The Messianic Christ & The Limits of Empathy

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


October 4, 2010

The Messianic Christ & The Limits of Empathy

The scope-severity paradox is well-known: a single person who is the victim of some tragedy provokes an outpouring of empathy, support, money and often legal action. It’s why we have laws named after victims like the Brady Bill and Megan’s Law and why charities try to humanize the problems they are solving. But in large-scale tragedies, millions of people are affected, but we care much less, leading to the quote “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In one study of jury trials involving exposure to toxic chemicals, the researchers showed that as the number of people affected rose, the total amount of damages awarded by the jury fell.

The explanation that’s usually given is that it’s easier to empathize with one person who has been harmed, but it gets harder as their numbers increase, and the conclusion that’s often drawn is that empathy may spur action to fix a problem, but it’s limited when used for deciding what to do about it. But if it were true, you’d expect to see the same outpouring of support once you put a sentimental face on the problem – “This is Pedro, a poor child who lives with his family in a rural Guatemalan village. For just $1 a day, you can send Pedro to school…” This helps, but it’s not the same response you see in a singular event. A better explanation: the function of empathy is not to fix problems, it’s to let the victim know they aren’t suffering alone. Reactions based in empathy are only intended to signify something like “I am moved by your suffering, I also feel it,” so donations are a way to publicly register your solidarity with the victim. In a sense, the essence of victimhood is wrongful exclusion from the community, and the role of empathy is to reassert their belonging. The problem of large-scale disasters is that there are so many victims that they are presumed to have solidarity among themselves, so empathy has no purpose. A community of victims doesn’t suffer alone and don’t require recognition from us because they can recognize each other. So the failure of empathy is that it’s fundamentally emotionally therapeutic – it makes victims feel better – rather than critical, attempting to uncover and address the root of the issue. You can see this distinction in the well-known quote: “When I feed the poor I am called a saint. But if I ask why the poor have no food I am called a Communist.”

But maybe there is another possible reaction. In large scale disasters, the relationship between the One and the All is reversed: in a standard tragedy, the One victim stands in contrast and separated from the All of us, the community. But in large disasters this is reversed, the All is the group of victims who are affected, the One is me, which is why the normal experience is powerlessness in the face of the scope of the disaster. The One who is excluded from the All is me, so in the structure of victimhood, I, the solitary individual, occupy the position of victim! This may explain why some people feel the intense urge to “rejoin” the community, to fly to Haiti to help, despite possessing no useful skills. It’s almost as if they want to suffer to reassert their belonging in the community who suffers, which gives it a kind of messianic Christ-like spin on it, the One who becomes a victim to save us All. With that insight, I propose a new model for charity ad campaigns: “Here are pictures of the millions of people suffering from the Haiti Earthquake. Here’s what you can do: be crucified, and rise again after 3 days! Be wounded for their transgressions! Be bruised for their iniquities! The chastisement of their peace will be upon you, and with your stripes they are healed! Give only what you can - everything!”

I think this idea would have a strange appeal to some, but of course it wouldn’t work for a charity, it’s really designed for a political campaign. When secular liberal attempt to co-opt Christianity, they always choose the serene charitable Humanist Jesus of the Beatitudes who fed the hungry and healed the sick to suggest that we should emulate him with sensible social programs. There may be some virtues to these reforms, but for real change, maybe the true revolutionary political gesture is to co-opt the divine figure of Christ, the one who furiously drove out the money changers and irrationally sacrificed everything.