March 20, 2005

On human nature

In Catholic churches, part of the Palm Sunday liturgy is the communal reading of the Gospel, broken out into four parts: Jesus (taken by the priest), Narrator (taken by the deacon or a lay lector), Voice (other individual people, e.g. Pilate, Peter, taken by a lay lector), and People or Crowd (taken by the congregation). This is one of the very most disturbing things that we are ever asked to do, liturgically; remember the things the crowds say during the Passion? They're downright nasty. They are the ones that provide evidence to convict Jesus, demand the release of Barabbas instead, and taunt Jesus then and while on the cross. The congregation is also given the part of the woman who calls out Peter for being "one of them".

For a few years running, I refused to say it at all, because I reject that whole mentality. Lately I've treated it as acting; obviously an actor doesn't agree with every line he's given, or every character he plays, and someone needs to be reading the lines---what if everyone refused to say those lines? Of course, I'd be pleased if everyone at least went through a phase where they refused to say them, as a rejection of that mean, nasty part of human nature where our lizard hindbrain pushes us to call for the blood of the people who wrong us, or maybe just scare us or disturb us.

I really wonder what goes through everybody's head when they read along with that part. Do they just read along, since it's the part in bold? Do they at least get to step one, which is "how can they say those things about Jesus?" How many get to step two, which is "they didn't know he was the Christ---how can they say those things about anyone?"

And yet, human nature hasn't changed a bit. Crowds still routinely get whipped up into a frenzy of nastiness. I read "the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus", and I think of Fred Phelps and his evil little "God hates fags" cadre, or of Rush Limbaugh and his apologetics for the Abu Ghraib sadists, or of the so-called 'pro-life' activists that go around and scream at and attack, even kill, people who have anything to do with abortion clinics.

This reading of the Passion should inspire everyone to ask themselves: "Have I ever said things like this? Have I ever let myself get caught up in a group that drove me to call for the death of an innocent person---or even one I thought was guilty?" The mockery, the call for vengeance, it all comes too easy; it is part of human nature, and that's why we must be all the more vigilant for it.

"Sadly, the G.I. Joe cartoon never really bothered to tell us what the other half the battle was. Perhaps it is composed of a dozen or so smaller things, all individually negligible in the face of knowing." --Chris Sedlack

Posted by blahedo at 4:16pm on 20 Mar 2005
I guess the way I look at it is that we don't have to have literally wanted someone dead for it to apply to us. I always thought that responsive reading was one of the most powerful parts of Maundy Thursday, because all of us feel hatred and loathing at times—I have a hard time not feeling it in the face of the Fred Phelpses of the world, for instance. Posted by Chris Tessone at 9:14pm on 20 Mar 2005
"nasty part of human nature where our lizard hindbrain pushes us to call for the blood of the people who wrong us"
I think you are very wrong in two things here. One, the call for blood of those who have done us no actual wrong is just a strong as the call for those who do us wrong. This is important as the crowd is calling for the blood of someone who, if we believe the Bible, has wronged no one. Two, in thinking that this part of human nature comes from so far back. Last I checked in with studies, they had found a sense of fairness in monkeys and apes, but not in lizards. The call for blood of those who wrong us would seem to stem from this very sense of fairness.
As someone who has been attacked by a mob for no wrong that I was ever told of, I have thought much about this. Sometimes it seems to be contempt for the weak or the different, which may indeed stem from pre-primate days. Countless tales have been written down about the different one in a group of animals being torn to bits. Other times, it is just a way for some to make sure they are not the focus of the mob. Others enjoy watching and causing suffering. Posted by lee at 12:01pm on 21 Mar 2005
Often people cry out and attack because they feel defensive. This doesn't mean that anyone wronged them - but it does mean that somehow they got scared. Sometimes that's related to unmet needs, particularly unmet emotional needs. The victim is practically irrelevant and certainly blameless. The pain comes when someone feels defensive, feels they have been attacked, regardless of whether they actually have. They're defending against the fear in their heads. Recognizing that the victim has nothing to do with it lets us turn our attention back to unmet needs, and find out what might calm them down. This also means stepping out of the drama for a moment to realize that maybe we aren't being attacked, when we find ourselves in a heated conversation. The escalation continues because both sides think they have to work harder to protect themselves. But the key to unlocking that pattern is to become aware, and recognize that the other side is scared and defensive and needs something. It takes practice to recognize and break the escalation, and it can only be done in oneself first. Posted by skywind8 at 3:52pm on 28 Mar 2005
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