Are Humans Inherently Violent?
Friends’ Peace Testimony may be wishful thinking if violence is an innate human trait. As evidence for our violent and warlike nature, we have Ukraine in the 21st century, World War I and II in the 20th, the Medieval Crusades, and the ancient wars of conquest by Rome, Egypt, and Babylonia (not to mention the internecine fighting of the Ancient Greeks or the invasion of Canaan by the Israelites). Of course, I’ve left out thousands of other wars in the history books.
Pre-historic humans also fought battles as witnessed by archeological finds where spear points are embedded in skeletons. Then there’s the 7,000-year-old mass grave containing neolithic individuals whose skulls had been crushed or legs broken—evidence of a Stone Age massacre. (See photo above.) And there’s the evidence of evolutionary biology that traces violent behavior back 5 or 7 million years ago to our common ancestor with chimpanzees, who organize “war parties” to invade the territory of other chimp groups, killing isolated enemy chimpanzees.
Of course, so far, I’ve concentrated on war, but there are many contexts for violence: mass shootings, domestic violence, political assassinations, crimes of passion, and murder for profit—think insurance policies or drug dealers. No doubt the reader could add numerous categories to this list. While human beings are not intrinsically evil and usually quite peaceable, the hard facts prove that that violence is part of human nature.
There is, however, hope. Human behavior—including violent behavior—can be modified by culture. For example, small, nomadic groups are more peaceful than agrarian or industrial societies. Europe is less violent than the United States, and murder is almost unheard of in Japan.
In general, societies in conflict are more violent than those without internal divisions. Thus, the violence here in the United States is at least partly the result of our polarization along class, racial, and political lines. When a small elite controls the wealth of a country, as in the United States, the cry for justice and equality will be accompanied by violence. When people of color are systematically oppressed, as here in the United States, that oppression may take a violent turn. When political compromise is difficult, as here in the United States, violent solutions may be sought.
Religion is often part of the problem. A fanatical religiosity can be used as a justification for violently attacking another religious or secular group. Religious true believers think that God is on their side and that it’s okay to see the other “godless” group as an enemy to be opposed by any means possible, including the physical destruction of that enemy. Thus, it was possible for the January 6th insurrectionists to think of hanging Vice-President Pence out of loyalty to Jesus and Donald Trump.
On the other hand, true religion can be part of the solution. A spirituality suffused with the ethic of love will seek a non-violent resolution of conflict, and that approach is precisely the Quaker way. As Quakers, we have the obligation to resist being corrupted by American culture. We should follow St. Paul’s advice in Romans 12: 2 when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….” (ESV) So, any aggressive impulses we personally have should be channeled into actions for social justice, into changing the culture that encourages violence. We should work to transform our culture of violence while recognizing that there are innate, biological limits to what can be done.
Let us not be discouraged.
(This blog post was partly based on Joe Phelan’s Nov. 20 article, “Are Humans Inherently Violent,” published on livescience.com)
~ Richard Russell
Images of Jesus
I wonder how many African Americans imagine Jesus as a black man. Certainly, the real Jesus didn’t have lily-white skin and blonde hair. With a Middle Eastern complexion and the effects of the sun, Jesus’ skin color might not have been much different from the picture above. His clothes, however, would not have been as crisp and clean as in the portrait. I personally see him with tattered cloak, worn sandals, and unkempt beard, sometimes bone-tired from travelling the dusty roads of Galilee. How different are the church windows where he appears as King of the Universe with crown and scepter, holding the orb of Earth in one hand!
How do Christians reconcile these two images? Perhaps the best effort is the early Christian hymn of Philippians 2:6-11.
(Jesus)…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV)
Well, I’m more than a little uneasy with the idea of the historical Jesus being “in the form of God,” but—if I can be allowed to anthropomorphize—I can see a peasant Jesus in Heaven being embraced by God the Father—the one with the long, white beard and the very serious visage. And as a former faithful Catholic, I well remember the masses celebrating the Feast of Christ the King, in which my church would display the picture of a king’s crown below a crown of thorns. Or—to quote William Penn— “No Cross, No Crown.”
I do like the Quaker metaphor of the Inward Christ as an Inner Light. Not so anthropomorphic as other Christ images! And we really must make a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The Christ of Faith is a cultural artifact erected upon the quicksand of the historical Jesus. That doesn’t mean that the Christ of Faith isn’t real. I believe the Holy Spirit must have been hard at work in order to place a lowly Jewish peasant in the Godhead itself. And when Christians pray to God, they are praying to an Ultimate Reality that includes Jesus, the man, the Christ, God’s messenger and prophet.
Admittedly, there are many paths to God other than the Christian way. But for heretical Christian traditionalists like myself, Jesus is the King of Our Hearts and the Light of Our Inner Selves.
~ Richard Russell
We Have the Power
Never confuse position with power. Pharaoh had a position, but Moses had the power. Herod had a position, but John had the power. The cross had a position, but Jesus had the power. Lincoln had a position, but Douglass had the power. Woodrow Wilson had a position, but Ida B. Wells had the power. George Wallace had a position, but Rosa Parks had the power. Lyndon Baines Johnson had a position, but Martin Luther King had the power. We have the power. Don’t you ever forget.
—The Reverend Otis Moss III riffing on a sermon that originated with the Reverend Frederick D. Haynes III
The “we” is the Black Church, mainstay in the search for racial justice.
~ submitted by Richard Russell
Your Brain on Metaphors
While we were still primates who hadn’t fully developed into human beings, we had no use for, or understanding of, metaphors; but as our brains developed the capacity for language, all that changed. The ability to understand metaphor did not, however, create new brain regions. Rather, the new ability was crammed into existing brain structures concerned with the senses and the physical world.
Consider, for example, the metaphor, “He has a warm personality.” No one literally has a personality with a temperature that’s warmer than someone else’s personality. But the evolving brain put the ability to understand the metaphor into temperature-sensing regions of the brain, resulting in the brain’s occasional confusion between literal and metaphorical.
For example, in a study by Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale, a covert experimenter seemed to be struggling with an armful of folders while holding either a cup of hot or iced coffee. The experimenter would ask the research subject to hold the coffee for just a moment while he got a better hold on all his materials. Later, the subject would read the description of a person, and those subjects who had held the warm coffee would rate the described personality as warmer than those subjects who had held the iced coffee.
Another example. A brain structure called the insula senses whether food is rotten or whether something distasteful like a cockroach is being eaten (or even thought about being eaten). In short, the insula registers sensory disgust. Now imagine a disgusting moral situation like an old woman beaten to death by thugs, and the insula activates. Evolution put moral disgust into the same brain region that handles sensory disgust.
Religion, of course, is full of metaphors. We have no direct knowledge of God. So, we compare God to things in our human experience. God is like a father or a king or—more nebulously—like light. God’s love for us is like the motherly love of the Virgin Mary for Jesus; and, in times past, Catholics spoke of Mother Church. Catholics also metaphorically “eat” Christ’s Body and “drink” His Blood although they also want to dissolve the metaphor into real flesh and blood.
Certainly, these religious metaphors activate specific brain regions that were originally “designed” for the physical world of the senses. Although I have no research to support my theory, I imagine that when we associate God with motherliness, the amygdala—a fear-generating structure—is quiescent, and dopamine-rich areas of the brain—like the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus—come alive. (Dopamine is—loosely speaking—the “pleasure molecule.”)
I would suppose that brain regions relating to eating and drinking activate during Holy Communion. After all, communicants do eat the wafer and drink the wine. Likewise, when Quakers experience the Inner Light, does the occipital lobe—primary processor for vision—light up in brain-imaging machines? Or perhaps only the visual associative regions increase their activity?
One thing is sure. We may be spiritual beings, but our spirituality is rooted in our physical bodies and brains.
(This post was inspired by, and partly based on, Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s Teaching Company course, Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science.)
~ Richard Russell
Vengeance and the Death Penalty
Theresa Robinovitz is not willing to wait for God to act. Addressing Nikolas Cruz, the gunman in the Parkland school shooting, she said, “I hope your every breathing moment here on Earth is miserable and you repent for your sins and burn in hell.” Robinovitz is one of many relatives of the 17 people (mostly adolescents) murdered by Cruz. She and other family members of victims recently attended his sentencing hearing where they were allowed to give victim impact statements. As far as I can tell from a N.Y. Times article, everyone who spoke wanted the death penalty for Cruz, who was—to their consternation—sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. According to the Times, they were “brimming with rage, disappointment, and grief.”
I’ve always opposed the death penalty. In high school persuasive speaking, I passionately spoke against the death penalty, which is disproportionately applied to minorities who cannot afford good legal representation. Moreover, if an innocent person is executed, there’s no way to redress the legal mistake. Most importantly, life is sacred, and the state that inflicts the death penalty is following the bad example of the killer. This extreme punishment is nothing less than vengeance, with no thought given to the rehabilitation of the convicted person.
Nor is vengeance good for the families and friends of the murdered victim. Anyone consumed by rage at a life sentence for a capital crime is creating a self-imposed psychological prison. To rid oneself of such rage and live without its burden, it’s necessary to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of self-love.
But the Bible does say that vengeance belongs to God. So, what does God’s vengeance look like? I personally reject the belief that Jesus was God, but Jesus was so transparent to God that his sayings—in my opinion—mostly reflect God’s judgements. (I realize I’m anthropomorphizing God.)
Jesus tells us, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:36-37, CEB).” In other words, while God acknowledges sin, God does not punish in the way that human beings punish. And God’s forgiveness extends both to a murderer and the victims of the murderer. God’s “vengeance”—in human terms—is not vengeance at all. God’s revenge is love. Therefore, God wants us to avoid the death penalty, which is the antithesis of love. And Hell—if it exists at all—is not God’s vengeance upon murderers. Nor is it a fit “place” for those who are deeply angry with the murderer.
~ Richard Russell
A Catholic Quaker
That’s me, of course. While I’m proud to be a Quaker and a member of Old Chatham Monthly Meeting, I’ve never renounced my status as one of the Catholic Faithful. If I were to go to confession, some priests would consider my Quakerism to be a sin while others would find it quite all right. Surprisingly, I still cherish the Catholic Mass and can even recite the Nicene Creed without guilt (although I must give the Creed a “Quaker interpretation”).
One Catholic Holy Day that I like to celebrate is All Saints’ Day on November 1, followed by All Souls’ Day on the second. In Mexico this period is called el Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. During this time, many Mexicans spend a night at the grave site of deceased family members. Candles light the way for the departed souls to return to Earth for a visit. Their loved ones will have brought their favorite foods and decorated their tombstones with cempasúchil (marigold) flowers. And the day is celebrated in Mexico joyfully with parties, skull face paintings, and skeleton toys for the kids.
During this November 1-2, I want to follow the Catholic custom of remembering the dead by praying for my mother, Mary Jo, and my grandfather, Joe Adams, as well as my friends—David and Rosemary Parker. May they all find joy, peace, and blessedness in the Light of the Eternal Presence!
When I die, I probably won’t be remembered on November 1 or 2; but surely Old Chatham Meeting will hold a memorial service for me, much like el Día de los Muertos. But—to repeat—even though I’m a Quaker, I’m also a member of “one holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” After all, we Quakers belong to a Society, not exactly a church.
~ Richard Russell
Thomas Merton on Prayer
Brian Drayton recently distributed to his worship sharing group the following passage by Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and celebrated spiritual writer:
Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to his will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as "being before God as if you saw Him." Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind, this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. ...There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise, rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present "myself" this I regard as an obstacle about which I can do nothing unless He Himself removes the obstacle...Such is my ordinary way of prayer or meditation. It is not "thinking about" anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible, which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is invisible.
(from Hidden Ground of Love, pp 63-4. Letter to o Abdul Aziz)
~ submitted by Richard Russell
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