Why We Need James’ Message (the one from the Greek Bible) to Overcome the Brain’s Wiring

James 2:1-13 one of the four Christian Bible passages suggested for preaching this week.  (Spoiler alert to all in my congregation:  I’m preaching again from James.)

James is famous for his insistence on the integration of faith with deeds, and much can be said about that, neuro-spiritually speaking.

But this passage specifically speaks against stereotyping, and it’s something we need to hear over and over and over again.  Because our brains are wired to stereotype.  What our brains do, it’s not inherently evil.  Our brains are just going along their merry way, trying hard to conserve energy and find shortcuts.  (Remember, our brains consume 20-25% of our calories.  Sadly, your brain won’t necessarily burn off  the extra delicious calories that come from ice cream or m&m binges, even if you think really really hard about this blog.)

So, our brains are wired to stereotype, because it’s a shortcut, and it saves energy.  What is unfaithful, or unreflective, or irresponsible, is to allow our brains to dictate our lives.  Contradictory, I know.  But:  Just because our brains stereotype to save energy, doesn’t mean we sit back and let them be lazy.  No, God gave us this gift of a brain, to use.  We 21st century human beings are called to a higher standard; we’re called to engage our prefrontal cortex.

What does that look like?  Thinking about our thoughts, because

1. We are not our thoughts.

2. We can change our thoughts.

3. Unthinking action leads us into trouble.

4. Our often unconscious bias needs to be dragged out into the open for evaluation, and often more than once.  It didn’t get there overnight, and one good overhaul won’t fix it permanently.  Those new neural pathways take time.

The good news?  We carry the tools we need around with us all the time!  Our brains have the tools to change how they are wired.  Crazy, huh.  But because of our brains, we can take responsibility for how our brain is wired today, and can be changed with our intentional help, for tomorrow.

(And the reason meditation is such a hot topic, and why it is similar to prayer, is that in that quiet time, we can become aware of, and think about, and evaluate, our thoughts that we didn’t even realize we were thinking.  Because our brains are also sneaky little buggers.)

A Middle-Aged White Woman’s Encounter with Two State Police Officers. Or: How I am unbelievably privileged, and it’s still hard. Or: Some of our laws are CRAZY!

Disclaimer, right from the start:  I realize in today’s world, this is hardly worth writing about – for more serious, intellectual reflections on race, see my friend Toddie Peter’s blogs –

Toddie’s post

Or check out my friends Rev. LeAnn McDannel Hodges or Rev. Cindy Cushman on facebook, mothers of rainbow-hued children, or my friend Rev. James Ellis III, whose pastorship is invisible but whose skin color is obvious.  None of this is theoretical or a laughing matter.  It’s their lives.

Otherwise, read on:

Here’s my daughter, Sadie:  The day was August 12, two days before her 16th birthday.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

We went to the MVA for her learner’s permit test.  After long hours, she passed, picked up her temporary permit, and we got into my car.  And I backed out of my spot, right into another car.  An old Crown Victoria.  An unmarked police car.

I got out, investigated the damage, of which there was NONE.  This is important:  NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Bumpers kissed.  I started to walk back to the driver’s side, when I started getting yelled at.  Because the driver of that car, a State Police Officer who worked at the MVA, happened to walk around the corner and hear the bump.  He was angry.  And big.  And yelling.

I was like “What?”  Because yes, I was about to drive off without leaving a note because remember, NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Apparently, I was threatening his job:

if he didn’t report this, he would blow 20 years on the force;

didn’t I understand how serious this was;

anytime a state police vehicle gets into a crash it must be reported;

another person heard the crash so there was a witness.  And on and on.

Amy’s amygdala at this point, which HATES to get in trouble, is on the verge of tears.  Amy’s prefrontal cortex, which hates illogical authority, was sputtering, politely, but yes, with an edge.  Because NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  And I’m being told – yelled – that the State Police from the nearest precinct must be called, they must come and investigate and report this as a crime.  You are KIDDING ME.  (sorry for all the caps, but seriously…..)

So, we wait.  No, we cannot move our car, which is now not only blocking prime parking spots at the MVA, but the entire roadway.  It is hot.  I’m vacillating between tears of getting in trouble, and frustration at HOW RIDICULOUS this is.  My daughter takes a nap.  It occurs to me this could have been worse – She could have been driving.  My daughter wakes up.  She asks, “Why can’t we just take a picture, send it to the precinct, let them determine if it’s worth reporting or not?”

One hour forty-five minutes during which I get berated a wee bit more before the “victim”of this crime goes back into his comfy air conditioned seated post.  I remain perplexed as to why he is so freakin’ angry, because his life is not disrupted in the least.

The State Police Officer comes.  It takes another hour, at the end of which I am told that even though this is absurd, ridiculous, illogical, a COMPLETE WASTE OF EVERYONE’S TIME, I have to go to court.  Yes, you read that right:  I am going to court; the state ticketed me; they may ask me to pay hundreds of dollars to repaint the 20 yo, 200K + miles Crown Victoria bumper; and this poor police officer has to go to court as well.  If I just pay the fine, and skip court, my insurance company will raise my rates.

He was so incredibly kind, breaking role to let me know that he too found it ridiculous, and there was an overturned tractor trailer on the DC beltway and a child trapped in a car, and he would much rather be there.  So now I feel horribly guilty AND indignant.

But:  I am white.  I have more or less decent emotional regulation (I didn’t get hysterical with weeping or screaming.)  I am female.  I am small.  I was professional dressed (well, on-sale REI and Title Nine clothes – but obviously middle class)  I am well-spoken.  I admit I did indeed back into the other car, so I readily admit my guilt (although I did have to add, “But seriously, the punishment here does NOT fit this crime!  NEAS!)   I have got to be about the least threatening specimen of an adult human being a police officer can ever expect to deal with.  In this interaction, I was privileged 6 ways to Sunday.

But here is what matters:  I  know just how differently this could have unfolded:  If I were poor.  Black or undocumented.  If I couldn’t control my amygdala or my mouth (not that it wasn’t a struggle, mind you!)  If I were a large male in an old t-shirt and flip-flops.  If I were missing teeth.  If I got belligerent.  If I verbalized my thoughts:  This is the DUMBEST law I have ever heard of, and I’m not staying!  If I were losing pay, and maybe my job, because what should’ve taken 2 hours was now closer to 5.  If I wore a burka, or hijab.  Spoke another language.  And all the other ways I take so for granted I don’t even realize.  Our brains are wired to stereotype, categorize, take short-cuts.  Sometimes it falls our way, and when it doesn’t fall someone else’s way, we are wired to assume it was their fault.  But those same brains are wired to analyze, if we just use them.

Dipping my toe back in: Neuroscience and Free WIll, or Does science prove Calvin was right?

Why did you decide what to eat – or not eat – for breakfast this morning?  Or, to make the stakes a wee bit higher, why does someone decide to kill another person?

Yes, it’s been a year since I’ve written or posted on fb.  That’s for another day.  Can we just say, “My brain made me do it?”

Because that’s the answer, and a very hot topic these days:  How culpable are we for our deeds and misdeeds, if our brains made us do it?  Implying that our brains are somehow separate from our selves, but in control of our selves.  Are we are just puppets, because our unconscious brain is in charge?  How accountable do we hold someone accused of a crime, if neglect and abuse shaped the earliest years of their brain?

If we’re born with a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, and we grew up in a home with alcoholic parents – Is it fair?  No.  Is it right?  No.  Does it explain how hard it is to resist certain patterns of thought and behavior?  Yes.  Does it then excuse our own addictive behavior and let us off the hook?  No. The brains of every one of us arrived pre-wired, then grew, with certain tendencies and characteristics.  There are folk whose brains don’t function well enough to hold them accountable.  But if you can read this, that isn’t you.

From one perspective it seems brain science proves Calvin right:  All is pre-determined.  But science also supports free will.  With your prefrontal cortex, how will you live with the brain you’ve got?  The self, the soul, the heart of who we are can rise above the influence of our reptilian impulses.  We have self-agency, and a responsibility to care for our brain just like we’re to care for our body, our children, our world.  No excuses for neglecting your center of compassion.

But what do you think?  How much of who you are and how you live is determined by your brain’s unconscious patterns and drives, and how much can you be held responsible?  I’m curious how you answer the question …

amy