and I said: “Ron, it sounds like you feel like your church is being taken away from you.” He was surprised at first, then his eyes turned misty. “Yes, that’s it, that’s it exactly,” he said. We sat together in silence for a while, then we continued in conversation, finally able to listen and to hear one another.
I know many people I’ve talked to have expressed grave concern about the social and political divides in our country. It isn’t just du jour comments about “those knuckleheads in D.C.” but rather a sickness that has come home to roost in our own communities. It has drawn up dividing lines through our families and our circles of friends. Tempers flare easily and tensions are high. It often can be difficult to find a safe topic of conversation. I feel it too. I’ve seen it play out far more often than I would like.
It’s made me think a lot about that conversation I had with Ron. You see, in that moment there was more than anger present in the room. Beneath the rage was grief, and a sense of loss. Ron was angry about confirmation, but more than that Ron felt afraid and anxious about the future of the congregation.
It was about a small country church trying to find a way to still make things work. It was about dwindling membership and graying hairs. It was about a lot of rapid changes and difficult transitions in a few short years. It was about the fear of losing the church that he loved.
I didn’t condone his delivery. Chewing me out that way was not appropriate at all. But I could see where he was coming from. When I told him so, genuinely, and with empathy, we could finally get at the heart of the matter. We could finally understand one another.
There is a lot of hurt, fear and anxiety not just in churches but all around us. So much is changing so quickly. The problems before us are massive and don’t lend themselves to simple solutions. It is easy, too easy, to take that hurt, fear, and anxiety and weaponize it and seek out easy targets. After all, hurt and anxiety are vulnerable, but anger makes us feel powerful and in control. This control is an illusion of course. It is a dangerous idol that promises agency and deliverance but, in the end, only does great harm to ourselves and those around us.
We ought not condone or abide such destructive rage in others or in ourselves. We must ask the questions: “What is beneath the anger?” “What are we or they trying to mask or hide?” “How can we break through all that to really hear each other?”
I am not naïve, and this isn’t just some kumbaya exercise. This is real, hard, gutting work that requires a great deal of courage. Courage means not only standing up to external threats but having the fortitude to face down your demons and to be honest about who you truly are. Courage is also about expressing yourself in ways that lead to understanding and not the easier path of destruction.
It also isn’t touchy-feely nonsense but real hard work to square up to someone’s anger and to see not an unredeemable person, but someone who deep down is scared and hurting and to hear that with empathy. To be clear, empathy and understanding in the face of anger and rage does not allow for or condone the destruction these things bring.
We ought not allow for violence or abuse in its many forms. Empathy and understanding can short-circuit these things and allow us to breathe deeply, to listen — not to counter, but to understand. To see the loving image in which each of us are created.
I’m reminded of some words from the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the following in his book “Life Together.”
“God does not want me to mold others into the image that seems good to me, that is, into my own image. Instead, in their freedom from me, God made other people in God’s own image. I can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others. That image always takes on a completely new and unique form whose origin is found solely in God’s free and sovereign act of creation.”
I won’t sugarcoat this. Nothing about this is easy. Ron and I didn’t magically become best friends after one moment of clarity. We had to work at it, constantly. And there is certainly more at stake these days than some confirmation program or a single congregation. But if we are going to get out of this mess, if we are going to depolarize and come together, this is where it begins. Person to person. One conversation at a time. It takes curiosity, nuance, courage and fortitude to not allow anger to destroy and tear down but to see beneath it the grief and sadness present in the other, to see the strange and seemingly ungodly image in which the other person was made.
Writer Pastor Charles (CJ) Boettcher serves at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet.