Our neurology predisposes us to love our neighbor.
When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31; Matthew 22:39), he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy.
Our brains are wired for empathy, argues David Eagleman in his book, “The Brain – The Story of You.” Our neural circuitry connects with that of others and monitors their pain, judges their intentions and reads their emotions.
An experiment showed that babies less than a year old intuitively show empathy and prefer a kind puppet over a mean puppet, in this case a helpful bear and an unhelpful bear of a different color.
Empathy is the capacity to have your brain stimulated by the experiences of others. Another person’s pain or grief or fear matrix activates a parallel matrix in your brain.
Jeremy Rifkin, in his book, “The European Dream,” describes empathy in this way: “To empathize is to cross over and experience, in the most profound way, the very being of another – especially the other’s struggle to endure and prevail in his or her own life journey. … Empathy is the ultimate expression of communication between beings.”
Empathy is a survival instinct. Although natural selection or “survival of the fittest” plays a role in our survival, there is more to the story.
Without an intuitive empathic connection with others, humans would not have been able to live together in peace, cooperate and flourish – given that we are slow and weak compared to other creatures closest to us in the food chain.
We help one another be safe, productive and overcome challenges, Eagleman asserts.
Additional research cited by Eagleman shows, however, that we are prone – unconsciously and unintentionally – to experience greater empathy toward people who are like us and less empathy toward people who are different.
It is not a choice we make. Herein lies our struggle: Our brain chemistry does not recognize all of those around us as equal.
As one of the pigs says in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Human empathy is an imperfect survival mechanism. It helps us to survive but gives preference to people of our own tribe.
This defect operates most clearly through the process of dehumanization. Eagleman provides an example of how we can shut down the empathic link between us and the homeless person to avoid feeling bad about not being charitable. We experience them as less human than we are.
Language is a common stratagem that humans employ to dehumanize others and dull our intuitive sense of connection.
By weaponizing language through derisive and demeaning terms, we can dehumanize others and give free reign to egocentricity. Insult is the refuge of those who cannot tolerate the common humanity of others.
So, when Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy (Matthew 22:37-40).
More stunningly, he commands us to love our enemies as well (Matthew 5:43-44).
A part of us battles against this innate capacity for loving connection, particularly with those who are not like us, those who are not members of our political, social, ethnic, religious, national or cultural tribe.
We live in a balkanized country, where demeaning and dismissing those who are not a member of our “tribe” has become almost a patriotic duty.
This is a denial of who God created us to be. This is not an option for followers of Jesus; it just isn’t.
God instilled within us an instinct for empathy. Somehow – ask Augustine, I guess – that got perverted into a preference for our “own people.”
Jesus challenges us to nurture a purer, godlier form of empathy: the capacity to love our neighbor and our enemy simply because they, like us, are made in the image of God.
Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State.