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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Amos 7:7–17; Colossians 1:1–14; Luke 10:25–37

When I was in high school I was fascinated with the field of evolutionary psychology. With the help of authors like Robert Wright and Richard Dawkins, I believed that I could see through the veil of what we humans do and what we say about what we do and then discover what was at the heart of our motivation. As it turns out, everything from heroism to heartbreak is the direct result of the battle of our “selfish genes” (Dawkins’s phrase) for survival, supremacy and self-replication.

I wasn’t able to grasp then that much of what passes for evolutionary psychology is rather shoddy science. Yet this “science” has gained in popularity for the good reason that we humans are always inquisitive, especially about ourselves, and for the bad reason that we are drawn to simplistic, comprehensive stories, especially stories that cast suspicion on our experiences and emotions.

I’ve since moved on from my evolutionary psychology phase, but I did learn from it. Even if a comprehensive account of human life is impossible to acquire through study of genetic variation and selection, we’ve gained a great deal of insight on how the history of our species has prepared us to navigate the world.

The evolution of our concept of survival and how this concept affects how we relate to others comes out in Luke 10, when an earnest lawyer referred to the second commandment (Lev. 9:18) and asked Jesus, “[But] who is my neighbor?” The story Jesus told in response sheds light on our instincts toward both our own safety and our neighbor. In our time we seem to take for granted that the word neighbor can include all of humanity, but in Jesus’ day people didn’t think in such abstractions. Instead they might have asked themselves: Is my neighbor a kinsman or kinswoman, a person bound to me by obligation, a member of my tribe? Can even my nation’s rivals and occupiers be neighbors?

Jesus answered the lawyer—and 21st-century Christians—with a story about a man who was attacked and nearly killed by bandits. A priest and a Levite each passed by the man without stopping. But a third man, a Samaritan, was “moved with pity” (a visceral word in Greek) and stopped, bound up the man’s wounds and took him to an inn. Which one of these three men was a neighbor to that bleeding man, Jesus asked?

This story has often been given an unnecessary and anti-Semitic interpretation. We’re told that the priest and the Levite were bound by Jewish purity laws that prevented them from having contact with corpses or human blood, as if their Jewishness forced them to be heartless. But the story is simpler and clearer when we view it from an evolutionary perspective.

Researchers know that scenarios like this one trigger evolutionary instincts for self-preservation and genetic survival. A bleeding, possibly dead man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a clear indication of danger. His attackers might have been close by, or he might have been in league with them, seeking to lure softhearted travelers. The priest and the Levite were not doing anything shocking in passing by, and the Samaritan was going against powerful instincts in stopping to help.

Evolutionary science has found interesting data on our tendency to help members of our own clan or ethnic group. Racism, if that’s the right word, has been discovered even among rhesus monkeys. Apparently we humans evolved to see the difference between those bound to us by blood and ethnicity and those not bound to us, and we share our scarce resources accordingly. The pity that the Samaritan feels is a consequence of evolution, a feeling that is adaptive when aimed at his children, kin and clan but dangerously irrational when it spills over toward a stranger.

The Samaritan violated the norms of genetic selfishness. First, he reached across an ethnic line that was very real in those days (Jesus’ audience would have identified the victim as Jewish). Then he spent his own money on the care of a stranger and even trusted an innkeeper whose reliability he hadn’t established. In the world of evolutionary psychology, the coins the Samaritan gave for the man’s care might just as well have been tossed into the sea for all the good they did his own genes (unless a fertile woman was watching and jumped to the conclusion that he was rich; seriously, people make this argument).

Most remarkably, Jesus concluded his parable by asking his interlocutor: Which of these three acted as a neighbor? Jesus left the door open to the sorts of rationalizations we make (rationalizations are another thing evolution made us good at) and asked the man whether he admired the example Jesus had put before him.

Jesus of Nazareth didn’t know anything about evolutionary psychology, but he knew all about danger and safety, selfishness and generosity, racism and prejudice. He knew how the movement of pity in our guts was confined and channeled to those people who could some day return the favor. He was very attuned to a world of humans who had evolved to walk on the other side of the road as quickly and discreetly as possible. Yet he invited his hearers to imagine whether that movement of pity might not open us to the humanity of the stranger, whether the powerful bond of love and obligation might also tie us together across ethnic lines, across family lines and across lines of safety. And just as important, he left his hearer to answer for himself: Are an ungoverned movement of pity and the bond that results worth embracing?

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I'm not sure about the evolutionary pyschology, as apparently neither are you. I think the human pyshe is much more complex, but interestingly I did come to the same conclusion about the victim respresenting all of humanity to the lawyer through Jesus's opening the door. The man's nakedness and supposed bloodiness make his ethnicity unrecognizable, at least from a distance. I rather think Jesus was playing the part of a trickster to the lawyer. Depicting the priest and the Levite as passing by, from my studies of Judaism, would be scandalous, since in Judaism even the law is not allowed to be a barrier to saving a life.

It would seem that an interpretation that allows those who derive their very existence and sustenance through provisions of the law to use the law as a means of neglecting to save a life, the "Korban" passages notwithstanding, would indicate to the lawyer that the priest and Levite were ill informed, or at least radically limiting the law. Rather Jesus's depiction of them defines the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?" It causes the lawyer to see that his question really is about whether there is a limit to the mercy of the law. The priest and Levite enact the limit as an example of the extreme implications of such a limitation.

The Samaritan, also a member of the Mosaic community, but considered less astute and schooled in the finer points, takes no thought for interpretation but acts with abandon on the point of the law at play, thus, giving his all: mind, heart, strength (living provisions), and psyche (self), toward obedience to the second greatest command and through it fulfills the greatest. Thus, the lawyer sees the radicality of application of the law that goes beyond discussion, as was his daily fare, of the mercy that God declares toward humanity. Now the lawyer knows there are no limits to mercy and can act without the baggage of intellectual and social proscription.

Still an excellent and thought provoking article. Thanks.

Letter from Steve Hoerger

I  enjoyed both of Benjamin Due­holm’s reflections (“Living by the Word,” July 10). His first reminds us that fighting our natural “survival of the fittest” instincts is at the heart of being a Christian. 

His second reflection, on losing our ability to hear the prophets, was placed perfectly before the article on the Occupy movement. I’ve always felt that movement was a prophetic voice crying out and we barely heard it. What that group proactively did after Hurricane Sandy confirmed that for me. In 2010 we were very close to the “famine of hearing” Dueholm describes. Here’s to hoping our hearing is getting better, not worse.

Steve Hoerger

Oak Lawn, Ill.

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