Thoughts on Empathy

From MLK, Jr., Inauguration Day & my Brother-in-Law Russell

It’s been another eventful week for our country. Let’s start with last Monday, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. MLK Jr. is a personal hero of mine. A broken, flawed man who God used, in mighty ways, to move our country forward toward a more perfect Union, and a deeper awareness of systematic, racial injustice. MLK, Jr’s commitment to love and NON-violence—in the face of so much hatred—was truly remarkable and inspiring. I was going to start with one of MLK, Jr’s many inspiring quotes, but I think sharing this history might honor him a bit more.

The movement to honor MLK’s legacy with a federal holiday began in the late 1970’s. On November 2, 1983, President Reagan signed a bill into law to honor King with a federal holiday. MLK Day was first celebrated on January 20, 1986. Many states, however, resisted the call to accept this new federal holiday. There was a very public and political fight over this new holiday, in many states, but I personally remember Arizona as “ground zero”; in part, because one of my favorite hip hop groups, Public Enemy, wrote a song about it, called “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” featured on their 1991 Album, “Apocalypse 91…the Enemy Strikes Black.” I was in high school, and I fashioned myself a “singer-songwriter” back then. After the L.A. Riots, in the spring of 1992, (which began when the police officers who beat Rodney King were found not guilty), I wrote a song which included these lyrics:

Some states say MLK can’t have a holiday, but the KKK can have a ticker tape parade? And I wonder how we can just let justice fall in a land to be built upon “justice for all”….

Eric Bronner, “Justice on Judgment Day” a/k/a “Rodney”

In one of my first, small acts of “protest,” I sang this song at my (99% white) school’s talent show. And, for a week, during my lunch hour, I gathered over 500 signatures for a petition I wrote, asking my Congressmen to launch a federal inquiry into the L.A. Police Departments policing practices.

Obviously, we still have a long way to go to realize King’s dream, and build the “beloved community” together. But in my faith tradition, “doing justice” and “loving mercy” and “walking humbly with your God” are required (see Micah 6:8); so, it’s important, expected and worthwhile work!

This past Wednesday, like many of you, we took some time to watch the Inauguration of our 46th President, Joe Biden, and our first woman (and, our first person of Asian or African descent) Vice-president, Kamala Harris. In light of the terrible events of January 6th, the peaceful transition of power felt all the more important to celebrate. Even if you are one of the 75 million Americans who didn’t vote for them, I hope you still could appreciate the significance of the day. Relief was in the air as the attendees celebrated this proud moment for our democracy. For a few minutes, could all of us see and feel, together, the Hope and the Light (which the young, talented poet laureate Amanda Gorman so fiercely and eloquently called us to be)? Such a stark contrast from the darkness, violence and despair that came from those same Capitol steps, as they were defiled, two weeks earlier.

No. Sadly, we couldn’t. As I checked my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds, it was obvious that there are still far too many angry, hate-filled people in our country. It’s heartbreaking. On Inauguration Day, I watched this sad chain of events play out multiple times. Someone would post a picture from the Capitol, or of young, Black girls watching the Inauguration and write a post celebrating the shattering of another “glass ceiling”; hoping that now, those little girls would be inspired to dream even bigger. And then, in the comment section, below, there would be many ugly, vile and hate-filled comments. Even on LinkedIn where your future employers are always watching! Sad, but in today’s culture of rage, not unexpected.

We have lost the ability to empathize. We have lost the willingness to even try, for just one minute, to see things a different way; or, walk in another person’s shoes. We have our agendas. And, our minds are firmly made up. Too often, we are armed with hateful, divisive rhetoric; “talking points” from our favorite news source that we hurl at one another. Our guns are loaded with the ammunition of conspiracies, disinformation, and “facts” that come, exclusively, from sources that confirm our own biases. Too often, we come armed, and ready to do violence to anyone with whom we disagree. Why? For what end? What are we really hoping to achieve?

For just one day, could we all agree to STOP judging other groups of people based exclusively upon their worst, most extreme offenders? Could we stop demonizing everyone who supports a different candidate or political party? I’m not suggesting we need to empathize with the ACTIONS of the violent mob that stormed the Capitol—their actions were despicable, unjustifiable and wrong. Could we possibly, though, even if only for a few minutes, try to empathize with the individual people in that mob? Someone’s son or daughter, a mother, sister or a friend. A wayward soul who, in their own way, is struggling to find meaning and purpose in a deeply broken world.

That got me thinking about my brother-in-law Russell Limbaugh who is no longer with us. Russ was a good friend of mine. We were as different as two people could possibly be, so my father-in-law called us the “odd couple.” Within minutes of arriving at his double-wide in Southeast Missouri, Russell would greet me with a Busch light, and get me riding an ATV and/or shooting a high powered riffle. I could see the grin on his face whenever I got there, “what can I show the city boy this time?”! We didn’t talk politics much at all, but we did have to have a few heated conversations about some words Russ was still using. To his credit, Russ never used them again in my presence.

I’m not saying I have this all figured out. I don’t. But I know for damn sure that we need A LOT more empathy and A LOT more grace in the way we treat our fellow humans. We need to listen a lot more and talk less. And, for our wayward brothers and sisters (on either extreme of the political spectrum) we need to win them back, one heart and one mind at a time. Will we take the time to do this hard work?

I’ll close this already too long post with two quotes from MLK, Jr., and some final thoughts:

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior

“Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical whyWhy should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says, “love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior

We will not solve any problems with hatred. We will only make them worse. It takes empathy, patience and active listening to start the hard work of healing and rebuilding. We can bravely choose empathy and Light, while striving together for a more perfect Union; or, we can continue the cowardly path of spreading darkness, hate and division, leading to our destruction.

That’s our choice, my friends. Every. Single. Day.

“For there is always light; if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” (Amanda Gorman) Are we still the home of the brave?

Published by Eric B.

Man of Faith. Husband to Halli. Dad of three amazing kids. Navy Vet. Recovering attorney. Real estate broker turned full-time political reformer. Helping lead "Show Me Integrity" in Missouri and now, actively building Veterans for Political Innovation (VPI): a fiercely cross-partisan, nationwide political reform community to inspire veterans to engage in the fast-growing reform movement. The goal: implement proven political reforms, such as Open, NONpartisan Primary Elections, with Ranked-choice (Instant Runoff / RCV) or Approval Voting---making our political system more open and competitive. Because more competition means better choices and better results!

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