A couple of weeks back I posed a question that had been raised by one of our hunger leaders on our social network site, The Table (love the new spring background, by the way!). The gist of the question is why do we continue to struggle against what we all agree to be great evils, namely, hunger and poverty? If we are all on the same page that the situation should not be as it is, why have we made so little progress? I am still struggling with the question.
Today’s Op-Ed piece by David Brooks in the NYT spurred some thinking on the subject. He writes about how as individuals in small social settings human beings are generally very sympathetic to one another. This fits well with Peter Singer’s thinking on “The Life You Can Save” — human beings are more likely to respond to an immediate need or a particular person than to a large undefined problem (here is a link to my review of the book). Once we move to larger group thinking, however, such empathy largely disappears. Brooks writes,
When a group or a nation thinks about another group or nation, there doesn’t seem to be much natural sympathy, natural mimicry or a natural desire for attachment. It’s as if an entirely different part of the brain has been activated, utilizing a different mode of thinking.
This statement resonates with my experience. Here’s what I think might be at work. It makes sense evolutionarily for us to care for each other — particularly our young. We need each other to survive. For this reason, we are now essentially hardwired to care and we get great joy from doing good. At the same time, we depend on the group to protect us and help us survive. The group then becomes vital to our own personal survival and a threat to the group is a threat to our own safety.
I don’t pretend to have the answers (I know I struggle to consistently accompany those who are poor and vulnerable), but I do wonder how much a shift in group identity could begin to address some of our reticence to do good in the world. What if we saw ourselves as part of the poor and marginalized group? What if a threat to those who are vulnerable was perceived to be a threat to ourselves? I hope to get back to this idea in another post. For now, I’ll suggest that as the body of Christ, this may be the most natural identity for us to assume.