Dr. Willy Mutunga
Chief Justice & President of the Supreme Court
Republic of Kenya, 2011-2016.
Empathy is our humanity. It is our struggle for the humanity and human dignity of our fellow human beings. Being a missionary of justice means you feel the pain of injustice, inhumanity, and oppression and you are determined to struggle against to bring the end to your pain and that of others. It is a continuous struggle with progress and regression. Empathy is fundamentally political. For lawyers and human rights defenders we have to be students of psychologists,, psychiatrists, theologians, and other disciplines that have dealt in-depth with empathy.
One of the questions that is invariably asked is what the difference between empathy and sympathy is. In my own experience sympathy is when I feel, share, and internalize the fears, pain, injustice, emotions, and the inhumanity of what happens to my fellow human beings. Empathy for me is when when I commit to take action in the struggle to end the fear, pain, injustice, emotions, and the inhumanity visited on my fellow human beings. In political terms as an intellectual I become an organic one where I become a critical auxiliary of the struggles of those who suffer injustice
The metaphors of “barefoot” and “missionaries of justice” are, indeed, apt for this discussion. They both reflect deep empathy for the ordinary people. We associate barefoot with poverty, inequality, exploitation, oppression, hunger, thirst, and other societal inequities. We know who missionaries are, starting with the imperialist explorers of the fames of Dr. David Livingstone, Rebmann, Krapt in the 19th Century. They were followed by missionaries who walked all over their countries converting our people. The first missionary I knew growing up in the 1950s in Kitui, Kenya, walked barefoot preaching the word of God for his Church Missionary Society. In my child’s mind I could relate him to Jesus Christ because of his walks and preaching. As churches and mosques became institutionalized I saw pastors, imams, and priests work at the grassroots, always with their flock. Being with their flock at all times reflected both their sympathy and empathy. In these days of prosperity gospel and other religious leaderships that sell their purported empathy for the people to the highest political bidder, you clearly have anti-people missionaries.
For human rights and social justice activists the metaphors call for working at the grassroots. The grassroots are in the urban and rural areas. If you set up an office at Wandenja near Makerere University where the bayeyes are you are on the way to meriting the title of missionary for human rights and social justice. Rhoda’s taking up knitting and Gerald’s entry into carpentry during the pandemic are spectacular examples of sympathy and empathy for work done by both women and men. Gerald works in a carpenter’s space where he now has a comrade in arms.
The fundamental questions are which missionary is your role model? And whose missionary are you? Both Jesus and Mohamed, for the Christians and Muslims, are socialist and revolutionary role models. Sadly, so many sins have been committed in their names. I believe even our traditional religions have missionaries that we can emulate. Being missionaries of all faiths is a great attribute for missionaries of justice. I agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu that no one faith owns God; and no one faith should play God. God is the creator of all human beings and God expects we all extend sympathy and empathy to all God’s creations.
II: The Story of my Sympathy and Empathy
It is from my community where I grew up that I can trace the development of my sympathy and empathy for the ordinary people. My community had both many poor and five rich people. The rich people shared their wealth with the community. All families had land. Watering and grassing areas were communal. As a child I felt deeply that I was a child of community. Everyone cared for children. Everyone punished children who violated communal values. Sadness and joys were shared. I grew up aware of my duties to the old, the blind, the sick, and the poor in the community. My success in school became the pride of the community. Education was a public good since the community would readily help out. This was my community in the 1950s. It has changed a lot, but the values of the community are visible struggling against the now community middle classes who are individualistic (you will find them running churches, shops, while still doing their official duties as teachers) and at times oppressive. I am clear the children of my community now have to yearn for both sympathy and empathy, something I did not have to do.
With this solid communal background my intellectual, ideological, and political development in the University of Dar es Salaam deepened my sympathy and empathy for the ordinary people. In prison I saw in the warders peasants and workers in prison uniform, however cruel they had been trained to be. Detained for my struggles for academic freedom, giving legal aid and advice to the poor in Nairobi gave me the commitment to be involved in human rights struggles. I worked in many national, regional, and global human rights and social justice organizations. As a funder at FF I was in charge of grants to human rights defenders, ending my tenure focusing on women rights, equity and equality of all genders. As CJ I was keen on alternative justice systems that gave justice to the 95% of Kenyans.
Currently, I am working on institutionalizing my Multi-Denominational Shrine whose tentative name is HEAVEN OR HELL ON EARTH? The objective here is develop counter narratives against mainstream faiths that have subverted our role models, Jesus, Buddha, Mohamed, and others.
III: Sympathy and Empathy and Politics
If we have sympathy and empathy for the ordinary people then we are called upon to show it intellectually, ideologically, socially, economically, culturally, spiritually, and politically. In the current pandemic are we angry with our political leaderships that show neither sympathy nor empathy for the poor, homeless, hungry, thirsty, sick, and the bewildered compatriots? Are we aware that our ruling elites actually hate the people they rule? How does a government demolish houses of the poor during the pandemic? How does a government tell ordinary people to wash their hands with soap when both commodities are not either affordable or available to them? How does a government enforce curfews through police brutality? How do government, the custodian of our national resources, order lockdowns without solving the issue of food for ordinary people ? Many ordinary people have to walk to construction sites to get money, while others are hawkers whose wares are constantly destroyed. It is the same governments that are led by thieving elite who cannot even ask their cartels to give water to the slum areas. Instead, the pandemic has become a great opportunity for theft and making profits.
One can extend this scenario to the regional and global spheres where imperialism of the West and East is implicated. That is why revolutionaries reflect great love, sympathy, empathy, and humanity for the downtrodden, exploited, oppressed, and victims of great and gross injustices. Authentic missionaries of justice (intellectuals, activists, human rights and social justice defenders, judges, religious leaders) are all revolutionaries in the making.
IV: Sympathy and Empathy and Technology
Technology must be an enabler for justice as envisioned in this discussion. We live in the era of emerging and developing of all manner technologies in the so-called 4th revolution (also called robotic/surveillance capitalism or industrial/military/finance/communications complex). I am sure artificial intelligence envisions robotic missionaries of justice going forward. With AI missionaries of justice by sympathetic and empathic to the ordinary oppressed, exploited, and poor people? Or will they put profits before the people? Will they deliver a just, free, peaceful, non-militaristic, equitable, prosperous, ecologically safe, and socialist planet? How will Barefoot law continue with its innovative technology as missionary of justice in the midst of these developments? This looming struggle must be thought through going forward.
Those who have sympathy and empathy for the ordinary people must struggle for a just, free, peaceful, non-militaristic, ecologically safe, prosperous, equitable socialist societies on the planet. We need to interrogate such a vision of a new planet because we have learnt great lessons under capitalism and socialism. Interrogating, problematizing, historicizing, and critiquing such lessons must be the basis of our continued quest for a new world/planet.
June 25, 2020