MLK, Jr., crosshairs, amygdalae, and agape
Next Monday we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Quite coincidentally, yesterday I stumbled upon King’s words taken from “A Time to Break Silence,” 1967.
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view, we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
For all sorts of reasons, this speech ought to be read these days.
For the moment, however, it seems to me that King’s words are relevant in this present political stew of animosity, this cultural brew of distrust, this morass of ill-will in which we all sit.
Regardless of what Sarah Palin asserts, maps with crosshairs targeting the “brothers [and, in a painful nod to Gabrielle Giffords, sisters] who are called the opposition” hardly demonstrate the nobility of King’s vision.
Now, this is not about Ms. Palin per se.
It is about what it is to be Christian and politically and religiously engaged these days.
Stunning is that sitting at the table with Martin Luther King, Jr. on that occasion in ’67 was Abraham Heschel, Jewish theologian. (With the deepest respect for one another, the two of them collaborated against the war, poverty, and hate. Being has a fine program on Heschel here in which, among other matters, his friendship with King is explored.) And in his speech, King references Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims! From a Christian in 1967!
Here is what he writes:
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate — ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.”4 Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
Let me be clear: I am a fan of righteous indignation. And righteous indignation, to be really of the righteous variety, involves action–and at times, political action.
But one can demonstrate righteous indignation without crosshairs, without disavowing compromise, without Hitler-ified photographs of government officials, without screaming voice over voice.
If one does rely on such forms of engagement, be not then surprised that the rhetoric is not only contagious, but effective–for that is what rhetoric intends to do, is it not? Sway opinion to move toward action? And should we be stunned if the action is of the ilk of the rhetoric?
(Let me be clear: the shooter in Tuscon clearly had psychological troubles. I am not denying that, and believe that while deeply tragic, his actions raise painful awareness of the plight of those with severe mental illness. That said, I am saying that, crosshairs or no, the culture of violent rhetoric breeds, surprise surprise, violence).
Certainly in this day of rapid informational exchange, of culture rubbing shoulder against culture, of globalization discovered locally, of ecumenism branching ever more into inter-religious dialogue, people come to see that the way that they have done things all along, and perhaps even reflexively, might be wrong.
Humility is what I’m talking about.
The trick, it seems to me, is to be humble while being grounded, while understanding one’s belief, and one’s reasons for this belief.
Relativism is, after all, still a belief.
I do not oppose tenacity. I am not against assertiveness. I do not rebel against someone saying, “But as for me and my house….” In fact, these are the people who are most interesting to me, those who know their identity and live out of it.
But if these same people are myopic in thought, are haughty in belief, are vitriolic in speech and action, then I become wary.
I can not tell you how many conversations I have with people who disavow the Christian Church because of the Loud and the Few within it who employ hostile and arrogant rhetoric.
But we are not all like that!
The Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., is alive!
But I have said often, as of late, fear trumps reason, and it often trumps the sort of love of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke.
So then the question is, how do we engage those who push away, those who incite anger and defensiveness in an attempt to intimidate and manipulate?
Those of you who are psychologists, I need your help here.
I have a theory.
I know a little of brain research, and the sort of brain research that tells of the role of the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, the fight or flight core.
In families where there has been abuse, or in a person who has suffered some sort of trauma, the amygdala is on hyper-alert–and can even be lushly full of neural connections, precisely because it has had to adapt to the context.
Some say that in order to calm the amygdala down, not least of all when it is supremely anxious and reactionary, a chemical reaction needs to occur to short-circuit the over-active thing.
What is needed is touch. Calm. Assurance.
I am of the mind that our culture has an over-active amygdala. So much fear, anxiety, and defensiveness courses through our society. It is as if we are living in a culture of abuse, or that we collectively suffer a form of PTSD, and ourselves turn into a communal hostile force.
I wonder how King’s words can speak to us, can calm our cultural and societal amygdala down, can remind us that regardless of whether we are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and so on and so forth, our Great Traditions do all speak of love and compassion.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus said on that first Maundy Thursday that we are to love one another?
He didn’t say that we are to like one another. That’s too much to ask.
But to love one another, in the sense of which King spoke, and in the sense of agape, of selfless, giving love, now we might have something.
It takes work. It’s tough to love those who are yelling at you. But if one stops to realize that they are afraid of something, that their amygdala is firing, one is summoned to love them despite. Perhaps were we to collectively love them, we could show them another way? We could help to set a terribly different cultural tone? A one where we do not forfeit righteous indignation, but we do away with crosshairs and hate-inciting untruths and nuance?
The danger, of course, is that it would be terribly easy to allow abusive behavior to continue in the name of loving-despite.
That’s not what I’m proposing here.
Instead, I’m proposing that those of us whose amygdala is not yet on red-alert, do not succumb! It is possible to not be dragged into the morass of reactive anger and hate. It is possible to demonstrate both reason and love.
Insofar as one does, one has a fighting chance to embody the spirit of MLK, Jr., the spirit of which he said, “Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”
Is there someone whose amygdala isn’t on red alert? It seems to me that the rhetoric has taken on a demonic life of its own, has become an evil spirit, taking us all into bondage. Not sure I can find my way to loving in a selfless and reasonable manner.
Guess that’s confession.
Great post! I love how you tie in brain research to this topic. I’ve been working on my sermon for this weekend and the text I’ve chosen in Proverbs 2. It is a really good conversation partner for the events in Tuscon and the national conversation that is evolving beyond those events. I’ve been reflecting on the differences between seeking (and fabricating) answers and searching for wisdom, fearing God versus fearing others, knowledge vs. ignorance and the good path vs. the way of evil.
According to Proverbs, the starting point and most essential orientation for the life of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. I’ll be honest, fearing the Lord, is not a phrase I tend to use nor is it central to my spiritual life.
In Proverbs, as I’ve researched a bit, fear of the Lord is less an emotional response and more a description of a person’s overall attitude and character. It isn’t about being so afraid of God’s wrath, judgment and power that we are driven to anxiety and chattering teeth. Instead, it is a consistent attitude of respect for God and God’s human and natural creation. Fear of the Lord is synonymous with humility, loyalty, faithfulness, and openness to instruction in the path of wisdom. The opposite of fearing the Lord is pride, arrogance, perverted speech and the way of evil.
Today, I would translate “fear of the Lord” to “respecting God and God’s creation”. I am becoming convinced that cultivating a deep respect for God and for God’s whole creation is an essential attitude of faith.
But, as Kirsten said, easier said than done!
What a wonderfullly written beginning to an endless conversation about evil, our world, creation, the existence of God, the nature of “man,” and our psychological behavior. I have to tell you that reading your words created deep emotions and thoughts for me. The events of the last week in Tucson bring so much of God’s creation to the surface that they stop us in our tracks. While folks in Tucson have reportedly gotten out to coffee shops and each other’s homes to talk, we in the frozen north sit anxiously in front of our computers….when can we meet?! Events like these beg for human hand-holding and communal prayer. We must again hurl “Why, why, why?” in God’s face and seek God’s answer for our own lives and for our country. Being an activist of the first order, I always think, what can we do? But we must take time to mourn, to be, and to reach out to others. And live into the answers. “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good he is not God.” (Archibald Leech (sp?)”s play, “JB.”
Making sense out of nonsense is a noble, if somewhat futile, enterprise. The unwillingness on the part of some to see the connection between persuasive rhetoric and the consequence of that rhetoric, however, is baffling. This phenomenon, the disconnect between words and the actions of others, is not only occurring in our culture; it is in our churches. We see the wholesale sacrificing of people on the altar of doctrinal purity, scriptural interpretation, and dogma, just as in our culture we see the sacrificing of people on the altar of rightness, ideological purity, and political-religious fervor. But it is what drives this that bothers me. While it may be helpful to understand it from a purely physiological standpoint, I believe the fear is also driven by a reality that is too hard for some of us to come to terms with.
A friend wrote about the people surrounding Gabby Giffords in Tucson as a way of raising our awareness of just what a rich and diverse garden we are in this nation (dare I say “REALITY?). Giffords was being visited by a friend who is a judge, Irish Catholic, and republican. Initially triaged following the shooting by a gay Mexican-American congressional aide, while two elderly men, one a retired Army officer, and an unknown woman, wrestled the shooter to the ground. She was then operated on by a Korean-American physician trained as a combat surgeon. Following this tragedy a nation was comforted by an African-American president.
This seems to be the reality that scares many people. But, if we could just pause for a moment and celebrate rather than condemn the people who are our nation (and our church), perhaps we’d find that humility and tolerance that seems so elusive.
Noble! You called me noble! Wonderful! I’ll take it.
I heard a parable once about a man who wondered through a town proclaiming difficult truths. No one listened; everyone ignored. Finally a little boy said, “Why do you continue to speak when no one stops to hear?” The man replied, “If I do not continue to speak I will myself stop listening to my words.”
It might be about that as much as anything. Certainly living in South Dakota, where T-Rex sightings are more frequent than catching a fleeting glance at a real live Democrat, I’m used to that question being begged: Why bother?
So to the parable and to your point:
People tend to listen readily when rhetoric is fear-based and appeals to base instincts, e.g., self-preservation. It’s here that I think about people’s amygdalae. Something becomes built up to be essential to one’s security and self-understanding, and when that is threatened, the fight or flight mode is engaged.
Add a defense of the integrity of God in the mix, and you’ve got a fair amount of reactivity going on there.
I agree with your yearning for humility and tolerance, both in society and in Church. These are both essential to a dynamic where courageous change is possible.
But both of those ask for some measure of vulnerability…which inspires fear and self-protection.
If we could get to the point where fears could be acknowledged and named, then I wonder whether we could better address the facts that either confirm or dispute the fear. In the acknowledgement comes affirmation, out of which comes trust, upon which reconciliation could better be built.
Ideally, I know.
But there is precedence for it: Look to cooperative efforts by Palestinians and Israelis, Agreements between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, reconciled marriages, and so forth.
Please don’t stop proclaiming the difficult truths even if it seems as if, even if, no one is listening.
Some are, and one day the others might.