60 Minutes was better than usual today (avoiding, it seems, the usual lazy repeat of past stories), with the first story about a young African American man from Minnesota who had begun exploring Islam as a teenager, and because preaching at the local mosque was mostly in Somali, he turned online for sermons and found the sermons of the American Al Qaeda preacher al Awlaki whose videos are notoriously effective at recruiting young men. This young man and a group of friends began making plans to go to Syria, and in fact several went and died there. The subject of the 60 minutes piece and a few others were arrested before they went, and then they helped gather evidence for the FBI before their trial. A conspiratorial side of me might make the case that this young man never was Muslim and that the whole thing was just an undercover job, now turned into a propaganda piece. Funny how thoroughly conspiracy theories inhabit one’s whole experience of life. Let alone all the conspiratorial political talk etc, this is driven in part by the constant task of filtering online information, so much of which is driven by motives (usually profit) ancillary to the actual material. So much of it is just mass-produced (sometimes bot-produced) "content" that is totally untrustworthy, or just the din of speculative voices, with the political propaganda mixed in. So we are conspiratorial. Nonetheless it was a sympathetic portrait of this young man who now regretted his involvement and the deaths of his friends, for which he held himself partly responsible.
The next piece was about some of the issues arising from the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado: crassly capitalist factory farms supplying cheery shops who now have to follow labeling guidelines about the potency and content of their products to help reduce overdoses; organized crime house production for illegal sale out of state; the particular health consequences of marijuana, etc. The governor commenting on his concern but saying there is no going back to the dysfunctional situation prior to legalization.
The final piece was about a guy recording the music of Malawian prisoners, and what was so striking, despite the de rigeur highlighting of the awful conditions, was the way that culture shapes our experiences. in this case the informality and non-confrontational aspects of day-to-day social relations in East Africa. Some of these prisoners were certainly violent people, many of them jailed for many other reasons. But what was notable was the way that cooperative choir/band singing helped pass the time in such a strikingly wholesome way; and then the way that prison guards were involved with the bands, erasing the lines between prisoner and guard. Nothing is that simple of course, but it was a recognizable portrayal of an East Africa that I know. And the guy doing the recording noted that his work humanizes, but does glorify, criminals, and that this humanization is a favor to the audience, not the prisoners. And this is clearly the outlook of the gentle prison guard who started the prison music program and still participates with his quiet competence on the guitar.
Watching it I came to a little more clarity about a concept I’m developing about how to exist amidst the polarized outrage of American social (particularly online) discourse today. The concept is going to be called "critical empathy". I’ll probably have to think it through more in a future post. But the general idea is that right now we are in a phase of intense critical thinking that turns into a sort of competitive game, not simply one-upsmanship, although that’s there, but rather a self-generating intellectual cycle where, in order to establish credibility, one must establish their critical outlook, and in order to establish that one must be ever more demonstrative of their ability and willingness to critique. It is a necessary skill in the (above-referenced) mileu of never-fully-trustworthy online information. This critical attitude, of course, predates the internet age, because it is the critical discourse of scholarly thought, and is certainly applicable to all communication, including pre-internet mass media….wow…see what I’m saying, there is no way to explain this in a succinct way….
Anyway, the general idea is to retain the critical ability (and critical in this sense is not about "criticism" in the general connotation of criticizing what is bad about something, but rather "critical" in that scholarly sense of asking questions and exploring a concept from all sides)….Retain the critical ability and link it to a subsequent and more fundamental empathy. Empathy is prominent in American discourse today, but it is overwhelmed by the bullying attitudes which appear in higher relief because of the empathy. I refer here mainly to the sort of empathy that is popularly portrayed in a TV show like "Glee" with its blandly diverse characters, but also deeper empathies found in those seeking to understand experiences of, for example, African American encounters with the police and things like that. So we want to cultivate that empathy tied in conjunction with a critical habit. But the empathy should be fundamental.
The critical part refers most plainly to social analysis and other aspects of external worlds, but should also be applicable to interior worlds, that is to say self-critical. And we should be critical of our own empathy, which can become patronizing sympathy or so total that it becomes paralyzing as all conflict becomes an opportunity for empathy rather than a dispute in need of compromise and resolution. And the empathy side has these two levels as well. It asks primarily that we seek to be empathetic towards others, and the most challenging aspect of this is being empathetic towards our opponents and enemies (this is what Jesus meant by love your enemy). But we also have to exercise some internal empathy, allowing our superego to take a gentle attitude towards the needs of ego.
So that’s the general concept that I’ll be trying to develop….but my purpose today was actually to write about Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church and Luther’s 95 Theses. Although there is an empathetic aspect to Lutheran theology, Luther’s combative personality doesn’t seem to contain much empathy.
I have read pieces of the 95 Theses from time to time, and today they were posted on the church door and I read through a portion of them, getting a sense of their flow. The pastor referenced them in his sermon saying that what Luther nailed to the church door was an invitation to a scholarly debate about these topics and that he may not have expected them to become such an outrage. That is a nice way to get us to think a little differently about what Luther was actually doing that day, as, I suppose, in a basic way that is probably an accurate description. But Luther also must have known full well that he was publicly posting (in that pre-Twitter age) a direct challenge to the authority of the pope and the Roman Church. He was being deliberately inflammatory, and he relished such combat. That they were then printed and circulated in German translation was not mere happenstance.
He was protesting what he saw as a fraud being perpetrated by the church, which was that they were selling these "indulgences" with the idea that by contributing to the church (very literally in the sense that the main drive of the fund-raising was the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome), you could then receive a papal indulgence which erased the penalties due for your sins, and that this whole idea could be extended to the dead in purgatory whereby you could buy off their time in purgatory by back-paying for past sins of deceased loved ones. In arguing that this whole system was fraudulent he was directly confronting church authority and denying basic aspects of the doctrine that maintained papal authority. He still stands as a model of what it means to "speak truth to power" or to act as a watchdog, as he made the critique from within the institution.
Lutherans now celebrate Reformation Sunday as a kind of launching of the new church year, ironically this often then entails the beginning of a "stewardship drive" (a phrasing that I actually really like, as I like the expansive concept of stewardship, but which generally is used merely as a euphemism for fund-raising). But it is also a replacement of the Catholic All Saints Day, which I guess (not really sure) Lutherans and protestants generally do not celebrate because we don’t really believe in saints per se (even though we still talk about and pray for saints from time to time…and as much as we revere Luther, the whole tradition, not to speak of his vulgar personality, resists the label of saint for him. This is after all, the guy that said something to the effect of "when the Devil comes at night and enumerates my sins, I just roll over and fart at him."
So, the 95 Theses: they develop a line of thought taking aim at the indulgence practice, but that line of thought is premised on an as-yet not fully developed theology that comes to be called Lutheran in honor of Luther’s entire body of theological writing, which emphasizes at its core the idea of salvation through grace, which is to say that an omnipotent God chooses to forgive without any human (including papal) intervention. Forgiveness comes as a result of faith. Although this is often portrayed as just another "deal" we make with God, we give faith in exchange for forgiveness. But rather, as I understand it, faith is an essential part of the process of forgiveness in that, although it is initiated by an omnipotent God, it does entail the participation of the sinner who has to believe that forgiveness is actually possible. And this belief is then dependent upon the general set of doctrines relating to Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and son of God, etc.
The 95 Theses, then, appear without this theological sub-structure, and so sound all the more combative as un-called-for attacks upon the church, a set of attacks which resulted in his banishment from the Church and his spending the rest of his life developing a body of theological work to define the line of thought that led him to that fateful day.
Luther was certainly critical of his society, in both the everyday connotation of "criticizing things that are wrong" but also in the more scholarly sense of questioning and exploring its premises. The theses build up an argument against the indulgences by questioning their theological justifications. At the same time, his inquiries were guided by empathy for the common people who were being fleeced by the indulgence sellers, who were selling what Luther argued were false promises. After all, he pointed out, if the pope had the power to release souls from purgatory, wouldn’t he just release them all out of love, without demanding money?
"Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep."
In this statement he expresses empathy for the people being guilt-tripped into buying indulgences, but also he leaves room for saving face (if not showing actual empathy) towards the pope, who is the object of his critique, by granting him deniability. Perhaps the pope simply did not know the abuses? The thrust of the bigger argument is that the entire premise of indulgences is wrong, so this face saving gesture towards the pope is a false one, as it is the theology that is condemned and not the mere practice.
Anyway, I suppose it is a bit facile to make the argument for Luther as critically empathetic. But I would say he is, and in that is the source of his success, and also his guilt in being associated with retrospectively grotesque aspects of 16th century rhetoric and practice. That is the price of empathy, it means you share in the sins of your times. And I would argue that is inevitable, even if you are critical. Because you can’t escape all the injustices of your times. Being critical of them is important. But more important is to be empathetic towards everyone caught up in the social structure. Be critical yes, but finally empathize.