Thursday, May 14, 2009

Judgment and Empathy

As I mused over the recent charges leveled by American conservatism against "empathy" as a judicial virtue, I found myself wondering how that played off against specific Biblical instances of justice. Two came to mind:

The first is perhaps one of the most famous stories of jurisprudential skill from scripture: Solomon and the Bisected Baby. It's a classic tale, in which two women both claim to be the mother of a child. Solomon suggests that the baby be cut in half, thus giving each woman what she wants. The real mom refuses, relinquishing her claim so that the child might be spared. At that point, Solomon gives the child to the one who clearly loves it more. This sort of story is common in the wisdom traditions of the Ancient Near East, as a way of evidencing the benevolence and discernment of a worthy ruler.

What's the Biblical metric here? It's not a knowledge of the law. It's a willingness to apply it gracefully. What makes Solomon's decision in this story worthy is not that it meets the standards of precedent, but rather that it comes from a deeper and more powerful understanding of the role of the law. It's driven by discernment of the human heart. In other words, by empathy.

The second instance is the story of Christ before Pilate. Presented with someone he knew he could free, and who he suspected was not guilty of any significant charge, Pilate yielded to to two things. First, to precedent. Only one prisoner was typically released. Though it was within his power to pardon who he saw fit, he couldn't bring himself to make a bold decision, even if that decision was in the interests of justice. Second, Pilate yielded to the will of the people. The people, stirred and agitated by those whose power was threatened, called out for the blood of a man who he knew was innocent...and he acquiesced. It was not that Pilate lacked empathy. It was that he lacked the moral integrity to let it drive his decisions. He hid behind the structures of the law, and for that act of cowardice, he has been found wanting by billions across thousands of years.

Given that most of the folks who are dead set against empathy as a judicial virtue claim to be Christian, I do wonder sometimes about the quality of pastors these days.