Realistic Nonviolence #3: Neuroscience and the Mind of Christ

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This post is part of a continuing  series on practical nonviolence. Read the first post here

In my previous post (post #2), I broadly defined the core of nonviolence and enemy love as a change from a self-focused perspective to a relational perspective. It's about thinking socially, about understanding ourselves as social beings, about the logic of compassion.

As I did last time, I'd like to give a practical application for how we can apply nonviolence and enemy love in our lives. In particular, I'd like to discuss how we can break out of a hostile and defensive mindset, and regain a social perspective.

That's particularly hard to do when we in the middle of a conflict. When we're in conflict -- whether or not that conflict is violent -- our perspective changes. It goes from a social orientation to a defensive one. It becomes me against you (or on a larger scale, our group/nation/religion vs. the other).

Think about what it's like when you're in conflict with a loved one: When we're feeling emotionally threatened, we go into defensive mode. When we're in the middle of conflict, all we can see is our own perspective, all we can think about is defending our "rights." 
So even if the one we are in conflict with is someone we love, our thinking changes to be us against them. We go into "defense mode" and tragical and ironically end up hurting the very ones we love. Sadly we all know pattern all too well:  When we feel threatened, we close off or say hurtful things we later wish we could take back.

So I find that while I want to follow Jesus' way of enemy love, I can hardly manage to do this with my loved ones, let alone with a real "enemy." What's going on? Why is it that we can so easily "switch" from being relational to being self-focused when we're in a fight?

Part of the problem is that family is everyone's Achilles heel. There is no place that you are quite as vulnerable. That's good in the sense that we can receive a lot of love there, but it also means we can easily get emotionally triggered in that setting as well.

So it's understandable that we have very real conflicts with our parents, our kids, our spouses.  Nevertheless, the question remains: How can we break out of those conflicts? What can we do to reverse those hurtful dynamics in our relationships? What can we do to get back to the social compassionate perspective, rather than getting instantly sucked into a "me-focus" when things get tense, and we feel emotionally threatened?

I'd like to suggest that new research in neuroscience can give us some really important insights into what's going on here, and how we can learn to break out of that destructive self-focus:
When we are triggered in an argument, feeling flooded and emotionally threatened, this activates the amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in the processing of raw emotions such as anger and fear. The amygdala is essentially the brain's watchtower, and when it is fired up in alarm mode, it sends out neurochemicals which effectively shut down the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with things like relational connection, empathy, impulse control, self-reflection, moral judgement and conscience -- in short, the part of your brain in charge of what we might call the social-self.

The brain's "shut-down" function has a practical survival function: It means that when we are in danger our brain kicks into alarm mode which can save our life. But it also means that when we get triggered in a argument with a loved one, the smart and compassionate part of our brain is temporarily turned off, which can make us do thoughtless and hurtful things.

So there's a very real reason neurologically that we become so self-focused in a fight. It's not a reflection of our character, so much as it is a kind of brain reflex based on a perceived threat. When we are unaware of this, we can get swept up in those feelings. But once we recognize what is happening, we can address what's going on in us. This involves a two-step process:

The first step is to recognize what is going on in our bodies. The part of our brain in charge of making good judgments has been temporarily shut down by our amygdala. Paul was very likely observing this dynamic when he contrasted the "flesh" with the "fruits of the Spirit." What we can now better understand from brain science is that this "fleshly" reaction of self-focused anger and fear in us is not something evil or bad in itself.  It's a protective reflex of the brain. This can be life-saving when we are in actual danger, but becomes dysfunctional when emotional reactivity makes us see an "enemy" in a loved one. It's a good thing that is out of balance.

This brings us to the second step: We need to have the maturity and humility to recognize that because we are emotionally triggered, we may need to allow time for our social brain to come back online. We might compare this to having the maturity to recognize when you've had too much to drink, and handing over your car keys. Similarly, when we're "under the influence" of the amygdala, we need to recognize that the smart and social part of our brain is impaired, and consequently have the maturity so let it wait, to cool down first.

There's a temptation here to simplify the above equation, focusing on only one of the above two points: Some may want to stress the fact that the "flesh" of emotional reactivity is an involuntary bodily reaction which is not our conscious choice, and therefore argue that it is "not our fault." Others will stress the opposite point, arguing that we need to take charge of our ingrained behavioral patterns and feelings. The reality is that both are true at the same time. We therefore need to have a complex and integrated understanding of how these two seemingly opposed factors work in tandem:

On the one hand, understanding what is going on in our brains means we do not need to beat ourselves up about it. This is our body's unconscious involuntary reaction to feeling emotionally threatened, separated, insecure. Understanding what is going on in us can be comforting and normalizing. These are not bad choices we are making. In fact, they are not choices at all; they are involuntary reactions to a perceived threat. The thinking and social part of our brain has literally been shut down by our brain's panic center.

We can't help how we feel, but we can learn to mange what we do with those feelings, so we are not driven by emotional reactivity. Simply realizing that our thinking and social-self is impaired is not enough however. Instead, we need to learn to recognize when we are flooded with reactive emotion, and exercise the maturity, humility and responsibility to wait until we can cool off and think socially again.

Noticing when we are emotionally triggered is a really important step towards not being driven by our amygdala. It also helps to name what is going on in us, saying something like "I'm feeling really triggered right now, and need some time." When we do this we are engaging the thinking and social part of our brains, and the more we do that, the more our brain will strengthen those neural connections. This is a concept known as neuroplasticity, which refers the brain's ability to change itself based on our experiences. Paul tells us that as we walk in this way of the Spirit, we will be "transformed by the renewing of our minds" and that's exactly what our brain does. Amazingly, our brain actually structurally changes, based on the input it receives, creating new synaptic linkages and even growing new neurons. This means that, as we learn to engage our thinking and social prefrontal cortex in times of stress, our brain re-wires itself over time to be more naturally compassionate and social, and less driven by our "carnal" reactive emotions.

Of course it's never easy to change old patterns. It involves humility and hard work. But hopefully, understanding how our minds work can help us get a little closer to having the "mind of Christ" as we learn to follow in that way.


Realistic Nonviolence #2: Enemy love as the heart of nonviolence

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This post is part of a continuing  series on practical nonviolence. Read the first post here
In my previous post I discussed the infamous "what-if" questions that people invariably raise when the topic of nonviolence and enemy love come up, and suggested that what we really need to do is hear the question behind the question: People have a legitimate concern that nonviolence entails inaction in the face of harm being done to oneself or a loved one. I stressed that this is not the case, and argued that we need to articulate in concrete and practical terms how nonviolence addresses these issues as a viable alternative to violence.

Some pacifists argue that Christians should simply follow Jesus’ way of nonviolence regardless of whether it makes sense to them. As much as I respect their commitment to nonviolence, I want to suggest that this is a potentially dangerous and harmful position to take. The fact is, over the years many people have done things that are really hurtful in the name of religion. For example, some have told women who were in abusive relationships that they needed to stay there in order to "be a witness of suffering love."

Now, I hope you'll agree that this is not what Jesus intended. Love of enemies is not about glorifying suffering or legitimizing abuse. But how do we know that? Fact is, if we are simply blindly following without understanding, we can't. Unreflected obedience has no way of identifying incorrect and hurtful interpretations. So we need to seek to understand nonviolence. There’s simply no way around this. Until we actually understand the “upside-down kingdom” perspective of Jesus, we will not be able to intelligently apply it to our lives and world. Obedience without understanding is not possible.

What consequently happens most of the time unfortunately  is that Christians don't understand it, and so they don't practice it. I want to make the case that simply pulling the authority card on these people, and telling them they should follow this way because Jesus commanded it is a big mistake. The authority argument "don't question, just obey!" belongs to the way of religious power and violence. For those of us who believe in nonviolence it is inappropriate for us to use it, it is opposed to the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is about breaking out of the status quo, thinking for ourselves, respecting the dignity of the little guy. Asking questions and challenging things is good for your soul. It's an act of faithfulness. Suppressing those doubts and questions is not. So we we need to do the hard work of intelligently articulating what  a healthy and life-giving understanding of nonviolence and enemy love looks like.

With that in mind, this time around, I'd like to take a shot at broadly defining nonviolence, and what it means to embrace the Jesus' way of enemy love.

For many the term nonviolence is associated with the political protests made famous by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This is more properly referred to as "nonviolent resistance." Nonviolent resistance is a tool that can be profoundly important when dealing with oppression. I'll have much to say about it in a later post. However, I'd like to suggest that nonviolence entails a much larger way that is applicable in every area of our lives, whereas nonviolent resistance specifically is not always appropriate. That may come as a surprise to some of you that I say that, but it's a really important point. As I said, I'll return to it later in another post. But for now, let me simply say that when I speak of nonviolence, I am referring to something larger and more encompassing than simply nonviolent resistance. It includes the means of nonviolent resistance where applicable, but is a bigger, more encompassing concept.

For others, nonviolence is associated with pacifism, and means a refusal to kill. I agree that this is crucial. It's really the bottom line of nonviolence and enemy love. After all, it's pretty impossible to love your enemy when you're killing them! Whether it's in the form of political oppression, war, starvation, or abuse, violence is a profoundly important issue, and causes untold suffering in our world. Jesus spent his whole life caring for those who were suffering, speaking against abuse of power, and preaching the way of radical grace and forgiveness in the face of it. Looking around at our broken and hurting world, it's easy to see how vitally important it is that we deal with violence. Not just overseas where there is lawlessness, terror, and genocide, but also right here at home where we are plagued with mass shootings, rampant bullying in schools, and a polarized red/blue country that fuels the fires of prejudice and hate every night on the news which has become a reality show of biased angry pundits, and stories focused on shock value.

So I in no way wish to underplay the importance of dealing with the reality of violence and abuse. However, again I want to suggest that nonviolence involves a lot more that just what we refrain from doing. It also involves a way of positively engaging in conflict, and working to end suffering and hurt which operates with a different mindset than the way of violence and force. Nonviolence is not just a rejection of the problem of violence, it is an active solution to that problem.

While it's vitally important to address the question of how we should respond to a life threatening situation, and to struggle with the issue of war (and I will return to these topics in future posts), there are many conflicts in our lives that are non-lethal. After all, most of us go through our lives never killing anyone. In fact, most of the conflicts we deal with in our own lives do not involve physical violence at all. Yet those conflicts can be very real and very painful -- say for example an argument  with your spouse, your parents, or your kids.

Probably the best way to really understand nonviolence is to put it into practice, and a great place to start is in those everyday struggles and conflicts that are a part of all of our lives. Once we can make sense of how to practically apply nonviolence here, we can much better understand how it might be applied in larger social contexts.

So what is nonviolence at its core about? Nonviolence is a way of transforming conflict, a way of turning hostility into friendship, a way of stopping cycles of hurt and violence, and instead sewing seeds of restoration and healing. I find this larger over-arching umbrella understanding of nonviolence is best expressed in Jesus' idea of loving our enemies.

The idea of love of enemies needs to be understood in the context of the normal way love works in our world: Normally, love is something that is given to those we feel are deserving. We love those who are kind to us, and we dislike those who hurt us. That's the idea behind the concept of an eye for an eye. You hit me first, so I hit you back. Jesus takes that normal idea of how things work by reciprocity, and flips it on its head: "You know that it says, 'love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' but I say instead: love your enemies! ... After all, if you love those who love you, why would that make you special? Doesn't everyone do that? So instead, go all the way and love like God does" (Matthew 5:43-48).

So enemy love is about loving people regardless of whether they "deserve it." God does not love us because we are good, God loves us because God is good. That's the way we should love to. When we do that, we can break the cycle of hurting and being hurt because love is transformative. Being loved changes us, transforming the hurtful dynamics we can get entangled in.

So what Jesus is doing is replacing the way of retaliation with the way of restoration. The way of an eye for an eye is overturned by the way of enemy love. Paul expressed this same idea when he tells us: "Don't be overcome by evil, rather overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21). This idea of overcoming evil with goodness is the operative principle of enemy love. The idea here is a restorative action which reverses hurtful dynamics, bringing us out of our self-focused antagonistic us/them mentality, and instead into a relational mindset thinking socially, compassionately.

Let me give an example of how this might play out in practice in our daily lives:

The other day our 5-year-old daughter had a melt down. She's screaming, and I'm triggered. I take her hand, and bring her to her room for a time out. When we get there she demanded that I hug her. I'm not feeling compassion, I'm mad. In my head I'm thinking, “I don't want to reward this selfish behavior with a hug.” I was tempted to pull away, thinking that it would be good for her to feel bad so she could “learn her lesson.”

Now if you're a parent you'll know how overwhelming and exhausting it can be. Being screamed at and hit can stretch you to your limits, especially if you haven't had much sleep. So here we are, both frustrated, both feeling antagonistic and blaming the other. We're both caught in retaliation mode. My instinct in that self-focused defensive state is to withhold love. In my mind I justify this as responsible parenting, as being "for her own good."

But something in me knew that -- as much as I didn't feel like doing it -- she really needed that hug. So I put my arms around her. As I did, her distress, panic, and rage melted away. My reluctant act of kindness was not reinforcing bad behavior, it was helping her come to her senses again. Making her feel bad would have only pushed her deeper into her self-focused panic. She needed that hug, and the sense of security it gave her, to be able to break out of the emotional fit she was in. It allowed her to be able to be social again. It was a simple act of kindness that broke the hurtful dynamic we were both caught in. That's the core working principle of enemy love: Do not be overcome by anger, but overcome anger with kindness.

The way of nonviolence and love of enemies is about a change in our perspective, moving from a me-orientation to a we-orientation. As long as I was stuck in the self-protective perspective, hugging her seemed counter-intuitive. But later, when I was able to think socially again, it made perfect sense. So long as we are stuck in a me-orientation, the way of nonviolence and enemy love appear as foolishness. But once we can learn to think within a relational perspective, it makes perfect sense. It's the logic of compassion.

Next time I'll discuss how we can learn to move from that me-orientation to a we-orientation, which can be especially difficult when we are in the middle of conflict and feeling threatened.



Realistic Nonviolence #1: Addressing the What-if Questions

Saturday, December 01, 2012

I just finished writing a new article on realistic nonviolence that will hopefully be published soon (more details on that later). Because this is such a huge topic, I was not able to cover everything in that feature article. So I thought it would be good to discuss these topics here on this blog over a series of posts. 

Nonviolence is a huge topic. It can refer to everything from international conflict to how we raise our kids. There are different theories of nonviolence too, and different disciplines that address it. So what I hope to do over the next several blog posts is give a broad understanding of how these all fit together.

Most importantly though, what I really want to present is a way of understanding nonviolence that is realistic. It is often lamented that the vast majority of Christians do not follow Jesus' most radical and unique teaching to love our enemies. 

I would like to propose that a major reason that this is the case is because people do not understand how to do this. More specifically, they think that it would be wrong and hurtful to do this. They think it would involve allowing themselves or those they love to be hurt, and so they reject it--not because they are immoral, but because they are moral.

Take for example the classic "what if" questions that people pose to pacifists: "What if Hitler broke into your house and was threatening your wife? Would you shoot him or do nothing?"

Now there are many things that are frustrating about questions like this. A pretty obvious one is that Hitler is dead, so I don't think he will be breaking into anyone's house. Also, why is it always the woman who is the victim, and the man who needs to save her? The biggest problem with this kind of question though is that it presents us with a no-win situation. It is intended to back you into a corner.

I think the best answer to this is to hear the question behind the question. When a person asks this, especially in an extreme form like this, what they are really saying is, "Okay I get that violence is generally undesirable, but surely you must admit that there are some situations where it is unavoidable! Surely you would not want us to stand by while someone we love is in need!"

This is a legitimate concern. So I'd like to clarify some important points that will hopefully set the stage for our future conversation, addressing some common misconceptions:

Love of enemies should not mean that we neglect self-love. On the contrary, it means that we widen the scope of who we love. We love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus expands that love to include enemies too. The opposite of selfishness is therefore not self-neglect. The polarity is between self-focus and a relational focus which includes a healthy self-love.  I am a part of we.

Any proposal of nonviolence therefore needs to present a practical alternative which addresses the needs of those involved -- in particular to protect and care for victims of violence. In other words, it is not enough to simply reject violence, but then offer no alternative solutions. We need to be shown a better alternative that is livable and realistic.

That involves moving beyond slogans and platitudes towards practical application. What does nonviolence look like when it is applied to real life situations? How does it address the very real problems we encounter in our world? 

We'll explore all of that over the next several posts, beginning with how to apply nonviolence in our own personal lives. Right now what I want to stress is that when I am advocating for nonviolence I am not suggesting that we should do nothing to stop people from hurting others. I am not suggesting that we should not defend and protect ourselves. 

On the contrary, the goal is to end suffering and violence, not to passively tolerate it. The core idea of nonviolence is that it prevents a better and more effective way of practically addressing conflict and ending harm in our lives and world.

So to those who pose the "What if" questions, I hope that you would recognize that we share the same moral commitments to defend and protect victims and to stop violence, and that realization would allow us to get past the polarized positions that we so often find just-war advocates and pacifists getting themselves into where each side digs in their heels, growing more and more extreme.

Behind those "what if" questions is a deeper reaction of fear. Those who ask this are voicing a perceived fear that we want to remove their ability to defend themselves and their loved ones from peril. That self-protective fear (which is a normal reaction to danger) can throw us into panic where we are not listening, not thinking. When that happens, the conversation is over. The way for us all to break out of that is to acknowledge the legitimate fear, to empathize with it. To let the other understand that they are heard.

Those of us who advocate for nonviolence will often respond defensively to these kinds of questions, responding with arguments and justifications. While the one asking the question is really saying "Surely you would not want me to stand by while someone I love is being hurt!" What we hear is "Surely there are some times where you would be unfaithful to Jesus!" and so like Peter we answer back "Never!" Part of the problem is that, while the question of how we should respond in dangerous situations is a legitimate one, it is often presented in the form of an argumentative trap that is not designed to open up a real conversation, but is rather intended to end it by creating a Sophie's choice situation. 

It's not a question at all, it's a statement of exasperation. So what we need to do is respond to that before we can get to any kind of practical application. As long as we are both reacting emotionally, both feeling backed-up against the wall, we will not be able to get anywhere because the listening part of our brains gets shut off in this defense mode. The way to break through that is not arguing and debating, but by showing empathy. In other words, the way to break past those polarizing "what if" questions is to apply the principle of nonviolence to it rather than getting sucked into it. Once we recognize that we are all trying to get to the same place, then (and only then) can we begin to work out how to practically stop violence and hurt rather than perpetuating it. 

There are real answers to those "what if" questions. We do need to know what to do when we find ourselves confronted with these situations. We need to present viable and practical alternatives if we want to be taken seriously on the world stage. But we can only learn this in an atmosphere of trust. So if you trust Jesus, I would encourage you to come and taste and see that Jesus' way of enemy love is good

A great thing about a blog is that it allows for an interactive conversation. So I hope you'll leave your comments below. What keeps you from practicing nonviolence and enemy love? Have you been taught that following Jesus entails self-denial or that pacifism means not defending yourself or others from hurt?


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