Matthew 25: 36 “I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
One of the books I read while I was on my sabbatical was Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong. As always I was impressed with her writing and level of scholarship but more than that in this book Ms Armstrong lays out the reasons for our love of violence and power.
Right at the beginning she identifies one of the factors in our continuing struggle between living in a harmonious world or living in a power driven world, the construction of our brains. We have 3 brains, the old brain or reptilian brain is responsible for our fight or flight actions. It drives us to defend our territory for food and other resources, it is the self-centered part of the brain, most concerned with keep ourselves safe; the mammalian limbic system, which formed over the core of the reptilian brain is our second brain. It is responsible for new behaviors such as care of our young and the formation of allies with others; and the new brain, the third brain, the neocortex, is responsible for our “reasoning and self awareness that enables us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions.” (pg 4-5)
Ms. Armstrong proposes that the reptilian brain and limbic system are dominant within power systems that manipulate and control others. The limbic system extended the actions of the reptilian brain to include family or a community unity but, still, this drive for power and control of others for territory and resources requires violence. It wasn’t until about 20,000 years ago when the neocortex evolved did the idea of standing back and evaluating actions was there any question about the use of violence. Humanity really didn’t have a chance of becoming a reality until after the evolution of the neocortex and we have yet to learn how to use the “new brain” to begin to evolve into who we are meant to be. By this I mean most of us haven’t learned to overcome the impulses of the reptilian brain and limbic system and use our neocortex to evaluate our surroundings or our actions. In general we humans are “subject to conflicting impulses of [our] three distinct brains.” (pg. 5)
Fortunately there is hope for us all. A few of us are developing our neocortex’s and discovering what it means to be truly human. I was listening to NPR this past Sunday morning when a story about Dr. Kent Brantly was broadcast. Dr. Brantly was one of the American Doctors who contracted Ebola last year and survived. He was asked to deliver the graduating speech to the 2015 graduating class of the Indiana University School of Medicine. What he says about compassion is important for all of us to hear (italics are mine):
“In the first seven weeks of treating patients with Ebola, we had only one survivor; one survivor and nearly 20 deaths. Losing so many patients certainly was difficult. But it didn’t make me feel like a failure as a physician because I had learned that there’s a lot more to being a physician than curing illness. In fact, that isn’t even the most important thing we do. The most important thing we do is to enter into the suffering of others. And in the midst of what was becoming the worst Ebola epidemic in history, we were showing compassion to people during the most desperate and trying times of their lives. Through the protection of Tyvek suits and two pairs of gloves, we were able to hold the hands of people as they died to offer dignity in the face of humiliating circumstances, to treat with respect the dying and the dead. And in my opinion, that made those weeks, those difficult weeks of my career a success.”
Compassion isn’t offering help, it is being with the suffering of others, it is living the suffering, walking together down a road you may or may not know where it leads. That is what Jesus did. He entered into the suffering of others, he walk the road to where ever they were headed, that is one, maybe the first, step to becoming human. Dr. Brantly has taken a step on a road most of us are afraid to even look at let along step onto. The Prophet Micah tells us “He has told you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). To do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God, sounds easy does it not? Ask Dr. Brantly how easy it was for him and he will tell you it is the hardest road you will ever walk, but if we wish to be the humans God has always wanted us to be it is a road we must walk.
This week my spiritual practice is more of a spiritual way of life. I would like to invite you on a journey with me to become the “human” God wants us all to be. To look at our actions by taking a step back and asking ourselves the following questions (I am sure there are more than these and please let me know what you would ask):
- Does this action support justice or impede justice?
- Is this action a loving act?
- Does that action move me closer to God or does it separate me from God?
Simple questions, but, sometimes hard to answer. Our lives are filled with gray areas and we will need to determine how those gray, in between, spaces fit into our lives and either nurture or kill the life we want with God. This is not an easy practice or an easy way to live but I believe, at least for myself, a profitable one. I know I will stumble and so will you. That’s OK, just pick yourself up and start over again. Failure is a lesson in how not to do something. Loving life as God meant it to be was and is never easy. Just remember you are not alone.
Ruth Jewell ©May 19, 2015
 Armstrong, Karen’ Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence, The Bodley Head, London, UK, 2014.
 National Public Radio: Rachel Martin interview Dr. Kent Brantly, May 17, 2015, All Things Considered Sunday Edition.