“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15-16 (TNIV)
Let’s talk neurology. Jesus had it. So do you (right?… https://www.amazon.com/Zombies-Brains-Youre-Living-Outbreak/dp/B07CQKJLC2).
One of the curious functions that can be mapped in our brain is “mirroring.” Mirroring happens when we’re mentally putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and it involves the associated areas in our brains being activated even though we ourselves are not doing the activity. Mirroring happens when we watch someone eating and can imagine how tastysmooth their crème brûlée is, or when we are moved by a well-crafted book or TV episode, or when we hear about someone in pain, or when we lament the plight of an oppressed group a world away. Mirroring is the sympathy that helps connect human beings with one another, since it’s so much easier to relate when we can relate.
I recently came across an article from 2017 in The Atlantic about how having power affects the mirroring response of the powerful: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/.
Researcher Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, ran brain scans on people before and after awarding some power within the experimental dynamics to see what regions of the brain were most active and when. The conclusion was that once given power or status over fellow participants, such people evidenced a decrease in mirroring brain activity (See also this article: https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/losing-touch). In other words, power has the effect of dampening our sympathy, making it more difficult to understand the struggles of those who are not as able as we find ourselves to be.
Then, a few days later, I read this article: https://mosaicscience.com/story/urban-living-city-mental-health-glasgow-cities-happiness-regeneration/. As sociologists considered why people living in urban spaces show higher mental anxiety, particularly in the apparently depressing city of Glasgow, Scotland, they observed a loss of connection between human beings, despite living in close proximity. One factor that exacerbated such disconnection, and this is observed worldwide, was a situation of wealth inequity. The article states: “In high-inequality countries, such as the USA and the UK, even the richest 10 per cent of people suffer more anxiety than any group in low-inequality countries except the poorest 10 per cent.”
Then I got to wondering. What if the disconnection isn’t about wealth exactly, but how the feeling of power that comes with wealth affects the human brain, and thus undermines human relationships? If the wealthy sense themselves as powerful, then do riches effect a deadening in the neurological mirroring of the wealthy such that they are less able to understand what life is like for those who have less? That might help us sympathize (of all things) with the multi-millionaire basketball player who laments “having a family to feed.” Or the owner of the 60-unit multi-building apartment complex I once lived in, who, when we sent notice of moving out in part due to health hazards in the building, asked us to reconsider because he, yes, had “a family to feed.” Well, bucko, you just got blogged, but at least I have the self-respect not to name you, even though you live in Chicago and the name of your company is… ahem. Or what of the politician who figures people should just get a loan to buy the house they want, I mean, how hard is that?
Maybe the powerful don’t get the less-powerful, and especially not the powerless, because the brains of powerful people are likely to be impaired brains. I am able to feel briefly sad about them (poor them), but then the unease of uh-oh creeps into my cortex.
I am a white American male. How does a position of privilege in a society affect my neurological mirroring? What if my brain’s biological development of love of neighbor is numbed by the structural power or privilege which I inherit or choose? And I’m a pastor who has a certain amount (less than people think) of institutional power. What if my sense of Christian compassion is stunted? And economically-speaking, I’m middle-class.
But now let’s consider Jesus Himself. While He came from an economically poor family, who sacrificed two birds for their newborn’s redemption at the temple (Luke 2:24 / Leviticus 12:8), He was powerful in many other ways. He could heal at a touch. He could put on a feast with a few loaves and fishes. He commanded influence over thousands, though at the high point of His ministry it was but perhaps a hundred. He was “in very nature God” and had enough love to empty Himself of so much heavenly power. Hebrews 4:15 tells us further that He sympathizes with us. All Jesus’ power, His status as God’s beloved Son, and His ability to remake the world, did not, in fact, stunt His compassion.
Beware the deceitfulness of wealth, says Jesus. And in Luke 6:20-26, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven… Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” The world values power and money over love, and that means the undermining of the neurology of compassion, and that means the erosion of some of our ability for human relationships, and so we all suffer. Lord, have mercy on our hamstrung minds.
Incarnationally-speaking, Jesus’ neurological mirroring stayed perfectly active. He could share the grief of His friends after Lazarus’ death. He felt it in His guts when the desperate and the broken came to Him begging for healing. And even when dying, He sympathized with the ignorant who did not know what they were really doing.
In Him, then, the powerful have hope for their compassion to be renewed. Perhaps one extensive moment of need is every moment of power and every lessened flicker of empathy. Power can be redeemed, but it takes the radical work of love. If that ultimately means that the powerful must undo themselves of whatever powers hinder their compassionate relationships with other human beings, so be it. No doubt it is better to get your neurological mirroring reactivated than to have one’s whole body thrown into hell.
May the mind of Christ our Savior live in us from day to day.