David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Empathy Key to Preventing Bullying

Brandon Sun, April 8, 2013 - David McConkey

Gay marriage is not usually associated with U.S. Republican senators. Not one of them has ever supported it – that is, until a few weeks ago. That’s when Ohio Senator Rob Portman came out in favour of same-sex marriage.

The senator’s change of heart can teach us much about empathy in both the private and public spheres. And teach us much about dealing with the concerns raised by Manitoba’s proposed anti-bullying legislation.

First, the Portman story. This is a big deal. Portman had long been an opponent of gay marriage. “Then something happened,” he writes in an op-ed in “The Columbus Dispatch” newspaper. 

“Two years ago, my son Will told my wife and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is.”

Portman writes that he “wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith” with his desire for his son to have a good life.  Eventually, Portman chose to value the “Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion.”

Portman’s case illustrates how a personal connection often sparks empathy. “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love.” 

We are increasingly challenged, as well, to empathize with others beyond our own homes and families. To see others of different races as people like us – under the skin. To see others far away as people like us – neighbours in the global village. To see others in the future as people like us – who will also depend on nourishment from the planet Earth.

This sense of empathy is also key to the prevention of bullying. We are less likely to bully another person if we view them as someone much like ourselves.

I congratulate the Manitoba government on the recent anti-bullying legislation. Politicians, however, are rarely ahead of the citizens. The legislation would not have been introduced unless the government thought the people were ready for this step.

And we – especially our young people – are ready. From years working with young people in Brandon, I am very impressed at how much more understanding and less racist they are than my generation.

And this young generation is the first in history to accept the reality of homosexuality. A recent U.S. poll found that a whopping 80% of people under 30 support gay marriage.

Dealing with the issues raised by the anti-bullying legislation invites us again to consider empathy.

As a result of the discussion about the legislation, I have been thinking more about the protection of the more vulnerable among us. Like gay kids who often have been the victims of bullying.

I also have been thinking more about those pastors who speak so vehemently against gay people.

Can we feel empathy for those pastors?

This is a big challenge when there are such different views about humanity. And about morality. I certainly find it hard to understand why those pastors choose to remain trapped by out-of-date and destructive beliefs.

More discussion is a good way to encourage more understanding. I echo the call in recent letters to the editor for more public debate about this issue.

And I also feel for those pastors because I know that some of them are themselves gay. How do I know? Because there are gay people in every group.
Many of those pastors who are gay are in denial, even to themselves. Some of those pastors, however, do express their sexuality. But in secret. They lead a double life that can come crashing down in an instant.

That is what happened to Cardinal Keith O’Brien in the U.K. a few weeks ago. When the cardinal’s same-sex relationships were publicized, he resigned in disgrace – just as he was heading off to Rome to vote for the new pope.
Hypocrisy, self-loathing, and hatred of others are not the makings of living a good life. Or the makings of being a good clergyman.

As well, all pastors who preach against gay people must live with great anxiety, dread, and fear. What on earth will they do if a member of their family tells them that they are gay? 

* * * *
See also:  

Ready for a Mormon President?

Churches in the News

Religion and Values in the Public Square 

Gay, Good or God?

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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