By David Beck
I grew up in the 1950s and early ’60s in a small Midwest farm town of 1,000. We had seven churches – Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist, Catholic, Norwegian Lutheran, Swedish Lutheran and German Lutheran.
My father was the pastor of the German Lutheran Church. Membership in the churches generally broke along euro-ethnic lines. The town had no members of ethnic or religious minorities, nor any individuals defined by their sexual orientation (at least not that they would admit to). The church was the center of our lives. My friends referred to my father as a fire-and-brimstone pastor, but I saw him as someone whose wisdom came directly from God.
I wasn’t aware then, but my worldview was deeply rooted in a version of natural law as theorized by St. Thomas Aquinas in interpreting Aristotle’s teleological argument that a full explanation of anything must consider its final cause. According to Aquinas, natural law is the rational plan by which all creation is ordered and to which all people should strive. According to my father, these laws come from God, are written in our hearts and are applicable and accessible to us through the study of the Bible.
The list of laws to my young mind seemed endless, from the big ones like those regarding premarital sex, abortion and homosexuality to the small ones like dancing, saying “Damn” or not listening to my father, a sin against the Fourth Commandment. In time, I found it possible to say enough is enough and move on. Yet there was a kernel of something I had experienced and wished to keep: It was empathy.
I don’t think there was any lack of empathy in our family, among our friends or within the community at large. People would go out of their way to help each other. But then, the community was homogeneous with little to challenge its values and beliefs.
Looking back now, I realize that I didn’t see the ugly contours of otherness: racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-immigration views and every other form of otherness waiting to be sparked as evidenced by the 2016 and 2020 elections when Donald Trump won the county I grew up in by more than 33 points. What was lacking in my upbringing and in this community was any kind of understanding of what the world looks like through the eyes of others. That kind of empathy was not in the cards then, nor does it seem to be now.
Unraveling myself from what I was brought up to believe has not been easy. Certain experiences, however, have aided me in this journey. I’ve had the fortune of living abroad. I’ve married outside my faith and have traveled to more than 140 countries.
One trip took me to Khiva, Uzbekistan. It was Ramadan. 104 degrees. My young guide talked enthusiastically about his Islamic faith and his desire to make enough money to support two or more wives. Because of the heat, I had packed a lot of water. My guide had none.
I said, “You must be thirsty. Here, take one of my bottles.”
“No, thank you,” he replied.
“Seriously?” I said. “It’s hot, and you’re sweating, and you’re not going to drink any water?”
“It’s Ramadan, and it’s forbidden,” he said.
Puzzled, I said, “Not even a sip? How can you do it?”
He replied, “I just think of the many who have no water.”
Ramadan may be foreign to you, but this young man’s empathy should not be.
On another trip, I was in Jaipur, India. The rain had come down that night unlike anything I had seen before. The next morning, the sun came out, but my guide was late in picking me up. He finally showed up an hour late, his eyes bloodshot as though he had been crying.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
He replied, “At the temple, praying.”
“Praying?” I asked.
“Yes,” he told me, “Praying for the rains to subside. Some of the walls of the city have come down, and people have died.”
“Who did you pray to?” I asked.
“To Ganesh,” he said. “We said the Ganesh Mantra over and over again.”
Ganesh is the Hindu elephant god. If you’re not Hindu, it may be hard for you to imagine praying to an elephant god, but this man’s empathy should not be.
Two religions but one common theme: empathy. Across all the major religions as well as in non-theistic groups “love your neighbor” is fundamental.
Although all too often tribal in nature, if there is such a thing as natural law, then this would be my choice. It has evolutionary provenance as well. Scientists have demonstrated that animals such as elephants, dolphins, whales and chimpanzees can be empathetic. They have what psychologists refer to as a “theory of mind” in which they can see themselves in their fellow species. In fact, there are some animals who appear to have a greater capacity for empathy than humans. Should that surprise anyone? Our challenge as humans is to cultivate empathy across our differences, not on our terms as we see the world but through the eyes of others.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is at its core about cultivating empathy, but with the added consequential caveat of do no harm. AU would defend my father’s right to interpret the Bible according to his understanding within his community of fellow believers as long as he does not compel others to do the same.
This is AU’s lodestar and is evident in every action that AU undertakes in accordance with the provision in the First Amendment prohibiting the government from establishing a religion or taking any action that unduly favors one religion over another.
As we know, serious violations abound when, for example, our government allows our tax dollars to be used by religious organizations to discriminate against others, when it gives priority in the public sphere to an individual’s freedom of religion over the civil rights of another or when it restricts women from taking control over their lives.
From AU you will often hear that religious freedom should be used as a shield to protect and not as a sword to harm. This is the essence of empathy, and it is why I support Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
David Beck, currently retired, is the author of From Under the Snow, former blogger of “The Roving Anthropologist” and owner, along with his wife and son, of Plumbago Productions LLC, a media and events production company in Montara, Calif.