Jesus and brain science agree: money kills empathy

science-103112-003-617x416By Alan Bean

Although you would never know it from listening to American preaching, Jesus linked poverty with the kingdom of God and affluence with sin.

The text of the first sermon Jesus preached was taken from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable (Jubilee) year of the Lord
(Luke 4)

Notice that all the recipients of kingdom blessing are poor, afflicted, marginalized people.

The last sermon Jesus preached prior to his arrest and crucifixion linked kingdom participation with practical ministry to the poor and dispossessed.  Kingdom people feel the pain of a hurting world and respond with creative acts of mercy that clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and provide justice for the oppressed. (Matthew 25)

Jesus was about feeling the pain of the world and responding with acts of mercy. Feeling pain that doesn’t belong to you (empathy) and healing action are part of the same kingdom dynamic.  What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The American marriage between free market capitalism and American evangelical piety makes Jesus impossible.  His words are inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.  We want to love Jesus and ascribe to an onward-and-upward, God-wants-to-succeed, greed is good ethic.  We want God and mammon; Jesus and the blessings of capitalism.

And now the counter-intuitive teaching of Jesus is being confirmed by brain science?

A recent study by Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that as financial and social advancement changes our brains–and not in a good way.  As money and social standing increase, the study finds, our ability to empathize with poor and marginalized people rapidly diminishes.

If you are building your world on the rock-hard words of Jesus, none of this will come as a surprise, but what’s the takeaway?

Jesus taught that affluent people (that’s me, and it’s probably you) can’t enter God’s merciful kingdom unless we rewire our brains.  As we climb the social ladder, the harder our task becomes.  Not only will we not feel the pain of less fortunate people, we will not want to feel their pain.

Moreover, we will find ourselves surrounded by people who propound clever theories to explain why helping poor people only creates dependency.  These arguments are sleazy, silly and self-serving, but, reinforced by prominent pulpiteers, pundits and politicians, they sound like common sense.  Stay too long in this echo chamber and Jesus is the one who sounds silly.  Eventually, we can’t hear him at all.  We still talk about loving Jesus, but we are worshiping a word, not a person.

So, what’s the alternative?

The first step is to take Jesus at his word, even if that word runs counter to the messages screaming from the smart phone, computer and television screens that shape our thinking.

Secondly, we must find a circle of like-minded disciples who share our desire to take Jesus at his word.  If you don’t have such a circle, create one from scratch (I realize that this can be socially awkward, but your salvation depends on it).

There is good news.  Mounting evidence suggests that American Christianity, evangelical, mainline and Roman Catholic, is beginning to feel the deep contradiction between Jesus and American common sense.  People who take the Bible seriously can’t lie to themselves forever.

Mercifully, Jesus wasn’t subtle about this stuff.

4 thoughts on “Jesus and brain science agree: money kills empathy

  1. This column condemns wealth and free enterprise, known, in your language, as capitalism. I believe the evidence shows more benefit to people by increasing wealth in a nation rather than redistributing it, the latter of which has been tried with terrible results in countries such as the Soviet Union, Communist China, Venezuala and North Korea, for example.

  2. Gene:
    I am not saying that I am against wealth and free enterprise; I am saying that there is empirical evidence suggesting that the more we’ve got the less we empathize with those who have little. This is what Jesus taught, so Christians should not be surprised. I also suggested that I am numbered among the wealthy people who must continually be disciplining my mind to go against its usual course. If we don’t fight human nature our hearts will harden.

  3. And with not empathizing with poor people, comes not empathizing with other disenfranchised groups as well (whom often are also poor).

    Households in the religious right households have a tendency to kick GBLT children out on the street so that they’re homeless at a VASTLY higher rate than any other segment of the population. At the same time, the people within the movement are attacking anyone who is homeless as lazy bums who need to get a job. However, when the GBLT young adults try to get a job, the religious right is firing them from it just for being GBLT in the first place, and fighting tooth and nail against putting protections against that so that they can actually work and make a living– all the while they’re also also trying to tear down hate crime laws so that the violent criminals who attack homeless people can be as violently homophobic as they want and get punished as little as possible for it.

    Then there’s also the racism and misogyny present in the culture. Any group that isn’t the straight white rich male is pretty much despised by the religious right… even as Jesus commanded us to love all.

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