Are You Just a Human Being Like the Rest of Us?
M. Jeanne Wirpsa
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
February 28, 2016
Are you just a human being like the rest of us? These are the words that frequently come out of my mouth when one of my children messes up, breaks something, or hurts someone close to them, intentionally or not. These are the words – or something very close -- I use when a patient expresses regret or feels their illness is a punishment for their sins. These are the words I weave into my counsel when a family member is struggling with the weight of making the right medical decision for their loved one. Are you just a human being like the rest of us?
The first part of our reading from the gospel of Luke today gets at this reality of our shared human condition in much harsher language. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem?” The point here I believe is that no one of us is exempt from falling short, messing up, missing the mark. We are all sinners. We don’t get to compare the kind or magnitude of our sins to others in an effort to exempt ourselves from the human race or from our need for repentance. Are you just a human being like the rest of us?
I recently attended a fascinating, and disturbing, series of lectures in neuro-ethics. What is neuro-ethics, you might ask, and what does it have to do with the Lenten call to repentance? Bear with me for a few minutes – I promise I’ll get us there.
Neuro-ethics is a field of study that explores how it is that the configuration of our brains impacts our moral lives. What I found most distressing as I listened to one study after the next was the degree to which bias, assumption making, generalizing, and cognitive distortion are hard-wired into us. Research with rats–who by the way share our mammalian brain–and many, many studies looking at human behavior confirm what most of us know through experience if we dare to pay attention to it: We are hard-wired to care most about those who are familiar to us; we are hard-wired to be risk averse; we are hard-wired to form in-groups; we are hard-wired to make generalizations based upon a particular piece of knowledge or event. If we’re looking for a biological explanation or definition of “original sin” I think we found one.
One of these neuro-ethics lectures I attended was entitled, “Are Rats Born Racist?” In this research study rats from entirely separate strains were selected to test whether the mammalian brain is hard-wired to disregard the needs of those different from us. The neurobiologist used albino rats who had never been exposed to a black-hooded rat. When put in a controlled situation where the albino rats could help free other albino rats, they were quick to act to do so. However, when put in the same controlled situation where they could help free a distressed black-hooded rat, the albino rats did not respond. This suggests that helping in rats may be innately biased toward the helper’s own group.
In order to see if this indifference was actually hard-wired or the result of behavioral conditioning, the neurobiologist gave albino rats a play-mate in the form of a black-hooded rat. They hung out together for a few weeks. She then subjected them to the same controlled experiment I described a moment ago, asking the albino rats to rescue a different black-hooded rat, one they had never met before. (So…NOT their friend). What do you think happened? Yes, you are right. The albino rats heard the cries of the black-hooded rats, opening the door of their cages to set them free.
So what does this tell us about our sin of racism and our need for repentance? We are not rats, (not most of us anyways), but we are all human beings with a mammalian brain that predisposes us to see the world and one another in very specific ways and patterns. On top of that, layer in generations of social conditioning in which we are exposed primarily to our own kind and, in our own lifetime, to negative images of our black and brown brothers and sisters – all of which leads us (albino) white people to disregard the cries of distress of our black and brown brothers and sisters. Unless…unless…???
Unless we repent. Unless we have the courage to face our humanness. Unless we can face over and over again that our default mechanisms – some innate and some learned -- lead us to indifference toward those different from us. Unless we are humble and vigilant each and every day until our habitual, ingrained patterns take new shape and new form. Are you just a human being like the rest of us?
When I utter these words I in no way intend to dismiss the cognitive distortions and unconscious biases that predispose us to indifference toward those we perceive to be different from us. In no way do I seek to reduce our actions of injury, oppression, or disregard of human distress to mere biology. Instead, these words are meant to convey just the opposite. I intend to wrap our humanness in God’s mercy. For it is only in the presence of the Merciful One, as we stand on holy ground fully seen and fully forgiven, that we are freed to acknowledge our full humanity, in all its glory and in all its ugliness. It is only when we can truly see how our mortality, our being human, leads us to sin that we are freed to choose to be and act as God calls us to be and act. It is only then that we albinos can correct our myopic vision, catch ourselves in our generalizing from our particular experience, put ourselves in positions where we befriend our black-hooded neighbors -- so when they call out in distress we will hear their cries and free them from the cages of oppression we have built over the centuries. Are you just a human being like the rest of us?