Skip to main content

Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Empathy for us all

Sotomayor should show that she has the wisdom to be fair

Empathy for us all

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

King Solomon, meet Barack Obama. You might just have what he's looking for.

Obama says in so many words that he wants judges who show "empathy." If anywhere in the history of juris­prudence there's a more celebrated example of a judge's empathy than the one we find in 1 Kings 3, I'd like to know where. Who doesn't know the moving story of the two women who were arguing over whose baby had died during the night and whose baby had survived. Solomon listened, although without the benefit of any DNA experts, and then famously called for a sword to divide the living baby between the two women. Solomon's wise action, simultaneously exposing the duplicity of the false mother and the love of the real mother, also led the people of Israel to stand "in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice" (v. 28).

Let's admit the obvious. We all crave empathy. Even if we're not terribly smooth at demonstrating it to others, we never get enough of it when someone else extends it our way. We love it when someone takes the time and effort to understand and enter into our framework of feelings and the difficulties we're experiencing.

During my lifetime, I've watched a number of court cases fairly closely-and I have yet to see anyone address the judge to say: "Your honor, please, while you're trying this case, just stick to the cold hard facts of the law. Don't worry about my background or my feelings or where I'm coming from emotionally." Indeed, people in court settings, with the skilled help of lawyers, often work hard to involve the emotions of everyone who's there-including the judge.

So we conservatives are silly when we disparage the role of empathy in the pursuit of justice. If by no other principle than that of the Golden Rule, we should take empathy seriously. And those of us who tend to call ourselves both conservatives and Christians have special reason to take empathy seriously. The writer of Hebrews makes a point of reminding us that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." You want a little understanding next time you're up against the wall? Remember the very character of Jesus, who was an expert at showing empathy.

So let's resolve: No more making fun of empathy.

But empathy, by itself, isn't enough. Empathy alone will never make a judge's reputation. It wasn't what sent people home from the Old Testament baby trial raving about King Solomon. It's wisdom, not empathy, that makes judges famous.

That's why it's totally appropriate to be asking both President Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, his first nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, why they've so much stressed the "empathy" thing while talking about her qualities-and all but forgotten to point out to us the wisdom she's shown in the cases she's decided during her career. It hasn't been Sotomayor's opponents who've emphasized "common touch" and "background" and "extraordinary journey." It's been the nominee herself, and the president who named her.

In all that, it hasn't helped that Sotomayor has hinted that a poor person might start in her courtroom with an advantage over a wealthy person; that a member of a minority will start with a leg up on someone from a dominant race; or that a woman might have benefits a man might not enjoy.

If that's empathy at work, it gives empathy a bad name. Where's the wisdom in such declarations? How does that give the public confidence in the fairness of her future decisions?

What's going to happen down the road, and what will she use as her reference point, when two parties come into her court with conflicting interests-and both of them are poor? Which one gets the empathy? Or when members of two minority groups come in with cross-wise claims? Or when a woman's "rights" are challenged by the "rights" of a homosexual?

There comes a time when a nation wishes for a little more emphasis on substance and a whole lot less on style.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to

To hear commentaries by Joel Belz, click here.